In the summer between junior and senior year, after we’d broken up a couple of times, Matisse went home and then to summer school in Santa Cruz. Word leaked back to me through Linda that she was happy. She and Lainie, another Rockland friend, were studying ecology and life drawing. I spent the summer at Deli House, learning to cook.
The name Robert somehow came back as well. I imagined someone thin and ethereal, someone even I could intimidate. I cast my eye around and managed to sleep with one of the summer waitresses, but it was awkward and uncomfortable, strange to be touching someone I didn’t know, who didn’t know me. I imagined some triumphant appearance in Santa Cruz, Robert slinking away, but mostly John and I spent the evenings getting high and listening to Pink Floyd. He always claimed they were hipper than the Dead and our arguments were as passionate as I got.
In the fall, she stayed in Rockland instead of coming back to school. I couldn’t stand it, so I took a bus down, planning to stay with one of John’s friends if I couldn’t stay with Matisse. You need a car in Rockland, and Matisse had to pick me up in her mother’s car. We were quiet on the way to dinner. We kept catching each other looking at us, turning away embarrassed. I knew I shouldn’t have come and I couldn’t tell whether I was lonely and desperate for her or just needed to sleep with her again.
We had dinner at the Magic Pan, a chain creperie. Lainie and her boyfriend Harold met us there. Harold was the esthete, tho short like Lainie. Lainie kept calling her Steffie and the two laughed through one half-finished story after another. Lainie had some pictures, dorms under the trees, redwood forests, and people, many people who were now their close friends. Matisse looked uncomfortable as Lainie handed me the pictures, but she appeared only in group pictures or alone, posing in front of something with deep personal meaning to her and Lainie.
“Who’s that?” I asked, at one shot with tiny Lainie nearly smothered by some big bearded guy who was laughing at the camera while his arms were around Lainie.
“Bob,” she said quickly. “Bob the Bear.” She started to laugh, and stopped. “He was in our ecology class. We used to go camping with him.” Matisse shifted in her seat and I realized this was Robert. A bright hollow pain shot through me with the thought.
The waitress came and we placed our orders quickly. Matisse had become a vegetarian over the summer, and she and Lainie went back and forth over the limited offerings. After we ordered, Harold and Lainie talked to each other while Matisse and I looked at each other. Her mouth went from sad to defiant to fixed.
We started eating in silence. “What are you eating?” Lainie asked Harold.
“Danny and I split an escargot crepe and a Crepe Lorriane.” Lainie looked at Harold. “Little snails? How can you eat tiny little snails?” Harold shifted uncomfortably and picked at the ham in the other crepe.
“What about you?” I asked Lainie, while taking a bite. The escargots were basically tasteless, chewy and swimming in garlic and butter.
“Oh, Steffie and I are having cheddar cheese and tomato omelets,” she said.
“Great. Rotten milk, the ripe ovaries of the tomato plant and the menstrual discharge of a chicken.” Matisse smothered a laugh before she said my name sharply. Lainie pushed her omelet away. I ate my escargot and half of her omelet. They couldn’t get away fast enough and Matisse drove me back to the house in silence.
“Can I stay at your house?” I asked, when we got into the car.
“No,” she said. “That was really mean what you said.”
“I’m sorry. She kept calling you Steffie and talking about what a great time you two had camping in the woods with Robert the Bear.”
“Bob,” she said softly. “He was a friend.”
Did you sleep with him? I just couldn’t ask.
“Yes,” she said. “Danny, I’m staying in Rockland this year.”
“I miss you. I miss us.”
She was silent. She pulled up to the house and We looked at each other for what seemed the first time that night. She was so beautiful and so far away. “The Dead are coming to New York in the fall,” I said. “I could see you then.”
“I don’t want to trip anymore,” she said. “I’m done with that. I want to be straight for a while,” she said. “Danny, I’ve got to go.” She leaned forward and kissed me and for just one moment, I felt her love. Then I got out of the car and shut the door and she drove off and she was gone.