December 30, 2013
My bank gifted me with a fifty dollar Amazon card. I didn’t really need anything so I chose whimsy—music. Which is how, “The Essential Leonard Cohen” arrived at Genehouse, on Christmas Eve. Last night, I opened the package and played disc one, settling into my easy chair, Scout the cat on my lap. The first song was “Suzanne,” and I was quickly taken “down, to her place by the river,” knowing full well that this river would flow in my brain all the way back to 1969, my first apartment in Chicago, and the very first time I heard that haunting song.
I had traveled downstate to my hometown of Alton, to surprise visit my girlfriend Holly, but the surprise was, she had checked out of her dorm room at MonticelloCollege and gone to St. Louis with another guy. Merry Christmas. I boarded a Amtrak train and went back to Chi the same day I arrived. I may have shared some whiskey with a sailor who had been similarly cuckolded and was returning to Great Lakes Naval Base.
By the time I got back to the city it was one in the morning. I knew I didn’t want to enter my apartment and deal with five farting roommates. I heard music coming from my neighbor Pauline’s place. I knocked on her door. She had been asleep with her boyfriend, but I was a frequent overnight couch guest. I told her sorry, the music, you know. “Our couch is already occupied,” Pauline said. “You’re welcome to come in, floor space only. I’m freezing.” And off she went, back to dreamland.
“Suzanne takes you down . . .” The music came from a record player in the livingroom. The light came from flickering candles. Cigarette smoke enveloped me in a blue cloud. I put down my backpack and followed the contrail. On “my” couch was a beautiful woman, maybe nineteen, dressed in a white, diaphanous nightgown. She stared at the bay window across the room. She held a cigarette in one hand, a glass of red wine in the other. A long braid of red hair hung down her exquisite pale neck, onto her back. Her legs were tucked under her. “And Jesus was a sailor . . .” She glanced at me. “I’m Erica. Wine?” Which is how I came to drink the first glass of red wine of my life.
“And when he knew for certain, only drowning men could see him . . .” My own tangle of hair was long and rust red. My beard was rust red. Our eyes were blue. She wasn’t slightly interested in me. I walked to the window and sank down to the wooden floor. On the white wall to my left, scribbled in Magic Marker, were these words: “The world is ugly and the people are sad.” The song ended. Erica unfolded her pale legs from beneath her, crossed to the record player and replayed “Suzanne.” I was to hear the song about twenty times that night. I would meet Leonard Cohen three years later. I would tremble and gawk at him, like a schoolgirl.
This night, Erica, her back toward me, leaned from her slender waist to the floor, for the record player, candlelight leaking through her nightgown, a shadow of her parted naked legs etched on my eyes. She went back to the couch and lit up and poured more wine. An hour passed without a word. Then she turned her head and looked intently at me. If you know me, you know I was scared. There is no word for the shyness inside me.
“Okay,” Erica said, stubbing out a cigarette. “You can join me but you can’t love me.” “Touched my perfect body with her mind . . .” Erica had been sleeping with her English professor. He had dumped her a few days before Christmas, citing his concern for his wife and kids. Counting the night I met her, this was the start of a fourteen day affair. Every single day, she reminded me not to fall in love with her. Hell, I was in love with her the night I met her. Leonard Cohen was the matchmaker.
On Day Fourteen, I drove to Erica’s apartment and knocked. Her landlady opened the door. The apartment was empty. She left no forwarding address; she had vanished. “You can join me but you can’t love me.” “He spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower . . .” I was devastated. I had met an honest woman.
A week later, Erica’s sister called me. Erica had killed herself. She showed up at a motel on the rim of the Grand Canyon. On the final morning of her life, a boy riding on a burro saw a redheaded woman wearing a white nightgown, standing on a cliff. The woman was cutting her long red hair with a scissors and throwing the clumps into the wind. Her sister would visit that spot and find a bird’s nest with strands of red hair intertwined with twigs. The woman pulled off the nightgown and flung it into the canyon. Then: She flew, the boy said. She flew.
“Erica sits in the half light, mourning the death of sacred touch/Feeling the walls are closing in/Calm, she, somehow but crying within . . .” A songwriter named Blue wrote that. He would play it for Steve Goodman, at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
“And you know that she’s half crazy and that’s why you want to be there . . .” On day thirteen of their romance, Erica heard Blue’s song and made no comment.
Most of my closest friends have never heard this story. I replayed it in my head last night. Erica was one of Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy.” Her favorite book? “Anna Karenina.”