Going Back

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A stroller through the Nassau Inn down the block from Princeton University on a certain January day last winter would not have taken particular note of two people lunching in one of the Tap Room’s booths. Possibly a senior professor by the look of him, a passing student might fleetingly muse: gray hair and blue pinstripe suit. The opposite number, in slacks: a pleasant-looking woman of a certain age.

He’s having the club sandwich, she the chicken salad ordered when told there’s no seafood one. They began with a Bloody Mary apiece and are taking wine with the meal. They’ll split a serving of cake with the coffee. Our passing student cannot know that when they were of student age, to be able to do this the gentleman of this couple would have fought a lion and climbed a thousand mountains . . .

I’m a senior and in two days leave forever the University of Wisconsin. I’ve had my final exams, and now there’s a brief hiatus before the graduation ceremonies and I am in the Memorial Union’s recreational reading room going through Life magazine.

The door opens and Miss Clark walks in. I stare at her. In the years that are coming I shall as a newspaper reporter interview Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. I won’t stare at them as I do at Miss Clark.

She sees me, and transfixed, paralyzed, I see walking in my direction someone for whom, if they did not exist, the terms Ice Princess and Dream Girl and American Beauty would have to be invented. I’m on a little couch. She seats herself on the edge of it. Ten thousand memories of my college days have vanished since then, but this moment lives on. Those glittering eyes.

She’s holding a book. “What’re you reading?” I get out my glasses and look at the title. ”‘Howard Roark laughed,’” I say. It’s the first sentence of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

Madison’s spring sun is shining, and outdoor tables have been placed on the patio overlooking Lake Mendota. Wisconsin is famous for being the only Big Ten university that serves beer; a 3.2 concoction is available in the Rathskeller downstairs. And they have coffee and snacks and things. I know what my next address is going to be; it’s the U.S. Army. Those big Korean War infantry divisions need replacements. So it’s a perfectly logical thing that I ask Miss Clark down to the Rathskeller. After all, I didn’t sit down next to her; she did to me.

 
IT WAS THE SAME thing for Mr. Bernstein of Citizen Kane —saw a girl in white, on a ferry. Never forgot.
 

Only once before have I ever talked at any length with Miss Clark. We were in a class in Russian history as juniors and a film was shown after normal class hours at Bascom Hall on the hill. You weren’t allowed to drive up there during class time but could in the late afternoon. I had a car—very rare among students. I went up, saw the film, a Soviet epic having to do with Napoleon’s defeat, and came out into the twilight, as did Miss Clark. I managed to inquire how she’d liked the movie. She praised the actor portraying one of Napoleon’s chief military opponents, Marshal Kutuzov, I suppose. “He was superb,” she said. Naturally I agreed.

“Are you going down the hill?” she asked.

“I’m driving down the hill.” She took this for an invitation, and we made for the Bascom Hall parking area.

As we walk, she takes out a cigarette and asks if I mind if she smokes. Let me, as we used to say in Philosophy 101, define our terms. She’s not asking if I’m against smoking . That concept is decades unborn, and the inventor of the no-smoking sections of restaurants is probably at his mother’s breast. We all smoke. What Miss Clark means is, Do I mind if she smokes standing up? There is a certain prohibition against a woman’s doing this.