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Spring/Summer 2003, Volume 20.3

Essay

 

Kristine SomervillePicture of Kristine Somerville.

Two Reggies


Kristine Somerville works at the
Missouri Review as marketing coordinator and teaches at Stephens College and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her short stories and prose poems have appeared in various magazines, including The North American Review, Hayden's Ferry, Passages North, and Quarterly West. Her essay "Katie Suber" received notable mention in Best American Essays 2000.

Read more of Kristine Somerville's work published in Weber StudiesVol. 18.2 (fiction), and Vol. 23.1 (fiction).

 

U2 was the band of my college years. When I attended The School of the Ozarks the summer of '82, a few of my "alternative" friends listened to Boy. They hung on the walls above their desks black-and-white pictures of not-so-good-looking guys in tight faded jeans, sleeveless T-shirts, black combat boots and raggedly long haircuts. The band stood around, looking out or down, arms crossed or hands shoved deep in their pockets. Who were these brooding guys? Why should I care about them when Prince and Michael Jackson dressed like rock stars, could dance, and looked cute and non-threatening on MTV? Later, these same friends located a fuzzy pirated video of U2 performing at Red Rocks, a place that looked like the surface of the moon but was an outdoor theater a couple of states away. I watched the tape while sitting on the cold tile floor of one of their dorm rooms. We had warm beer and stale chips. They smoked cigarettes, for a brief moment, a fragrant joint, and played the music loud.

The School of the Ozarks is a small Christian liberal arts college ten miles south of Branson, Missouri, a town on its way to becoming a Las Vegas rival. No drinking, no smoking or wearing skimpy clothes was allowed on campus, and the dorm rooms were off limits to the opposite sex. Public displays of affection (PDA) in the lounges or on the front porches brought a swift monetary penalty and humiliation. We attended church and convocations to develop cultural, spiritual, and patriotic values. It was the `80s, but S of O seemed like a throwback to the double standards and confusion of my parents' generation. Not many students complained. Reagan was president, and the campus swarmed with young Republicans. The majority of the students were religious. Young, beautiful, wholesome representatives of The Campus Crusade for Christ descended on the campus in vanloads in search of converts to take to a café for a Coke and bible study. They succeeded more often than they failed. God was on most everyone's mind while I thought more of this strangely attractive, bird-nosed guy called Bono. He looked rebellious waving a white flag as he sang about a bombing in Northern Ireland. I was mesmerized by his ferociousness; he was angry and dangerous. Years later, I would read that he was a fundamentalist, too, but back then I watched the Red Rocks video four or five times and was enchanted when Bono disappeared into the pulsing audience, pulled on stage a shy, plain girl and danced, boots stomping and fist pumping.

Then there was October and War and finally Joshua Tree. Their most popular and critically acclaimed album came out in time for graduation. Over night, the Irish band was on the cover of every music magazine. In the articles, they were quoted as saying important and smart things about Northern Ireland, love, American sights, and super stardom. They didn't talk about their personal lives. If you read many of these articles, you learned that Bono was married to his childhood sweetheart, and the others had begun to date models. All of the articles said that they loved to drink pints of Guinness in dark, smoky backrooms of Irish pubs.

"Where the Streets Have No Name" played over and over on car stereos at outdoor parties at The Circle, a dirt-and-gravel road that came to a turnaround surrounded by thin cottonwoods and evergreens. The homeowners of the modest split-levels on the other side of the trees had, in the past, called the Taney County Police. Someone noticed that when we played U2, they didn't complain. It was the kind of music that united adults and young kids and teenagers. (Bono's yowling reminded my mother of Eddie Arnold's cowboy yodeling.) The one person who I thought would be the craziest and the proudest of their mainstream success was Reggie Donnachie, a guy from Cobh, Ireland. He wore steel-toed combat boots, kept his hair shaggy with a blond splotch at the crown, and wore a thin gold hoop in his pierced ear. He stood out on campus for his clothes and his good looks. I haven't seen a face in a magazine, in the movies, or on TV as beautifully flamboyant as his—large green eyes, a deep chin cleft, full lips, long black lashes, olive skin that held a deep tan in summer. He openly ignored U2 in favor of The Cure, dark, whimsical music that I didn't understand.

Lately, I've begun to ask people about their relationship to music. Some have said that for them it's tied to mood, setting, and specific emotions. All agree that, like smells, it has the ability to bring memories flooding back. I link songs to people. Whenever I hear "All I Want is You," I think of Reg. I loved him right away. My first glimpse of him was a glamorous one. I was sitting on top of a rock wall outside Smith dorm with a group of guys I knew from Biblical Survey, a class I was solidly failing. I pointed out the car, a quick flash of red moving through the thick oak trees. The spot of color twisted down the college's main drive like a marble rolling around a tilt-a-whirl maze. Then, surprisingly, the convertible Corvette driven by a stunning blond girl was parked in front of us. I remember her because she looked cool, the way I wanted to look, deep tan, wearing dark shades, gold chains around her neck glinting in the sun, her elbow casually out the window. Her head was thrown back, her mouth wide open, laughing. Reg wore dark sunglasses, too, but he looked grim, serious. This was not the ride of his life despite how it looked to the guys sitting beside me who had begun to cheer and whistle.

In the mid-`80s, Ireland was the cool five years that I knew him. When I was available, he was going with someone, and when he was free, I was the one distracted by a new relationship. But we watched each other from the periphery. Always, at parties we noticed when the other arrived. Often, we found ourselves off in a corner talking about books and music and teachers. Sometimes, when drunk, we wondered out loud if we could fall in love with each other. Our friends noticed our attraction. It became obvious that despite my various boyfriends, I had a crush on Reg. And to those even more observant, it became apparent that despite his general friendliness to all girls, he had a thing for me. Perhaps to release sexual tension, we sometimes fought and teased each other. Television was full of examples of our kind of battle, namely Sam and Diane on Cheers. He was Diane, brainy, educated, suave, to my Sam, un-schooled, obtuse, but generally well meaning.

Our warring relationship went on for years. We came together to spar, and then retreated. We kept up this pattern until I started dating another Reg. Reggie Burton was my final long-term college boyfriend. I met him while sitting on the same rock wall where I'd seen Reg Donnachie. This time I was alone, trying to recover from being embarrassed in class by my Biblical Survey professor, Dr. Courtney Furman, who was a local preacher too. He had us pray before each class—"Please, God, open our minds and hearts to receive today's lecture"—which didn't do me any good; I was still failing. The class lecture that day focused on coveting. When asked, I said that I didn't know what the word meant. Dr. Furman paused at my desk, looked down place to go after graduation if you could scrounge up the money for the "obligatory" post-college trip. The music was the hippest—Tin Lizzie, Boom Town Rats, of course U2, and a little later The Pogues, The Waterboys, Hot House Flowers, and Sinead O'Connor. Some of us had even read a little Joyce or Yeats or Beckett. There was also the struggle, Protestants against Catholics, the north against the south, Ireland versus England. Having Reg Donnachie on campus, we thought, was like having a little bit of drama at home in boring no-man's-land Missouri. Only, he didn't talk about Ireland. Almost never. His past remained murky, details about his family vague, facts that didn't become clear until after his death. When pressed about his past, he simply said that Ireland wasn't a nice place, despite what we imagined: thatched-roof cottages, green countryside, white cliffs overlooking a turbulent sea. He came from a harder, less postcard-perfect place. He had two brothers in varying degrees of difficulty with crime and pregnant girlfriends. There was also an alcoholic mother and a distant, sometimes missing father who had not talked to him since his "defection." Instead of food in the house, his mother bought wine for all day trips to the park or pier. This might have accounted for what Reg ate at lunch in the dining hall: French fry sandwiches, peas or corn mashed into anything, tumblers of tea with milk, spoonfuls of catsup, other weird childlike creations, which suggested he'd eaten what he could get his hands on. The way he ate was also telling, all hunkered down, elbows out, greedy, as if someone might snatch the plate from him.

I was never Reg's girlfriend for the at me and asked, "Tell me, Miss Somerville. How many sweaters do you own?" I didn't have an exact count; I guessed. "Twelve. Maybe thirteen," I said, being conservative. "Then I guess you know very well what coveting means." The class laughed.

Reggie, a tall, well-muscled, high cheek-boned guy who always wore a cloth fishing hat, came out of Smith dorm and sat a few feet away from me. I don't remember how the conversation started, maybe I said something about how I hate school, but I learned that he was thinking of leaving S of O. He was from Augusta, Georgia, on a track scholarship, and was one of the few black students on campus. He felt isolated and had experienced what he called low-grade racism. Plus there were no clubs in Branson. I listened, and weeks later at a school dance held in the gym lobby after a basketball game, he asked me to dance. Under my sundress, I was wearing a strapless bra that kept sliding to my waist; he would never have noticed if I hadn't said something.

The two Reggies became good friends. Sometimes the three of us went to movies, parties, or watched videos together. Other times, when I was busy, finally studying, rehearsing for a play, or working odd hours at the school's NPR station, they ran around without me, disappearing into the night in Reggie Burton's maroon LTD with a cooler of beer, a baggie of pot, and a box of cassette tapes. I have one surviving photograph of the three of us. We are at the Spirit Shop, on the patio, standing in front of a big beer sign. We appear from the waist up and are dressed in black, which makes us seem affected, a little hard and full of attitude. I'm in the middle, and their heads are titled in, touching mine, sweetly. Both the Reggies are smiling. They are beautiful. I am the plain one. At times I was confused by my emotions and theirs—I placed a personal in our school paper, which I wrote for, that read, "Get your own boyfriend, Donnachie"—but mostly I was happy and believed it possible to love them both. They seemed to love each other in a cloaked, tough-guy way.

Despite their growing friendship, and the increasing amount of time the three of us were spending together, Reg Donnachie and I were hardly ever alone, and I often wished that we were. Once, in the afternoon when I turned the corner, going too fast on a campus street, my wish was answered: he sat by himself, on the front step of his dorm, a cigarette dangling from his lips. I hit the brakes and asked out the lowered window if he wanted to go for a ride. I drove to a launch ramp on Taneycomo, a small area lake running through a ravine, and parked. We got out of the car and looked up at the towering bluffs. The roots of furs and cedars reached around rocky edges for rare patches of soil. "You looked so weird when ya picked me up," he said. "Anythin' wrong?" I didn't answer. What I wanted to say was that I love you, Reggie, but I didn't; I wasn't ready. We sat on the warm hood of my car, watching the night darken around us. The lake became a black mirror, reflecting the house lights scattered across the bluff. "Everyone thinks Taneycomo's a river because it seems to flow. It's really a lake. The water's not going anywhere," I said. "Are you?" Reg asked. He was always asking questions like that, and they made me feel weird, insecure, like I didn't have ambition. "I don't know," I answered. I focused on a fisherman standing on his shallow bass boat, a fly line cast out in front of him. His trolling motor hummed. A low murmur lingered after the boat vanished. Up and down the lake, boat dock lights flicked on, thick dusky amber beams illuminating thousands of shad. Their silver flip-flopping bodies flickered on the water's dark surface. "I've never seen anythin' like it," Reg said. "Bait fish. That's why the fishing is so good." I said. Reg flicked his cigarette butt in the lake and then looked at me as if to apologize for what I might think of his thoughtless act, as if because I knew a little bit more about the lake it belonged to me. I shrugged; it was okay. The red coal floated for a minute before the water took it under.

The last year of school, I finally discovered what I loved to do. On the strength of one letter to the editor, I was given a newspaper column in The Outlook. Reggie Burton liked everything I wrote (Dr. Furman complimented me often, too), but Reg Donnachie was smarter and doubly critical than all of us. He said he was the hardest on himself, which was true. He didn't think himself beautiful or brilliant even though he'd been asked to model and in his classes made "A"s without effort. His favor was hard won, and I remember trying. I had read once that Mikhail Baryshnikov danced for a lover he imagined watching in the audience. I wrote my column as if I were speaking directly to Reg, to gain his approval. Mostly, I failed, but once I succeeded. I imagined God as Woody Allen nervously and neurotically hovering over the world's happenings, an idea Reg called on the phone to say he loved. He read my own lines to me and laughed. I wrote similar columns but never with the same success. Still, the possibility of being a writer, one who would have to work hard and struggle, was buried deep within, but something in the chemistry of his praise and the attention I was getting on campus—students looked forward to my columns, teachers read excerpts in class, I even on occasion got fan mail—brought it to the surface.

Graduation was hard on everyone. Few of us had any idea where to go or what to do next. It was now the late eighties. The business students were getting snapped up for Wal-Mart management, thirty-thousand a year, plus stock options. I don't know of any who said no. Those of us in the humanities had vague ideas about graduate school and even vaguer ideas about how to get there. Most of us were thinking short term—summer jobs in the seasonal Branson tourist industry. After several callbacks, I had landed a part in The Shepherd of the Hills play as the hillbilly sidekick of the ingénue. I was still riding the coattails of that modest success. Winter was far off. Something more solid would come along. Anyway, there was no shame in hanging out for the summer, maybe into the fall, occasionally going to college parties at The Circle, attending basketball games and dances, and crashing in dorm rooms of those who were still in school.

Reggie Burton felt the pull of family. His mother had supported him by working in a discount store while he was in school. Now it was his turn to help her out and see to the education of his younger sister. He'd majored in graphic arts and could run almost any kind of printing press. He was employable and yearned to work. We talked about a dozen ways to stay together but finally admitted that none of them seemed right. We agreed to set each other free, for the time being anyway. Reg Donnachie's future was more precarious. If a business didn't sponsor him or if he didn't get into graduate school, he'd have to return to Ireland and the poverty and family trouble he alluded to without self-pity. Citizenship didn't seem like a possibility unless he married. All the details were murky, and he acted too exhausted to explain them. He was working a nursing school angle; there was a national shortage, and he'd started the initial application process to a school in Springfield. Friends teased that he'd send old ladies into a tizzy if he were sent to sponge bathe them. Others talked about the unlimited access to prescription drugs. We all saw him roaming the sterile hospital halls as a germy punk dressed in a concert T-shirt, excessively torn jeans, and black lace-up boots instead of scrubs. He laughed, as amused as any of us at the visions of himself as a nurse.

Over the years, I've had fantasies that Reg was a member of the IRA, known for his fierceness and his expert ability with bomb making. When his true identity was about to be revealed, he faked his death, went underground. Sometimes when I go into a bank, I expect to see him, sitting behind a desk in a glass office, bank president and father of three. Other times I think I will get a letter in the mail, long lost but postmarked a day or two before his death. He explains what went wrong, what he was feeling, and why he gave up. He says how much he loved me as a friend. I've even had the thought of traveling to his Irish town on the southeast coast and finding his family. I sit down in front of a warm, crackling fire. Over tea and buttered toast, I tell his mother about the high-class man he'd become. It's a homey image that would've certainly made Reg scoff. Sometimes, when I allow my daydreams to unfurl, I imagine that I find one of his younger brothers on the busy city street. I tap him on the shoulder. He turns around, and I see Reg in his dark features. We fall in love, and I stay in Cobh, siring a brood of dark Donnachie children.

 

A few months after Reggie Burton left, Reg Donnachie and I became lovers. We were at a small party together, up the road from the brick bungalow where he was living. It was August. A mutual friend had returned from studying in London. I announced, while we were sitting around in a tight circle, that I wanted to go live in Dublin. He said, "Why? It's a dark, cold, polluted city." I didn't have an answer. My interest in Ireland was a poorly disguised way of expressing my interest in him. He understood this. He cautioned me. He gave me fair warning. He wasn't right. He was depressed. He was doing drugs. He didn't feel good. This wasn't the time for us to get involved in a sexual way. But I demanded it. I insisted. I downed my beer and literally pulled him to a back bedroom. I knew his most recent girlfriend had moved home. Everyone at school knew that this small, plainly pretty blonde girl had an eating disorder. Reg had been open about his inability to help, and, sadly, he'd let her go. He made an occasional trip to Oklahoma City to see her, only to report that her weight kept dwindling.

We left the party, walked a couple hundred feet up the gravel road, went straight to his bedroom and fell into bed. I was aggressive and forceful with him. I knew I wanted him, in this way, but he seemed less sure. He acted tentative. At times indifferent. The man I had loved from afar, and then, later, closer up, was shy, unsteady about sex. He understood before I did that because we had imagined this moment so often and in so many different ways, we would be disappointed by reality. We were both twenty-three but still too immature, confused, and inexperienced to deal with the touchy situation. My strategy was to become hypersexual. I'd make the sex good out of will and desire. There had to be fire between us. We'd waited so long. This was our time. When we slowed down, halted for a moment—there was the threat that we wouldn't go on—I noticed the details of his room. Philosophy and history books were scattered on the floor, black-and-white posters of mountains and woods and lakes hung on his wall, and lots of black clothes and leather boots filled the open closet. This seemed normal to me. What didn't were the over-stuffed bears on the dresser and bookshelf; a dozen black button eyes stared at us from across the room. It was the bedroom of a guy who seemed confused about growing up, about becoming an adult.

I've returned in my mind to the scene in his bedroom so many times that I can close my eyes and see my younger self lying nude on his mattress on the floor. I can recreate the row of bears and his faded Batman sheets that kept coming untucked. The words "Ka-pow," "Whack," and "Smash" worked their way
between us. After lovemaking and being quiet for a while, I said, "Smack," and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He was looking out the window above the bed at the sky. A strange emerald color had moved in as if there were a green negative between earth and sun. "Rain," I said. He didn't speak; he watched intently out the window. I propped my head up with my fists and stared with him. The wind blew lilac petals off a bush. The daffodils that lined the front walk bent and swayed. The blue-and-white checkered lawn chairs collapsed. His eyes were fixed on some part of this when he said, "Sometimes I wish I could keep sleeping." I climbed on his back, wrapped my arms around his neck, and held on tight. Everything seemed dark; the swaying trees outside the window looked black and skeletal. He turned his face to the wall and said, "I'm so tired." The pain of his words stuck in his throat. I was silent. A car moved down the road. The quick flash of headlights lit up his face. He saw that I was watching him and smiled. For the first time, I noticed the deep lines around his eyes and mouth. "You look old," I said. His sweet smile lingered and he answered, "I know." Then he turned my head to the side and whispered in my ear, "Let me impregnate you." I laughed at the way he used such a formal-sounding word.

 

The other night U2 performed two songs on Saturday Night Live. They have a new album, All That You Leave Behind, and once again their pictures and music is everywhere, though concert tickets are scarce and expensive. Bono has aged. He's thicker around the middle and has a softer jaw line, but he is still handsome. He's also mellowed and become a little strange. He wears wrap-around sunglasses, perhaps to hide the weariness of fifteen years of superstardom. The band never mesmerized Reg, and I never thought to ask why. All I know is that he asked me once, "Do you want to hear real Irish music?" and he played on his inexpensive stereo a Clannad album. This happened a few days before his death when we were lying again on his unmade bed. It had been raining (It rained a lot that summer.), and the air was heavy. The room felt damp. He didn't want to talk; he only wanted to listen to the eerie, ethereal music that seemed to match his somber mood. After he was gone, the lead singer, Enya, had a solo career. Her music became a popular part of movie sound tracks, particularly those about Ireland.

Reggie Burton and I talk once a year on the phone and now with e-mail send occasional messages. He keeps in touch with most of our former college friends and knows the names of their children and wives and where they live and work. His second wife is from Sweden; they have two curly-haired children I've seen in pictures. The little girl, he likes to say, looks like a tiny version of me, though I think she's much prettier. After Reg died, we talked about him once. "I knew you'd be upset," he said over a static-filled line. I was on a pay phone in the hall of my old S of O dorm, and he was calling from his home in Georgia. "I'm sorry," he said. I wanted to tell him that it must've been an accident, that he didn't mean to die, but he had killed himself in such a decisive way that denial was impossible. He took a large quantity of aspirin and a bottle of Drano, which the emergency room doctors said stopped and then destroyed his heart. His American brother found him on his bed in his apartment in Springfield. There was a note; I've never learned what it said. Reggie was concerned about me, but I forgot to ask about him. I felt lost and sad, also tentative; I didn't know if word of my relationship with Reg had reached him. The warmth I heard in his voice suggested that it did, that he knew all about us. Or maybe he guessed that after he'd left it was inevitable that Reg and I would be together. Somehow, despite this, he made me feel as if I would be okay.

 

During those last few weeks when we were together, Reg would get up late at night and walk around his small house as if he were searching for something. I'd hear him opening cabinets, shutting doors, rummaging through drawers, sometimes unstacking books. Once, I don't know why, I waited a few minutes and then got up and followed him. In the kitchen, he stood, naked, in a slice of light from the open refrigerator. He held the door with his hip and drank from a half-gallon jug of milk. The kitchen was dark, heavy and still. The movie we abandoned still played on the television in the living room. A thin wash of color hovered on the empty wall above the couch. Then he stood at the front door, parted the curtains and stared into the night. I would quietly leave in the morning for work, and the image of him standing nude in the soft blue light of the room would be my last.  

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