“Red Rover, Red Rover, let something blue come over!”
With great glee, screams of delight and tiny steps at maximum speed, the little ones danced and spun. Oliver moved side to side with his arms spread, pretending to lunge, stumble and recover, always coming close, but letting them still dodge away. On the other side, they turned back and faced him with smiles so huge and laughter so loud, it made his effort feel so very worth while.
As part of a group at church, he was volunteering over the summer to come into the Projects to play with kids. He thought it would be pretty lame, but accepted that his participation was an expected part of the program, certainly for his parents. It was also scary, considering his limited experience in the slums. Actually enjoying himself, however, it was turning out to be fun to get the kids so excited and he was discovering he was pretty good at it too.
Twice a week, they came by bus into a neighborhood so foreign to him with its decrepit rows of houses and abandoned cars. Graffiti on boarded-over windows and doors was both profane and intricately beautiful in distinctive designs. Black men in white T-shirts, slicked with greased hair, from red, blood-shot eyes stared out vacantly on porches near collapse. He imagined they spoke a language he could never learn and wanted to avert his eyes, but could not help staring back.
Sharing quiet looks of reassurance back and forth, the others in the group helped him feel comfortable, reminding each other that they would be back on the bus and go home soon. At the dirty red-brick school with just a few scraggly weeds poking up through the paved-over playing field, they tumbled out of the bus like gunshots breaking the tension, anxious to get a ball in their hands and the game going; by movement and touch, creating a little better grasp on reality.
One girl, in particular, on the bus had caught his attention. The pure blonde hair, upturned nose and deep blue eyes were such distinctive features, making it hard for him to turn away and constantly drawing his gaze back for another glimpse. It seemed wherever he looked, she was there, dancing gracefully in the game or reading with exaggerated animation to an enthralled group circled around her, their eyes glistening with interest and big as bright marbles.
So concentrated on her charges, she never seemed to notice him, he was certain. She was always on the edge of the pushing and shoving to get on the bus and sat quietly while they all rushed off. On the ride, she read books by authors he recognized, but would never read, a different one each day, completely lost to the chatter and banter around her, her sweet little lips moving slightly to absorb each word, her focus undisturbed.
As summer grew hotter, they had several outings to the Lake with the children, sharp eyes on the look-out for broken Coke bottles in the sand and on all the little ones who could not swim, had even rarely seen so much water. She chose not to wear one of those bikinis that had become so common, but a simple brown suit that revealed slender legs and a body he would love to embrace.
Once, they were on snack duty together and he learned her name was Margaret, doling out punch in little white cups. The latest Beatles hit came over the transistor radio another kid had left on the table.
“Yeah, I like them,” she answered, “But most of this rock and roll is just too loud and screamy.”
“Oh yeah,” he mumbled, “I know what you mean,” even though he had no idea and was more thrilled by every new song he heard.
“I really like folk music, you know, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, stuff like that.”
When school started in the fall, he saw her regularly, the blonde hair and upturned nose passing in a blur of girlfriends in the hallway, and wondered how he had missed her in the years before. Sometimes those deep blue eyes fell on him and smiled a little with brief recognition in the midst of the crowd. At football games, he liked to pick her out of the crowd when he came off the field, and pretended she was cheering for him the quarterback instead of the tackle he really was.
A few times their circles over-lapped at parties and once, more than a year later, he had the courage to ask her to dance.
“Red Rover, Red Rover,” he invited ironically, “Let Margaret come over.”
“Excuse me?” she looked at him oddly, her head circled by long blonde hair pulling back in hesitation, calculating.
“We played that game at Church Camp in Rosen together,” he had to remind her. “We were both counselors a few years ago?”
“Oh, yeah, right,” she laughed. “That was an experience. I go by Meg now.”
“I know,” he smiled.
She drifted towards him to the sound of Motown and his arms floated around her, remembering the wisp of a girl in a brown swimsuit and now actually feeling the bare skin of her back and the softness of her breasts against him.
“So you were there too,” she commented, “Funny, I don’t remember.”
“Well, I am somewhat forgettable,” he quipped.
“Don’t say that,” she laughed, “I think we are what we believe. Have you ever read any Buddhist writings?”
“Ah, well, just the tiniest bit,” he answered flustered, not having read any at all, “I really like this guy Kerouac who talks about it a lot. I don’t really get it.”
“It’s all about energy,” she whispered in his ear, “Being in the moment, like now, and feeling the whole world around you and everything that’s going on, everything.”
She pressed her body gently into the heat of his groin, letting him know just clearly enough she knew it was there and changing, looking boldly into his eyes with a conspiratorial smile. He backed quickly away in embarrassment, not really sure, but so very curious to learn, how a girl so sweet as this seemed to like what she felt in his arms.
Over the next months, he tried to get that close to her again. They talked more often, but more about their religious readings, the Doors and rumors of fighting dominos somewhere in Asia; not at all about the warm feelings that rose inside him every time she came near. She had a boyfriend, and then another, who kept her busy on the weekends and eventually Oliver became focused on a girl of his own.
* * *
Four years later, home for that last summer before graduation from college, and with choices to be made before his deferment ran out, Oliver’s own hair was over the ears and close to his shoulders, but had to be cut to secure the internship his father had arranged for him at a lawyer’s office. A part of the military-industrialist complex, he could rationalize the experience as gaining insight on the enemies of the People as opposed to spending the summer volunteering more peacefully and purposefully to organize one of the new food co-ops.
Recognizing the light hair of blonde, that upturned nose and those deep eyes of blue, his body pulsated with the certain knowledge his time had come. Being on staff together certainly made the whole moral and political compromise a lot more palatable.
“Well, hello, Mr. Red Rover,” she brightened, looking up from her side of the desk they would share, “It’s so nice our bourgeois upbringings could unite us like this.”
Thinking they were being discrete, they failed utterly to hide their romance from the powers-at-large who tolerated the benign affair because restrictions and sexual harassment issues were yet to be in place, being just a time of general liberation. Sweet as could be, in the spirit of the times, they loved sneaking to the reservoir late at night to skinny dip with friends and make love on a blanket off to the side under the influence of smokey laughter and freedoms to explore.
The music was arousing, the anger of assassinations heart-breaking, the danger of suppression looming too large to ignore. The urge to speak out against the Establishment nearly strong enough to drive them to Chicago to join in the protests, they danced on the edge and made each other the center of their universes while the summer lasted.
In the end, she left for the Sorbonne and he returned to graduate with honors and pursue the career his father had wanted. Finding another love, he raised two children, trying his very best to let them be just exactly who they wanted to be, managing his disappointment, for example, and even learning to love the game, when his own son chose to play soccer instead. If Meg came to mind at all, it was a memory of blonde hair and good times, naïve beliefs that seemed like a dream compared to the dark-haired raven of his chosen reality.
* * *
“Red Rover, Red Rover, please let Oliver come over,” the sonorous voice beckoned like a siren from the past. His shock and delight to recognize her across the aisle on an otherwise mundane junket illuminated the shadows in his heart.
“My God, Meg, wow, it’s great to see you.”
The blonde hair, a little less pure, was still such a highlight to the upturned nose and deep blue eyes. Lines from so many years of laughter transformed her cuteness into beauty, deep and majestic, describing a soul who had loved and lived heartily in good health and hard times, and only wanted to embrace the years yet to come.
“I go by Megan now,” she smiled.
“Well, my gosh, what’re the chances?”
Her smile spoke volumes, but she simply answered, “Actually, pretty good, I think.”
The flight was up and over all in a flash, a burst of fond memories, followed by an evaluation of circumstances and thoughts of the future as only one can have touching in briefly at a port that once had served as an anchorage so safe and secure.
“My divorce was devastating,” he confided, “I thought I had this handle on the world and my place in it and she just threw back her diamonds and walked out like they were so many cold smashed potatoes.”
He had noticed immediately the simplicity of the ring on her finger, and envied its elegance, the beauty that characterized what she eventually admitted was a marriage to die for, a union of trust, support and companionship that made her feel like a queen.
“I spent several years drinking too much and carousing,’ he continued, “Pretending it was so great to be free.” He confided, not looking for sympathy so much as honestly hoping to explain the man she had left behind and could rediscover now, explain to himself as much as to her. “I could have died as miserably as I was living.”
She watched Oliver with interest and attention, welcomed his story into her heart and made him feel comfortable as if his words were the most important in the world in that moment. Her smile warmed him and he wondered how he could not have seen it this clearly back in those days when all was joyful and ahead of them, treasured it and given her the ring that now so gracefully enraptured her. In her presence, he could tell now, he experienced a certainty of life he knew nowhere else.
“My children and their children are so wonderful. At least, I’ve figured out that much. I do a lot of work in my men’s group, but no matter how much I process or far I travel, I have to admit to loneliness and wanting to share what’s left of my life.”
She smiled so sweetly and he could only imagine she was thinking of her husband and all the memories that surged and flowed between them like those waves still endlessly lapping at the lakeside where Megan and Oliver had first spoken, serving punch in little white cups and listening to a Beatles song. As if in another dimension their own lives could have been so intertwined, so many waves just out of sight on this plane on this day.
As if she knew exactly, her hand reached out and caressed his cheek ever so gently, wordlessly, tears of love brimming and then passing.
“The world is such a mysterious place,” she whispered, “Have faith and you shall know the love you seek.”
“Easy for you to say,” he laughed.
Even as they parted to make their connecting flights, he knew he would never call the number she had given him, or email, or even friend her on Facebook. He accepted that their chance had come and gone, their paths crossed this time only by luck and circumstance, no matter that she spoke of fate and connectedness and nothing happening by accident. He could not bear to meet her husband and be witness to the kind of life and love he might have had. He crumpled the card from her yoga school with its beautiful logo and tossed it in the canister.
* * *
“Oh Red Rover, Red Rover,” she exclaimed, “I should have known I’d meet you here.”
From his wheel chair, he could barely recognize the diminutive features, but the voice was so clearly familiar, Oliver’s heart raced as quickly as on the bus that very first day. Her hair no longer blonde but still rebelliously long and falling around her face, the upturned nose blurred by his poor eye-sight but soft as she kissed his cheek. The detail in her deep blue eyes he could only imagine.
“The Universe always delivers what we want, no matter how long we wait.”
“My dear, dear Megan,” he felt tears rising, having learned so long ago to accept his emotions and speak his truth, “I have loved you always.”
“They all call me Margaret now,” she confided, “Treat me like some stuffy old woman. They just don’t understand I’m going to live ‘til I’m one hundred and six and come back in another life to torment them as their grandchild.”
Immediately, as if throwing off the blanket over his perpetually cold legs, he was internally rejuvenated. Although he had to strain to hear her, she penetrated him like the sunshine and life was beginning all over again. He wanted to leap up and dance with her, feel the skin along her spine as he had remembered it so often.
“Raymond passed two years ago and I figured I might as well stay at this old place as good as anywhere else. They let me teach yoga and lead a meditation group every morning. Honestly, Oliver, I’ve been looking for some good company such as you.”
“I’m flattered, but a little past my prime, my dear.”
“Oh, you.” She razzled his hair which he had combed so meticulously just before they came to wheel him in for dinner, “Don’t be such an old fogey. It’s all in your attitude.”
In the summer days that followed, she came to his room after her class and held his hand as aides dressed him, caressed his forehead and teased him with whispers in his ear about the fun they had had at the reservoir back on those nights when all his parts were working.
“Oh, those were great days, my love,” she crooned, “We knew so little and thought we knew so much. At least, we dared to learn some things together.”
“I can’t believe I let you go,” he pined miserably.
“Shush,” she scolded back every time, “Be grateful for what we have now.”
After breakfast, when the weather was good, they sat outside, his chair turned towards the sun, her hand always in contact, on his thigh, dabbing at his face, holding his hand, re-establishing a connection they had never fully manifested, but knew in their hearts was inevitable. When it became too hot and he tired, she worked the controls that moved his chair back inside. Usually, they napped separately, but sometimes she used the daybed in his room and they always talked about their dreams.
Their grandchildren from both their families met several times and seemed to get along. Their own separate children, happy enough to see their needs for companionship fulfilled, could never fully embrace nor understand the depth of the love that had taken hold and finally been allowed to flourish, the level of deep satisfaction and contentment that had settled between them. They were complete unto themselves and each other. It bore no reflection or deflection on their past lives and loves, but was distinct and impermeable to the reality of his deteriorating health.
At last, it was difficult for him to even get out of bed, impossible to see the tears on her cheeks, even as he heard the quiver in her voice and the quiet sniffle as she tried to hide it.
“I didn’t think it would bear so hard on me to go through this again,” she finally said. “I loved Raymond so much and no matter how much time we had together, it still wasn’t enough.”
“I know, my dear, I know. This isn’t the same.”
“But it is, Oliver. In fact, damn it, it’s even harder because we didn’t have the time.”
It was the first time, no matter how loved she made him feel today, that she had expressed any regret about what they had missed. His heart surged with the effort to reach out to embrace her, somehow steal away the pain, but he could only weakly squeeze her hand.
“Oh, I’ve had enough of this,” she sputtered, rising up. “Everybody out,” she commanded, “Scat, scat, scat!” She pushed the last nurse through the door and closed it.
“I’d put a chair up to it, if I thought it would really do any good,” she snickered gleefully, coming back towards him, her thin fingers fumbling at the buttons of her blouse. “I know they’ll have to come back in soon, but I just want to lie with you, my love.”
And with as much sexual excitement in his heart as he had known their very first time together on that blanket so long ago, she revealed herself to him, naked and proud and no less beautiful to him after all the years, sitting on the side of the bed, then curling herself under tubes and around his body to fit ever so perfectly against his skin, her slender arm thrown over his chest and caressing his cheek, her lips kissing his shoulder. Every cell that touched her was alive and vital, vibrant and pulsing. Those close by clamored to get closer, urgent with passion and desire.
“This is the food of the angels,” she murmured, lying so still and breathing so softly. “We are on this planet to find our mates and through love to find our way back to the stars. I think through all the joys and sorrows of my life, there has been nothing more beautiful and heart-wrenching as the touch of skin upon a lover’s skin. We can live forever, but without the touch of one soul to another, it is practically worthless. I love you, Oliver, always have and always will.”
“Shshhh,” she pouted, fingers to his lips, “No regrets. We will meet in our next lifetimes, of that I’m sure. What we have done in this, how we have come together now, ensures that it will be so.”
“But what about Raymond?” he asked.
“We had our time, it was wonderful, but we did all we had to do together. This next will be ours, yours and mine. Of this I am sure.”
“Ah, I wish it could be so.”
“Believe it and it is so, my love. You have the power to create your life. You have done that already, you brought me back to you, your thoughts and mine made it happen. We can create our own future.”
“How can we do this?”
“Lie with me and imagine a little child’s game. Red Rover, Red Rover. We are playing it and you recognize me. Think of the things you love best about me and you will create me, I will come to you and be there with you. We will be together always this next time, rapturously in love and living perfectly.”
As the light faded and his breathing slowed, he felt his hand held so lovingly in hers, heard her singing softly as if from Heaven above, calling him home.
“Red Rover, Red Rover, let something blue come over.”
* * *
Little Tommy looked up and saw the upturned nose and the pure blonde wisps of hair. In the deepest blue of those beautiful eyes, he saw the little wink, and without the slightest understanding of why, against all the rules, actually wanting to be caught, he ran directly into the arms of the little boy.