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There were at least three kinds of cops in Harvard Yard: a scattering of Cambridge cops, gray-haired mostly, with faces out of County Mayo; portly old men in brown uniforms and no sidearms who guarded the gates; and squadrons of Harvard University police who wore tailored blue uniforms and expensive black gun belts, and looked like graduates of the Los Angeles Police Academy. It was Harvard commencement, and if the WASPs began to run amok, Harvard was ready. I was ready too. I had a Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special clipped onto my belt just back of my right pants pocket where the butt caused only a modest break in the line of my silk tweed jacket. The jacket was off-white with a faint blue weave and came from Brooks Brothers. It wasn’t my favorite, but the choices are not wide in off-the-rack size 48’s.
On a folding chair among many many folding chairs set up on the broad lawn between Widener Library and Memorial Church, Susan Silverman sat in a black gown and a funny-looking mortarboard and waited for the formal award of her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I was there to watch and although I had a seating ticket I found myself getting restless very early and began to wander around the yard and look at the preparations for postcommencement festivities when graduates are congratulated and classes are reunited and funds are raised.
All about me the subdued and confident honk of affluent Yankee voices, male and female, murmured a steady counterpoint to the Latin dissertation being delivered from the commencement platform and redelivered over speakers throughout the area. It had been the excitement of the Latin address that had initially got me up and walking around and eyeing the barrels of free beer hooked to the taps, ready to be broached when the graduates were official.
The Latin address gave way to an English disquisition on the Legacy of Confusion, which in turn gave way to an English address on the Moral Life. On the steps of Boylston Hall a bunch of men in top hats and tails were having their pictures taken with a bunch of women in white dresses and red sashes. I went into the basement of Boylston Hall to use the men’s room. No one else was there. Maybe one didn’t do that at a Harvard commencement. Maybe Harvard people didn’t do that at all.
Finally it was over and Susan met me by the beer table, pushing her way past a procession from Quincy House that was being led out by a guy blowing bagpipes.
“How do you like it so far,” she said.
I kissed her on the mouth. “I don’t know that I’ve ever screwed a doctor,” I said.
She nodded. “Yes, I knew you’d have just the right thing ready to say.”
Even in her cap and gown Susan looked like a sunrise, extravagant and full of promise. Wherever she went things seemed, as they always did, to organize around her.
She smiled at me. “Shall we have some of the revolting chicken salad?”
“Your graduation,” I said.
We had the chicken salad and a couple of free beers and watched everything and spoke very little. Susan was excited. I could see it in her face. She was looking at everything and barely eating. I looked mostly at her, as I always did, trying somehow to encompass the density and elegance of her. Never enough, I thought. It’s like air, you never tire of breathing it.
“Did you like the ceremony?” Susan said.
I nodded. “The Latin dissertation made my blood race.”
“But it really is wonderful, don’t you think?”
“I know it’s silly, but it’s very exciting. It’s full of tradition and it makes me feel like a real part of something. It’s what a graduation ought to be.”
“And you are now a doctor. Dr. Silverman. You like that?”
Around the yard, hanging from old brick buildings, were signs designating class years—1957, 1976—and old grads were gathering under those banners to talk about how fast they could run when they were young, and get zonkered on bloody Marys and vodka martinis in clear plastic cups.
“You going back to D.C.?” I asked it casually, glancing around at the Radcliffe graduates. But my stomach wasn’t casual when I said it. My stomach was clenched tight and full of dread.
Susan shook her head a little vaguely, one of those little head gestures she made that meant neither yes nor no.
“Chicken salad really isn’t very good, is it?” she said.
“No, it’s awful,” I said. “But the servings are small.”
At six o’clock we were sitting at the counter in my kitchen sharing a victory bottle of Cuvée Dom Pérignon, 1971.
“Veritas,” I said to Susan. She smiled and we drank. My kitchen window was open and the breeze that blew off the Charles River basin moved a few of the outer curls on Susan’s dark hair. It had been sunny all day, but now it was ominous-looking outside with dark clouds, and the breeze was chilly.
Between us on a large plate there was French bread and wheat crackers and goat cheese, milk-white with a dark outer coating, and some nectarines and a bunch of pale green seedless grapes.
Susan said, “I’ve taken a job in San Francisco.”
I put the glass down on the counter. I could feel myself begin to shrink inward.
“I’m leaving tonight,” she said. “I had planned to stay the night with you and tell you in the morning, but I can’t. I can’t not tell you.”
“How long,” I said.
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about it for a long time. All the last year in Washington when I was doing my internship.”
It began to rain outside my kitchen window. The rain coming straight down from the darkened sky, quietly, with a soft hiss.
“I have to be alone,” Susan said.
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. You can’t ask me, because I really don’t.”
“I’ll visit you.”
“Not right away. I have to be by myself. For a while anyway, I don’t want you to know my address.”
Bubbles continued to drift up from the bottom of the champagne glass, spaced more as the champagne flattened, coming sparsely and with leisure. Neither of us drank.
“You have a place to stay out there?”
“Yes. I’ve arranged that already.”
Her hair stirred again. The wind was cold now, and damp from the rain that moved steadily downward through it. One lightning flash flared a moment at the window and then, an appreciable time later, the thunder rolled in behind it.
“I called Paul,” Susan said. “He’ll be here in the morning. I didn’t want you to be alone.”
I nodded. The curtains at the kitchen window moved in the cold breeze. Susan stood up. I stood with her.
“I’m going to go now,” she said.
She put her arms around me and said, “I do love you.”
“I love you.”
She squeezed me and put her cheek against mine. Then she stepped away and turned and walked toward the door.
“I’ll call you,” she said, “when I get to San Francisco.”
She opened the door and looked back at me.
“Are you all right,” she said.
I shook my head.
“Paul will come tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll call you soon.”
Then she went out and closed the door and I was alone with my soul dwindled to icy stillness at the densely compacted center of myself.