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Life with Libby
Richard Grayson

October 1971

I meet Libby. My friend John introduces us at a winemaking class at the Student Center. I like Libby. All through the winemaking class we sit on the floor. I watch Libby. From time to time she rests her arm on John's. Then she leans against him, holds his hand. John is intently studying the winemaker's words, as if he's memorizing them. I am looking at him with Libby.

She is making him happy, I think. I like the way she looks. She is my height, a little blonder than I am, with two long braids tightly wound; she is maybe ten pounds overweight; her legs are long and well-muscled; there are wispy blond hairs on her legs. Libby wears granny glasses, round and small. There are laugh lines around her eyes that you can see when she takes her glasses off to wipe the lenses on John's flannel shirt. Her mouth is small; above her lip, in the place where the indentations are, the part of the face that I used to think had no name but which I've since learned has an ugly name I can never remember, a mole protrudes from the skin. Usually I don't like moles, but Libby's is sweet.

She is wearing one of the granny dresses I become used to seeing all that fall, when she is always at John's side. I am happy for John but envious. Myself, I am going through a bad time. I am nineteen years old and will probably never love again.

May 1972

It seems as if John has always had Libby. Libby and I rarely talk because there is nothing for us to talk about. She is an art education major. I am a political science major. We have a lot of the same friends now, so we see each other nearly every day on campus and often at weekend parties. Libby likes me but then she likes everybody.

She touches me a lot when we do talk. Because I don't get touched often, I love her for that and find myself taking pleasure in Libby's casual hugs. John does not mind Libby hugging me or anyone except Leonard. Leonard is going with Vicky anyway, so John does not have to worry.

One afternoon at an almost-the-end-of-the-term party, Libby can't find a seat and so she sits on my lap. She notices that a button near my belly has opened and says, "That's cute." I am embarrassed and close my shirt. John laughs.

Libby and I share a lime that is left at the bottom of an already-drunk lime rickey. It tastes sweeter than a lime should taste. I put it in my mouth. Libby puts it in hers. I put it back in my mouth again.

John and Libby and I are smoking grass.

September 1972

Libby and John meet me and some other friends at a speech by Jane Fonda. The auditorium is filled beyond capacity and it is very hot, still like summer. The public address system isn't working well and I am sweating and beginning to have what I know will be an anxiety attack. I look at Libby sitting next to me; she is so serene. How can she be that calm all the time unless she's stupid?

Sometimes Libby can say incredible things. When Jane Fonda's talking about Cambodia, Libby leans over to me and whispers, "Is Cambodia with us or against us?" I shrug my shoulders. Jane Fonda goes on speaking hoarsely. John falls asleep. Afterwards, a group of us go out to get something to eat.

Libby announces that over the summer she has become a vegetarian. I order my hamburger anyway. Libby has a bagel and then gets a terrible stomachache and I have to drive her home. She is silent the whole trip. At her door, John kisses her goodnight. It is a casual kiss, almost chaste, but then she isn't feeling well. "Call you tomorrow," Libby tells John. Again I am envious, not of them specifically, but of people like them, people who can afford to be casual, to kiss almost chastely.

February 1973

Somehow Libby and I have lunch at Campus Corner together, without anyone else around. I am uncomfortable and have to search around for topics.

Libby is not smartest person I've met, but she makes me smile a lot, which is more than most of my friends can do. She talks about John's mother and how John's mother serves fish whenever Libby comes over for dinner, just because she knows Libby cannot stand the look of it.

"She even leaves the eyes in the fish," Libby tells me. I nod, make a face. I cannot stand the sight of fish eyes, either.

Hamburgers are more up my alley because I don't have to think about cows.

August 1973

Libby has spent the summer going cross-country with my best friend Avis. In her letters Avis sometimes sends regards from Libby. After they get back from California, Avis has a party. John is still at camp being a water safety instructor, so Libby comes to the party with a chunky red-haired guy who Avis says is madly in love with Libby. He drives 170 miles from Pennsylvania every other weekend just to spend the day with Libby. I like the guy.

Later, after the party, Avis says about Libby: "I don't know how it happened: a nice Russian Orthodox girl from such a sheltered home suddenly got so promiscuous."

Of course, Avis is not judging Libby; she says it in a matter-of-fact way, and I think that Avis considers herself promiscuous. I say nothing, just go on helping Avis wash the dishes.

December 1973

I have been in love with someone for almost a year. I feel completely secure. Libby and John are still together, of course.

February 1974

In the library I meet Libby, who is fretting over a speech she has to give in class. "Take deep breaths," I say.

"I'm afraid I'll hyperventilate," she says, laughing but full of fear. I laugh too.

I almost tell her, "It's only a speech," but quickly realize what a stupid thing that would be to hear.

"How's John?" I say instead.

"Fine," Libby says.

"How's your stomach these days?"

"Getting smaller. Feel." I put my palm on her abdomen.

"I wish I could lose weight like that. How'd you do it?"


"I've got the same problem, but that only makes me put it on..." Then I say, "Libby, we're graduating. I can't believe that you never took Speech before this."

"I wish I had." I wonder if her teeth are chattering. She looks like a lost sparrow. Although it is something I almost never do, I put my arm around her shoulder and I squeeze her hand with my other hand.

Libby smiles.

The bell rings, and Libby's muscles tense.

"Knock 'em dead," I tell her as she walks unsteadily to class. I never do find out how her speech turns out.

June 1974

Libby invites me to a going-away party she is giving for Avis, who has decided to live in Israel following her graduation. I will miss Avis terribly, though we haven't been as close as we once were.

Libby is sharing an apartment with two guys and a woman. It is a dinner party, and Libby's mattress board held up by milk cartons is our table. I sit next to Avis's sister, who I know from high school, who shares interesting gossip with me. John is sitting on the other side of me, and I notice he does not look well. When John says he is leaving for camp on Thursday, I wonder how old he'll be when he stops being a counselor.

At the party I meet some nice new people and chat with some people I have known almost all my life. Leonard comes in from his apartment next door to use the telephone; his was taken out after he didn't pay the bill. Libby invites Leonard to stay to dinner. Avis tells him to stay. Everyone else agrees. John sings some folk-rock as he plays his guitar. Dinner is vegetarian: eggplant parmigiana and some other stuff I cannot eat. But afterwards there is a cake for Avis with a joint on it instead of a candle.

The icing on the cake says the equivalent of "bon voyage" in Hebrew, or so Libby tells me, a Russian Orthodox girl telling a Jewish boy something he should already know. One of her roommates, the shirtless gay guy with the ponytail and great abs I keep staring at, baked the cake.

At the end of the night I hug Avis hard, tell her how much I'll miss her. Libby watches us.

"Maybe you can convince her to stay," Libby says to me.

"I can't convince anyone to do anything," I say back to Libby, still holding onto Avis, still staring at Libby's gay roommate, who knows seven languages.

"Poor Kevin," says Libby, and joins us in our hug.

December 1974

Everyone knows that Libby has left John for Leonard. I am noncommittal. I am no longer in love with anyone but sometimes I find myself feeling extraordinarily, unpredictably happy. I tell John he must stop moping around.

"Get out of your bedroom," I say to him. One afternoon he tells me Vicky has told him the same thing. As Leonard's discarded girlfriend, she is the other injured party in the matter. I try to become everyone's confidante.

Somehow, it is decided that the three of us are going to a modern dance recital at the college: me, John and Vicky. A strange combination, but I ask three times if they are sure they want me to tag along and each time they say yes. I figure they figure other people will look at them strangely if they're seen together without someone else; people will think they're just seeing each other out of revenge. I make it look like they're in a group.

John and Vicky both still live in Rockaway with their parents, whose houses are two blocks apart. After the recital (I liked the part when the dancers unrolled toilet paper) we go to Vicky's house, where we sit in her bedroom, which is filled with so many plants I marvel that they do not cut off her oxygen supply at night.

We talk about how incomprehensible most of the dance pieces were and I wonder if I'm in the way. But I make no attempt to leave early. John tells us he's going to see Libby tomorrow for the first time in two months. Vicky says, "That's like walking a tightrope backwards, isn't it, Kevin?"

I have to agree. Vicky looks sad when she talks about missing visiting Leonard's grandmother up at her farm in the country, but says she's determined to see other people and forget that she ever knew Leonard.

"I can't do that with Libby," John says, yawning. I think a few things but do not say them aloud.

March 1975

I run into Vicky at the shopping mall and we go have pizza together. "You look great," Vicky tells me.

"You too," I say.

"I'm seeing somebody. A teacher. He's wonderful. We were out till five last night." I smile. I am glad for her. She says Leonard and she are in the same cinema class and he wonders why she treats him so coldly. He and Libby are not seeing each other anymore.

Vicky stirs her soda with the straw. "Have you seen John lately? He's still so hung up on Libby, following her around everywhere. . ."

"No, I've been keeping pretty much to myself."

Vicky laughs. Then suddenly she says, "You were in love with Avis, weren't you?"

"Possibly." That is not quite a lie.

"How's she doing in Israel?"

"She married someone on the kibbutz."

"No kidding! . . . But you're all right, aren't you?" I am so terribly touched by this woman, this almost-stranger, thinking of me.

"Of course," I chuckle. "I'm fine."

Vicky nods her head. "You and me, Kevin, we're survivors. John isn't. He'll never get over Libby. Can you figure out what he sees in her?" I think of Libby's face, her body, her laugh.

"No," I tell Vicky.

June 1975

Libby invites me to a party she is giving for John. So they are seeing one another again. But the night before the party, John stops by my house with another woman, another old friend from school, someone who later becomes a Sikh and moves to Espanola, New Mexico.

Maybe John's a survivor too, I think.

July 1975

I am taking Libby to a free gynecological clinic. She has asked me to accompany her, "not just because you have a car, but because you're the only one I could go with." John is away for the summer as a camp counselor again. I am astounded when Libby tells me she has never seen a gynecologist before.

"How old are you?" I ask her, and I am again astounded to learn that Libby is six months older than I. All along I'd figured she was a couple of years younger.

The clinic is in a slum in Coney Island. It is depressing and my puns about "the miscarriage trade" and so on go over Libby's head. It is three hours before she is called. We are the only white people in the waiting room. I squeeze Libby's hand before she goes into the examining room.

I wait for what seems a very long time. A kid who doesn't look more than thirteen says to me, "Hey, man, you done knock up your fox?" I tell him no. The time goes on and I have to go out and call Libby's boss to say that she will not be able to come into the store that night. He says it's all right, but says it in a way that means it's not all right.

Finally Libby comes out, looking very pale. She grabs my hand. Could it have been that bad? Either she has the infection or not. She didn't want John to know. Libby thinks Vicky is responsible for John giving her the infection; I know better, know about the other woman, but I will not say so. For once in my life I am being discreet.

Suddenly Libby is in my arms crying. People are staring at us, but I don't care. All afternoon I had been annoyed with Libby for making me come to this horrible place but now that doesn't matter. I am a man being held by a woman who needs him. Even if Libby and I are only friends, I am her protector. I have never protected anyone before.

"What's wrong? Is the infection bad?" I don't know anything about women's infections.

"Oh, I have pills for the infection, that's nothing . . . but the doctor said I have an ovarian cyst." She is crying even more. I take her out of the clinic, away from the staring faces. I do not know what an ovarian cyst is, but I do know that my aunt had one and had a fairly serious operation. "He wants me to take x-rays," Libby is sobbing. I feel so inadequate, yet at the same time I am taking pleasure from the fact that it is me Libby is sharing this with and no one else.

I take her out to dinner and try like hell, working up a sweat, to make her stop crying and trembling. Finally I get a smile on her face. I kiss her.

December 1975

Christmas dinner at Libby's house: just me and her mother and her brother and Avis, who is visiting us from Israel. Libby's cyst does not have to be operated on yet, it seems. She has fallen in love again -- with Simon, an English guy.

When John came back from camp, he introduced Libby to his counselor friend Simon. Libby and Simon fell in love, and John is, in Libby's mother's words to me as we drink eggnog together in the kitchen, "eating his heart out once again." I am crazy about Libby's mother, who is as relaxed as my own mother is hard-edged. Libby's mother knows stuff about me that my own mother does not.

John looks terrible these days. Avis and I keep trying to get him to come to the movies with us, but he always makes some excuse. He doesn't know what to do with his life and has taken a job in a record store. There is no future in it, of course. He refuses to see Libby and we cannot mention Libby's name in his presence.

Libby gives me my Christmas present, a handkerchief. It is years since I have used a handkerchief, but I'm glad I have one now. I give Libby a pair of slippers with bunny rabbits on them. Libby says she loves them, and I believe her. Libby and I and her mother and brother and Avis sit around the table and stuff ourselves, fall asleep for a while, take a walk in the wet snow.

Avis tells us she is thinking about returning for good; her marriage hasn't worked out. Libby says Avis coming back to New York is ironic because she herself is going to England next month to stay with Simon. She has bought a 45-day ticket.

April 1976

"Libby? It's Kevin."

(I have not spoken to her since I picked her up from the airport in February. In England, Simon asked her to marry him. She may do it.)

". . . Lib, I don't know how to tell you this . . ."

(I heard it myself over the radio before another friend called.)

"John's mother -- she was killed this afternoon. Her car swerved right off the Belt Parkway . . ."

(She used to serve fish with the eyes still in it just to annoy Libby.)

"The funeral's tomorrow. Do you want to go?"

(She can't. She'd like to, she wants to, but she can't hurt John any more than he's hurt already. She'll send him a note.)

"I'm sorry to have had to tell you . . ."

(Why did I have to? Yet it was the first thing I thought of to do.)

September 1976

John comes over to my place. Being away for the summer agreed with him. As it did me. "Libby got your card," he tells me.

"I didn't know you were seeing Libby," I say. I don't like this. How come I didn't know?

"I was there last week . . . We're sort of seeing each other, but we're seeing other people as well." I suggest we go take a drive to Libby's house.

When we get to her block we see her and Leonard playing frisbee in the street.

"It's Kevin!" she shouts, not even noticing John at first. Libby says she is glad to see me, and the four of us toss the frisbee for a while and then Libby and Leonard go out to dinner as they had planned.

Driving John home, I ask him, "Does it bother you, her seeing Leonard?"

"No," says John.

I will not see him for another year. In November he will move upstate. He and Libby will stay in close touch, but I will not hear much from either of them. I have my own empty life, thank you.

May 1977

Libby's mother calls me one night.

"I just wanted to let you know," her mother says. "Libby's going into the hospital for an operation. They found this cyst on her ovary the size of a grapefruit. She's very upset. Tonight her friend Ted took her to dinner so she's all right. But I thought you would want to know. She didn't want to tell you herself . . ."

May 1977

That night I dream of making love to Libby. In the morning I call her.

May 1977

It is the day before Libby's surgery. Her surgeon, a woman in her thirties who is charging only $300 for the operation, has just left. I am sitting by Libby's bed. So is Ted. Another Libby admirer -- there are so many.

Libby makes everyone feel happy. There are so many presents in the room. I don't know why I bought her a Venus's flytrap, but I found it interesting and thought she might too. Ted has brought her an Andre Gide novel, in French. I can't imagine Libby understanding a word of it. Libby seems cheerful enough. My bunny rabbit slippers -- hers -- are on the floor.

A man comes in with a consent form to sign. He explains that it absolves the surgeon of responsibility in the event of something happening; for instance, if Libby should become sterile after the operation . . .

"Sterile?" There is panic in Libby's eyes. Lamely, Ted and I try to comfort her.

"My grandmother had to sign the same thing before her cataract operation last year," I joke, but nobody gets it.

Ted doesn't do any better trying to make Libby feel better. Visiting hours end too early. In the elevator Ted tells me he's really worried. He's about nineteen, snub-nosed, freckled, cute. He must be in love with Libby.

May 1977

When they tie her down to the operating table, Libby starts screaming. After the surgery, she is very weak. She gets lots of visitors. Her mother, Ted and I come every day. Other people come every other day. One afternoon they tell her to take a walk and I am the only one visiting her, and we walk down the corridor to see the newborn babies. One of them is connected to machines that monitor every beat of her heart. She's premature, Libby explains. The infant is bathed in infrared light. I can't believe that's a life. Libby and I watch the infant's heartbeat on the monitor and then she feels tired and I assist her in walking back to her room.

Ted and her mother are in the room when we get there.

July 1977

Avis is in from Israel again, maybe this time for good. Ted gets along with Avis, and the four of us sit around Libby's house. Libby's brother is complaining about no orange juice in the house. "Mom says we're boycotting because of Anita Bryant and the fags," he whines.

We ignore him and decide to go out to eat. Libby tells us she has been invited out to a commune in Washington State, where some of her friends live. She might go.

Avis says Libby's better off living permanently in the commune than in the neighborhood by her mother's house, which is still seedy. "That's a possibility," Libby says.

During a Szechuan dinner in Chinatown, I suddenly remember something and ask Libby whatever happened to that premature little girl in the hospital.

"Nothing," Libby says. "As far as I know, she got better and went home." I was expecting a different answer.

December 1977

Another Christmas at Libby's mother's house. We are like a family now, Libby and her mother and her brother and his girlfriend and Ted and I. As I look across the table at Ted, he smiles at me and I feel very grateful for Libby's ovarian cyst.

("Why didn't you tell me, you guys?" Libby had said excitedly and hugged both of us, but I'm sure she knew.)

John is with us this Christmas, visiting too. He and Libby still make love. I am glad about that.

(After Libby's plane took off for Seattle, Ted and I walked back to the parking lot and found that my car had a flat. That was the night I kissed him for the first time. Ted said he'd been waiting for me to do something for months.)

In the kitchen, putting dishes in the sink, Libby's mother says to me: "My daughter never gave me one moment's trouble." I can't imagine too many mothers saying that about their children. Not mine, certainly. My mother is kind of annoyed with me right now.

(In two days Libby will be taking a Greyhound bus to Washington State to live with the man who has fallen in love with her. He has a place right next to her friends' commune.)

We lie around the house, full of food, full of Christmas, singing along as John strums his guitar.

(Can it be more than six years that I know Libby?)

June 1978

Saturday June 10

Hello Kevin,

Please don't be upset at me, though I haven't written you've been on my mind and on my tongue often. In fact I had to explain you to Kieran -- I talked of you so much Kieran was wondering what you were to me. I haven't been to the city very much lately. The weather's been too nice. And for the past couple of weeks we've had friends come for the weekend and we've been having picnics. I made all sorts of food & even a strawberry cream pie -- I picked the strawberries the day before.

Berrypicking is great -- I've never done it on such a large scale. We have 3 rasp. bushes in the backyard. I really get off on the picking -- the berries are a hundreds times better than those in the stores -- I've been back there picking many times -- they also have blueberries and boysenberries, all less than a mile away. I planted several vegetables but the deer and rabbits had a feast. They left the garlic and onions -- but have just started attacking them this week. What really upset me was that they even ate all my plants, even my sunflowers. That just wasn't very nice.

Life here is still the same. I clean, sew, cook, back, weave and eat too much. I've been on a diet for the past two days. Kieran laughs at me and says I'm beginning to get his stomach. Kieran's still working as a framer building houses. He plans to work until the end of Sept. and then we're off to L.A. for the winter. Kieran's love-goal is to write songs (words) for a living. He works best with his friend Howie in L.A. -- have I told you this already?

Well anyway he'll go down there to help move his tunes around -- people are interested and he's going to see it through. I'm not very excited about moving to L.A. but I'll try it. It won't be for very long anyway. We'll be back here in the spring. I've been hearing from Avis and also John -- all seems OK with them both. I was happy to hear John got the teaching job. Have you seen Mom lately? I know how much she likes having you drop by. Ted did write me from France. I guess he writes you too. The religious conference went really well, he said. Did he write you about wanting to stay in Europe longer? He seems content there. Do you miss him a lot?

Well I must be getting to work. I'm surprising Kieran with a cherry pie. I've never made one before. Take care of yourself and don't be like me -- Write soon.

Love ya



March 1991

Zoe knocks on the door of the guest house I have been staying in since I flew down from San Francisco a few days ago. "Kevin!" she cries. "We're going out to dinner so hurry up!" I shut off the early news on KCOP -- more Rodney King stuff -- open the door, and tell her I'm ready. I didn't get a birth announcement until two months after Zoe was born because they didn't know if she would live. When I look at her now, at four, I see the face of her late grandmother.

Ted and I have been back together for six years now, for the usual reasons. He and some members of his congregation are at a retreat in Oregon. I have a week off from my job as a staff attorney with the Western regional office of Lambda Legal Defense. Short separations can be good.

Tonight Kieran's too tired to go out to dinner, so he says he'll stay home with the baby, who's the fattest ten-month-old I've ever seen. "Your first husband can take you out tonight," Kieran jokes.

Libby puts Zoe in the child seat in the back and I sit in the passenger seat while she drives us to a little Italian restaurant in North Hollywood. I remember when I couldn't imagine Libby driving, but this is L.A. and how else could she take Zoe to the church day care center or drive Wyatt to his pediatrician?

Libby's hair is still blonde, and to me she looks young. Last week Ted said that Libby was the smartest person he'd ever met. I sort of agreed.

At the restaurant Libby sits on one side of the table facing Zoe and me.

I point out the whole wheat pasta on the menu to Zoe. Now a vegetarian like Libby, I order what she's having.

The waiter asks us if we want wine.

"Don't be silly!" Zoe says ferociously. "They don't drink wine!"

Libby laughs.

"She knows us very well," I say to the waiter as I hand him back the menus.

The waiter -- a gay college kid who has probably never gone to a winemaking class like the one where I met Libby -- nods, smiles, and leaves us alone at our table.

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