Stella Ridley: Derek (Yet Another Chapter Without a Number)

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Reader, I am going to tell you something I’ve never told and never will tell anyone else. I never told Matu not only because it’s just not the kind of thing one tells one’s mother but also because, I suppose, I sensed that just about any confidence from me would be unwelcome, for despite her love for me, she thought I was strange, not the common strange as in eccentric, and not the scary strange as in the strange man, but strange the way some fairy child deposited by gnomes or pixies in her garden late at night might be strange.

I could have told Molly or Deena, of course, but I never told either of them because, I suppose, well, I don’t suppose, I knew for certain that I would never hear the end of it, that it would elicit the kind of repeated ridicule that things elicit when they just don’t fit in anywhere even though they could just as well have happened to the people doing the ridiculing. Not that it would have been ridicule of the mean kind, just that I knew precisely the sensitive occasions that would elicit it, namely, every time I expressed even the slightest interest in a man or, more my style, tried unsuccessfully to hide such an interest.

I was in a pub with my reckless college roommate, Missy, a preacher’s daughter, wild as all get out, and we were drinking beer to congratulate ourselves on having run a quarter mile or whatever piddling distance we had run around the track as part of our stringent exercise program, the best part of which was, of course, the beer afterwards as well as other attractions at the pub, namely the presence of men more or less our age who either hadn’t been drafted yet or who were home from whatever interminable war was on at the time, home with a different kind of absence that they carried with them, a sort of sadness, a woundedness that no one ever talked about, though of course that didn’t make them any less attractive.

Missy and I were not of one mind about men we didn’t already know. Missy liked all men and would go off with guys she didn’t know from Adam and then show up at the dorm at sunrise with her shoes or some other part of her attire in her hand, throwing pebbles at our window to wake me up so I could let her in. I was much more cautious, given to thinking things through to the extent that I grew tired of thinking about them and decided whatever I was contemplating was just too much trouble although occasionally, too sensitive to be overburdened by thought, I wouldn’t think things through at all, and would thus become embroiled in some quasi-romantic disaster of the sort that a savvy girl like Missy would never find herself embroiled in. I had a male friend or two. Missy had boyfriends, lots of boyfriends.

So we’re in the pub drinking beer—I forgot to mention that we were still underage—and generally checking out the noisy scene when suddenly, there was a big commotion across the room, some tall guy hollering things we couldn’t make out and flinging his arms about, and then there was the usual scene when some guy in a bar starts losing it and the other men there attempt to calm him down and do that weird kind of hustle dance men do to get the crazed guy to the door and then outside. Just as suddenly, it seemed as if half the people in the pub lurched out into the parking lot. Missy and I couldn’t resist following, mainly because it was a novelty for us, and, after all, it’ was where most of the men were.

It was oddly quiet, you could hear the June bugs and mosquitoes and the big trucks out on the highway. The streetlights made everything yellowish and washed out looking but somehow seemed to spotlight a cleared space in the gravel of the parking lot, and there he was, the soon-to- be object of my affection. He had the crazed guy pinned on the ground, was sitting on top of the him, in fact, holding the guy’s hands down, telling him over and over to calm down, calm down, and some girl was saying in a loud but intimate girlfriend voice, don’t hit him, Derek, don’t hit him.

Such a stunning tableau, the three of them in that long, slow moment as if they’d always been in that configuration. And me in my usual place, the fly on the wall, the fourth wall, the one without a window or a door, but my place nonetheless. The girlfriend—I wasn’t sure whose girlfriend, but I chose to think she was the girlfriend of crazy guy even though there was boyfriend intimacy in Derek’s voice when he turned to her and quietly said, I’m not going to hit him, Denise, I’m just gonna help him calm down.

Who were these amazing people? I couldn’t even imagine what else they did other than go to the pub and engage in spectacular and fascinating and very physical behaviors. It had all the romance of the unknown, but it was also so startlingly quick and clear-cut–somebody who had to be shut down, somebody doing the shutting down, and somebody to oversee it. And this man, this Derek, well, he seemed so unlike any of the men in my family or any other men I knew, all of whom were a rather remote lot not inclined to disputatious activities, much less subduing some flailing person in a gravel parking lot. I doubt Derek had ever beat anybody up—still, he was a big guy who looked like he could but who also looked like he’d choose not to.

How could I not be in love?

Don’t hit him, Derek, don’t hit him, his girlfriend said. Later on there were a lot of things I said to Derek that involved the word “don’t,” but, “don’t hit him” was not one of them.



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