Back when we all thought we’d live forever
, which is to say when we didn’t know how good we had it
, I got an acting
job through a friend of a friend of a friend of mine in a little summer stock
theater in Mount Carroll, Illinois, way up north there, right on the Illinois
border. It was my second extended period away from home in a year and I was drunk on power, specifically the power of sex
Mount Carroll was a college town and a farming town and a good, safe place to grow up surrounded by corn fields, easily arrived at by traversing roads and rails that run from Chicago and Davenport and Clinton and Savannah, straight as arteries to the heart. I fell in love with a girl named Annette Deboudard (the final d was silent) and for that giddy golden summer she made all the difference.
She was just a little Audrey Hepburn slip of a thing with boyish hips, great legs, big green eyes, and a saucy air. She had boundless style, like all ballet dancers who learn to reinvent themselves with a ribbon, a hat, a scarf, an attitude. She drove me mad, little by little, because making love to her 92 pounds of Juilliard-trained energy was like being repeatedly thrown into a cement mixer half-full of honey and malted-milk balls.
Annette liked to rock. She was the first woman I ever knew who was as obsessed with sex as I was, and it showed. She drew men better than Michelangelo, and my life, I came to realize, was miserable because of her. I’m talking jealousy. Big time. I was the New Sheriff in Annetteville and everybody wanted me dead.
A summer stock theater is an interesting social experiment. Basically twenty or thirty young actors and technicians are thrown together for two months of intimate interaction, and people pay money to watch them live through their mental and physical breakdowns on stage. A new play every week, all summer long. Rehearsal and tech-work during the day, the show six nights and two matinees, drunken unwindings in town, and sex, sex, sex at every other opportunity. It’s a lot like military boot camp: Everything happens fast, you don’t get enough sleep, and when it’s all over you can’t believe you made it through.
This was the summer Annette Deboudard almost died because of me.
She was the girl-woman who taught me the French term la petite mort. Say it French-like. Murmur other sexy-sounding whispering Parisian phrases that you half-understand lying alone there in the dark, but always end with la petite mort, at least in your mind’s ear. The little death. Orgasm. Annette and I were committed habitués, slaves to our libidos. We couldn’t get enough of each other and the little death, just like in the story books. It was bound to end bad.
Like a lot of affairs that go south, it started with a rambling conversation without a point. We were lying in each other's arms beside the lake that the actors self-referentially called Veronica. Veronica Lake. Famous in those parts, really, for solitude, something nearby that smelled good, and the best insect-nightbird orchestra in the whole midwest. We made the mistake a lot of young lovers do, assuming that just because we knew each other’s bodies inside-out we’d be able to wrap our minds around our deepest fears.
It developed that Annette had recently been engaged. Her boyfriend was a plebe, a first-year student, at West Point. His dad was a powerful businessman who’d engineered his admittance. A baby had been out of the question.
Annette’s decision had torn her apart. What I had misinterpreted as charmingly mercurial behavior was really a desperate series of attempts on her part to be forgiven, to be told yes, there, there, it’s ok.
And dammit, it was ok. It’s just that we were both so young and neither of us was any good at empathy and I probably said the wrong thing and thought the wrong thing, because mostly all I could think about was gee, suppose it was me; what if we...
Well, my undisciplined young actor’s mind ran away with the idea of not being able to live out this perfect artist’s life I had envisioned, how I’d have to get a job to pay for a baby, how this girl was irresponsible, and on and on and stupidly on.
And all of a sudden I didn’t love her anymore. All of a sudden she wasn’t a ballerina princess who liked to ball. Rather, she’d become a too skinny kid who forgot to take her contacts out at night and drank too much and NEVER used birth control. And she wore scarves because she never washed her hair.
What a difference a conversation from the heart can make. She was crying hysterically, great wracking sobs of remorse and misunderstanding, when some friends, blankets and wine bottles in hand, came upon us. They pretty much understood what was going on. Seems everybody knew the story but me. Like I said, I was the new sheriff in town... They talked us into taking our bad vibe away from the lake we called Veronica, but as we walked to the car, Annette decided she wasn’t feeling well and went to her room.
Which left the two couples and me standing there surrounded by the crickets, the birds and a suddenly stagnant Veronica Lake. We decided to drive to Savannah, a Mississippi river town not far away, where there was a bar that served great pizza with bacon and didn’t mind pouring us draft beer (we were underage and times were simpler).
The plebe was coming to visit it turned out. The plebe was sorry about the baby it turned out. It turned out the plebe wanted to get married anyway, bag West Point, and live happily-ever-after with my eighteen-year-old paramour, and what Annette really wanted to do that night was break up with me.
I drank a lot of beer. I was dog-sick at dawn. I had a crap rehearsal for The Lady’s Not For Burning, a tough play in verse, and that night we had to hold the curtain for Oklahoma for forty-five unbelievably tense minutes.
The plebe flew into town in a little Piper Cherokee his dad had bought for him as a reward for getting through his first year at the Point. I watched from a polite distance as Annette wrapped herself around her good-looking army officer candidate in that special way lovers have. Already, in her dancer-way, she seemed like a different person. There were grass-stains on her shorts, and for some reason she didn’t look good in green.
Annette, the plebe, a girl in the chorus, and the guy who played Ado Annie’s boyfriend had decided to take a joyride in the Cherokee before the show.
A hot day, a high density altitude, a short runway, a new pilot, a lot of weight in the little plane and a cornfield.
Everybody walked away after the plane’s gear clipped the tops of the cornstalks and the Piper flipped, tail over nose, settling gently, safely, onto its back, propeller slashing furiously through the crop-not-quite-ready-for-harvest.
Annette left before the season was over, and I've always worried about that, but the plebe and I became friends, and we talked about her a lot, not that many years down the road, in Vietnam, where our fates, once again, entwined.