Craig and Cassandra
On a Saturday in late April, two months before his high school graduation, Lucas was helping Rose put groceries away.
“I have this new part-time assistant at the gallery. His name is Craig. Young man, your age.”
“Oh?” Lucas said as he put canned goods in the pantry.
“He’s going to Bard College in the fall, to study music. I don’t think it’s far from Vassar.”
“A half hour, I think.”
“He’s really smart, so nice, and so sophisticated. Maybe you can stop by the gallery later today? I’ll introduce you.”
Lucas looked at her, gave a small shrug. “Sure.”
Craig was a short, thin waif of a man who plucked his eyebrows. He wore skin-tight pants and a flowered shirt, and his handshake felt to Lucas as if he was holding a dead fish.
“Isn’t the light in this Hopper amazing?” Craig asked as they stood side by side. All Lucas could see was a dark painting of an old house with green windows and a brown roof.
“I don’t see any people,” he said. He thought it was a dull, depressing painting.
Craig laughed and showed him another painting a few feet away. It was by Egon Schiele, and it depicted a man wearing only briefs, one arm raised, a huge muff of hair in the armpit. Lucas was intrigued by the suggestiveness of the image, but thought it was crude and unfinished.
“Hmm,” he said.
Afterwards, when Rose got home and they were in the kitchen, Lucas said, “Why did you think I’d have anything in common with that guy, mom?” His tone was controlled, but the annoyance was there.
Rose looked surprised. “Well. I just thought you might at least get acquainted. You know, have a friend or something already up in the Hudson Valley.”
He shook his head and didn’t look at her. “It’s okay mom. I’ll be all right without your help.” He went to his room and closed the door louder than was necessary. He was annoyed that Rose was trying to make friends for him, intruding into his social life, with someone like Craig. How could she think someone who was a caricature of a pansy would be someone he’d interested in?
He dated a few women during that last year in high school, partially spurred by his wish to still Rose’s efforts and curiosity. He never even attempted anything sexual with them, and went out with them not just because of Rose, but because his male friends, mostly members of the football team, talked about going out with women frequently. Dating was obviously the thing to do, but he never felt the urge to be physical with the girls, and he went out only once or twice with any of them.
A few weeks after the Craig incident, they were at the dinner table talking about colleges and Lucas’s final decision to go to Vassar. He had liked the campus, the professors he had met. It had a welcoming, relaxed feel to it. The other schools, especially Columbia and NYU, had seemed huge and impersonal.
“Vassar is beautiful,” Rose said to Jerry. “Wait till you see it.”
“I’ll make sure to go with you on registration day,” Jerry said.
“It’s so exciting to be going to college. You know Georgette, from the gallery?” Rose said. “She brought her daughter in today, Cassandra. A beautiful girl. She’s going to NYU in the fall but she’ll be working with us on Saturdays until then.”
“I really didn’t like NYU. I’m glad I’m going to Vassar,” said Lucas.
“Hmm,” Jerry said, cocking his head at Rose. “Cassandra’s beautiful, huh?”
Rose nodded, keeping her eyes down on her bowl of ice cream. “She is,” she said, with no emphasis.
Lucas’s eyebrows went up and he suppressed an eye roll, but he remained silent as he finished his dessert.
“Why don’t you go meet her, Lucas? She must be your age.” Jerry said, putting his spoon down.
“Dad, come on. I don’t even know her.”
“I think I’ll go make some coffee,” Rose said as she got up and started to clear the dishes.
“Where does she go to school now?” Lucas asked Rose, turning his head away from his father. “I don’t remember any Cassandras from school.”
“She’s graduating from Mount Saint Mary, across town. It’s a good school,” Rose said from the kitchen.
“We won’t hold the Catholic thing against her,” Jerry said with a smile.
Theirs was not a religious family, although Rose had been brought up Catholic and Jerry Lutheran. That familial background had been swept aside because both Rose and Jerry found most religions full of hypocrisy and had never exposed Lucas to any of them. As a result, Lucas just had an intellectual interest in religion, as he did for many philosophies.
Jerry continued to encourage Lucas to meet Cassandra like an audio tape gone berserk on replay while they all cleared dishes.
Rose remained silent, although Lucas saw that her mouth was tense and that she kept giving Jerry brief, hard stares. Finally she said, “Jerry, he’ll go out with her if he wants to. He’s old enough to know what he wants.”
Lucas was embarrassed. He wanted to relieve Rose of the burden of protecting him and censoring Jerry, but didn’t see how to do that. His mother seemed to understand him to a degree with which made him uncomfortable, as if she could see his reluctance to go meet this girl projected on his forehead. When Lucas relented and agreed to go to the gallery, Rose looked at him and said nothing. The smile on Jerry’s face looked like he would click his heels if he stood up.
Cassandra was indeed beautiful, with long, chestnut hair that reflected the lights in the gallery with golden shimmers. “Hi, Lucas,” she said when they were introduced, smiling and tilting her head to the side, charming, solicitous. Her smile showed small and even alabaster teeth, and she was conversant and outgoing. He was charmed, but felt zero chemistry. Still, he asked her to go to the movies, more because it was expected, if not by his mother, then perhaps by Georgette and Cassandra, as well as, of course, Jerry. Lucas also thought that this beautiful, quiet girl may indeed prove to be someone for whom he could come to feel some form of attraction that would be acceptable to him and to society at large.
On their afternoon date the following Saturday, she walked close to him on the way to the movie theater, and kept glancing at him. She let her hand brush his a couple of times, but Lucas limited the touching to putting his hand around her waist as they entered the theater. They were seeing The Hours, a film adaption of a recent novel based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Lucas had read and been mesmerized by the contemporary novel, then had sought out Woolf’s work and found it plodding in comparison. He did not try to hold hands with Cassandra during the movie.
On their two subsequent dates, also to afternoon movies, he felt nothing and went no further with her physically.
Cassandra took his arm on their way home on the third and what would be their final date. As he dropped her off at her apartment building he realized that they had never had anything to talk about, other than the movies they had seen in a casual, non-passionate way. He had been close to bored on their dates, although she had remained vivacious and talkative. He saw plainly that she was a perfect girl, not just beautiful, but intelligent, outgoing, considerate. She was like a perfectly splendid sofa for which he had no use. This would be it, he decided, despite her wonderful qualities and the imprimatur of conformity and cachet that being with her bestowed upon him. She was smiling radiantly at him, clearly having enjoyed their time together, and he felt a great rush of regard for her as they said good-bye on the sidewalk, a few feet from the canopied entrance of her building. At that moment, on the brink of the date coming to its conclusion, he wondered whether perhaps he could nurture that feeling of appreciation into something like sexual attraction. Maybe that’s how other men did it, how he was supposed to approach a relationship with a woman. He leaned in as if to kiss her, and she closed her eyes and tilted her head up. Lucas kept his eyes open as he kissed her on the cheek, and kept his hands off her.
“I’ve had a nice time with you,” Lucas said. He hoped she understood that it was over without the unpleasantness of an outright good-bye.
But Cassandra nodded and said, “And I’ve really enjoyed myself going out with you.” She smiled, expectant. When he said nothing, she said, “Do you want to see me again?”
Lucas was overcome by her vulnerability and sincerity, and almost choked on his saliva when he tried to speak. He cleared his throat. “I’ll be going away to school in the fall. Is there any point?” he finally said. He ignored what he knew: that his friends had formed relationships they planned to maintain when they went away to college.
Cassandra looked into his eyes and did not smile. She nodded her perfect head, turned, and walked into her building. Lucas felt a devastating inadequacy and a maddening guilt as he rushed home, as if he had just stepped on a kitten. He wondered, as he crossed an aggressively busy Columbus Avenue, whether being hit by a speeding truck would be an agonizing and incomplete erasure, or a certain, instant death.
Jerry and Rose drove him to Vassar on registration day that fall, the car loaded with boxes of clothes and a new microwave. “Gorgeous,” Rose said, almost to herself, when she saw the campus again. “Absolutely gorgeous.”
“A lot of history here. I’ve researched it,” Jerry said as he and Lucas carried boxes into the dorm, passing young men and women doing the same in the halls and stairs. “I’ll bet you’re going to have a good time.”
After Lucas had settled in his dorm room, they walked around the campus on the tree-lined lanes and on walks paved with bluestone.
“It’s beautiful here — the buildings, the students,” said Rose as they neared the parking lot where they had left their car. “I’ve never seen so many gorgeous men and women. Lots of opportunities for a great social life.”
“He’s here to study, Rose,” Jerry said, putting his arm around Lucas’s shoulders. He leaned in and smelled his father’s spicy deodorant, and saw that this clumsy man he loved so much was about to cry.
“Time for you guys to go.” Lucas hugged them as they stood next to the Volvo. Rose’s eyes were starting to well up. He couldn’t imagine not having her in his life every day, the way she had been up to now, cheering him on all his life. “It’s only an hour-plus train ride into Grand Central, Mom,” he said, although he was addressing himself as well as his father, because he saw that although Jerry’s eyes were still dry, his eyebrows were knitting furiously.
He stepped away from them and from the Volvo and watched as they got in and the car moved away, Rose waving, trying to smile. He looked around at the other students going in and out of the dorm. Nobody seemed to pay the slightest attention to him, and he knew no one.
Date Published July, 2019