in the sticky, humid air of the Chicago summer, the brushing of another's flesh against your own is anathema. Unless that flesh happens to be young, innocent and, well, virile.
"Are those storm clouds over there?" asked my mother, pointing over the caps and gowns, the rolling green lawns, the camera-wielding parents and the flowering trees. "And where has Samantha run off to again?"
I didn't answer. It was my sister's college graduation, and I scanned the crowd, trying to pick out her mane of curly long red hair from all the other manes of curly long hair. My haircutter Marie, I thought, would have something to say about all these unruly locks. It was 5 o'clock in the afternoon, but the heat hadn't abated at all. The very branches of the trees were drooping as if they too had given up.
My grandmother fanned herself with a thick program. "Yeah, I know," I said. I led her to a stone bench adjacent to a long table set up with plastic cups brimming with Asti Spumante and sat her down, promising to bring bubbly water and any remains of the sad little finger sandwiches that I could find.
I had an ulterior motive, of course. That motive, lanky under his polyester black gown, was now standing next to the soda table, drinking cup after cup of 7-Up as fast as he could get it down. Despite his apparently unquenchable thirst, he looked surprisingly fresh. No shiny forehead beading with sweat, no ring of perspiration spreading into his gown. Hercules, as I shall call him, looked cool as a cucumber, the sleeves of his gown pushed above his elbows, cap and diploma shoved underneath his arm, tiny black sunglasses perched on his nose.
He'd brushed up past me earlier, giving my sister a perfunctory hello. I watched him. The skin of his arm was as dry as mine was clammy, and I'd looked at him a little confrontationally when he'd moved past. Now I stood next to him. A bow-tied waiter happily handed me a plastic glass of champagne. "Congratulations," I said to Hercules.
"Thanks," he said, between gulps. I picked up a cup of soda and balanced it in the palm of my hand.
"Well, now what?" I asked brightly.
"Huh?" He was unzipping his gown, wrestling it off, revealing jeans, a Bulls T-shirt and hi-tops. "Oh, I think there's a tea at the president's house. Maybe that was yesterday."
"No, I mean what are you doing to do now? With your life, I mean." Gee, how original, I thought. He probably thought I was some sort of campus recruiter -- which in a way, I was.
"Don't know," he said, bored, waving to a group of genderless graduates. He suddenly turned to look at me, as if he'd forgotten that he was actually talking to someone. "I have to go find my mom," he said apologetically.
"Oh, go, go," I urged. "I just have one more thing to say to you. Plastics." This was a test, and I knew as soon as the words were forming in my mouth that he wouldn't pass it.
He lifted up the edges of his mouth politely, but clearly baffled. "Yeah, you're not the first who's said that today."
I watched him thread his way through the crowd of overdressed parents and casually clad students. A few girls in sun dresses threw their arms around him, squealing with delight. Then I saw him squeeze the hand of a few boys in that certain fashion. Well, of course ... it was the theater department.
"Yup," my sister said, emerging from under the branches of a sagging willow. We watched him kiss his parents as they laughed and hugged him, squeezing off pictures from a yellow disposable camera. "Did a skit about emerging from a giant box for his final exam."
"Do his parents know?" I sighed
Sam laughed. "What do you think? It may be the theater department, but it is the Midwest." She was eyeing me in that particular I-got-your-number way. I waved my hand dismissively. Like most families, we could speak worlds by a few gestures or monosyllables.
But I was thinking, as I dutifully handed my grandmother a drink and a few pretzels, when did I cross over into the Land of the Adults? I'd never been interested in younger men; even the ones within two years of me seemed too immature, too energetic and too unshaped. Suddenly, I found myself watching these young pups with an interest that was surprising to myself. Their agile bodies, their coltish legs, even their unformed thoughts amused and attracted me. The
disturbing part of it was that I could see I'd already crossed out of their realm of possibility. I probably came off as one of those eccentric older women, scary yet vaguely thrilling, watching their every gesture with an interest that made them uncomfortable. "Sam's weird sister," they were probably thinking, aware that I'd found them attractive yet not really certain as to my motives. To them, I probably seemed as old as the hills, like some annoying friend of their parents who asked boring questions at cocktail parties. Jesus, I thought, and I'm only 31.
I sat next to my grandmother, who was looking at the pretzels I'd given her as if she couldn't remember where they came from. Sam sat down heavily on the other side of her. My mother teetered over, uncomfortable in her Armani sandals, fanning herself exaggeratedly. She flopped down beside me on the cool marble bench. We sat there a while, the four of us, and watched the graduates whoop and embrace and mug for the ubiquitous cameras in the dimming light.
"I feel very old," my sister said finally.
I held up my hand like a traffic cop. That was all that was needed.