Last night I had the pleasure to share a few stories with a great audience at the Roger Smith Hotel at 47th Street and Lexington Avenue.
Last year I had met the engaging and lovely Danika Druttman at dinner in the West Village with artists Mike Maxwell and Edgar Heap of Birds. Danika, who runs the programs and exhibitions at Roger Smith Hotel, invited me to speak at one of their Show and Tell events. Last night’s program was the baker’s dozen. It was a privilege to share the bill with master storytellers Noah Harlan and Flash Rosenberg.
The subject of First Summer Romance is not my normal fare.
Collecting stories over the past few years for a memoir with a working title of A Pack of Lies, I decided to rework one of those narratives into something appropriate. It’s all true. I deny every word of it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
FIRST SUMMER ROMANCE
(an excerpt from A Pack of Lies by James L. McElhinney © 2017)
Many years ago, I received a scholarship to attend a summer art-school in Maine, which had been founded in the late 1940s by a group of prominent New York artists. Over the years, its fame had grown, mostly because many of the artists who had studied there later went on to become famous and successful.
The school was in the middle of nowhere.I didn’t own a car.
Calling the school’s Manhattan office looking for a ride-share, I was given the number of a guy named Frank, who was the opposite of the cliché of a bohemian artist.
He lived in an apartment in his parents’ house in Audubon, New Jersey, which was furnished with oriental rugs and antiques. Paintings of nudes, portraits and landscapes covered the walls.
Frank drove a late-60s burgundy Ford Fairlane sedan, equipped with an 8-track tape-deck and twelve hours of Bob Dylan tapes. Fueled by cigarettes, black coffee and malted-milk balls, we reached Central Maine at twilight, finding our billets after nightfall. After breakfast the next morning, we all trudged up the dirt road to campus, to attend an official welcoming ceremony in the fresco-barn. Spread out across a hilltop, the physical plant was a series of rustic buildings, adjoined by cow-pastures rimmed by dark forests. We all lived at the bottom of the hill, in a hamlet of cedar-shake cottages, scattered along the southern shore of Lake Wesserunsett.
This territory was not unfamiliar to me. My family had summered at Mount Desert. The Maine coast was a beloved destination. Ten years earlier, I had attended Camp Choconut in northern Pennsylvania. Summers ended with the traditional Villa Hunt, a three-day event in which campers and counselors reenacted Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa into Mexico. For three days, we slept in trees, and by rushing streams. We stalked the woods, and tagged each other with Bisquick- balls.
More wilderness adventures were had at Camp Hugh Beaver in the Poconos. Frightful reports circulated about a Stroudsburg man, who had slaughtered his family and lurked in the woods. Sightings were reported. Campers slept with one eye open. One day a counselor caught a rattlesnake. He put it in a terrarium and fed it hatchlings from a nearby chicken farm. After capturing a hundred-pound snapping turtle, he somehow got it into one of the stables. The next day we found the hinge broken and the door ajar. Tracks led down to the water’s edge. For days, nobody dared to go into the lake.
Incessant rain plagued our first week in Maine. I unpacked my gear into a corner of a sprawling shed, rounded up some tables and an easel, found some objects and started painting a still-life. When the weather cleared, Frank invited me to ride shotgun on one of his plein-air excursions. I had never really painted landscape before. There was a prejudice against it amongst the avant-garde contingent, who regarded the practice as backward and the subject as inferior. To vex them even more, we began to call ourselves Sunsets Incorporated.
Every morning after breakfast, the burgundy Fairlane debouched from our leafy enclave, in search of painting-motifs; shop-talk for a view that might afford a good composition. Anyone familiar with the terrain in Maine knows that everywhere you turn, there are gobsmacking vistas. Painting day after day, under a burning sun, or in the fine mist of a cool soft day, or shielding our work under ponchos against a driving rain, mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, and swarms of biting flies were our constant companions. Exposed as I was to the elements from morning to night, something wild and savage was unleashed within me. Imagine a place full of hormonal twenty-something workaholics, men and women, straight and gay, removed from the humdrum routines of everyday life, set loose in the north woods. Two weeks into the program I became involved with a woman named Liza. Most of us bunked two to a room, but Liza’s roommate never showed up, affording us a measure of privacy. She was, shall we say, very considerate, and eagerly approved of my displays of gratitude. Life without her was unthinkable. Marriage even crossed my mind.
That week Frank and I took a break from the wilderness, and painted by the dam in a nearby mill-town. The French-easel posse was already on site by the time we arrived, and had set up in the most advantageous positions to address the motif.
Its leader was a member of the faculty named Paul. Clad in white from head to toe, wearing a large black beard, he could have been cast as Monet. Curious onlookers approached him. Removing his wide floppy hat with a flourish, he presented it to them, like a mendicant’s bowl. Stunned, they halted, turned, and crept away. Throughout the day, we could hear Paul’s booming voice,
“Blue, blue! Distance is blue” Only Claude could paint distance.”
Driving back to base-camp, Handel’s Water Music blared from the 8-track. All I could think of was Liza. That night, after one of our extended postprandial cuddles, I went back to my room and sat on my bed. Something was in it. Someone. At first I thought my room-mate had gone mad, or mistaken my bunk for his. Reaching under the covers, I found smooth skin, warm breasts and a woman named Lauren. She was amazing. Soon, life without Lauren was unimaginable. This was love. We made plans. It was serious.
Frank and I had been talking about bringing large canvases out to the field, but the modest cargo capacity of the burgundy Fairlane foiled our ambitions. Instead we set up on campus, next to a pond, below the life-drawing studio.
Frank painted water-lilies. I painted Frank painting water-lilies.
My canvas measured four by six feet. Securing it to three easels, I leaned large rocks against their feet for added stability. Our animated banter drew complaints from a few craving silence, as they toiled over drawings in the life-studio up the hill. The co-director of the school came by to investigate.
“Look at that’s they’re doing,” said Frank. “Then look at what we’re doing. You decide. If you want us to shut up, we’re happy to oblige.”
The administrator walked up the hill, to confer with the disgruntled, then returned five minutes later. He smiled, and told us to carry on. Deciding not to break down our workplace for lunch, we left everything where it stood and went to the dining-room.
Returning an hour later, we found Hyder’s setup intact, but my table had been overturned. My palette–a sheet of thick glass–lay face-down on the grass, broken in two pieces. Paint tubes were strewn everywhere. Oddly curved scrape-marks crisscrossed the bottom half of my canvas. I was furious, sure that one of those vengeful sons-of-bitches from the life studio must have done this. Marching up the hill and into the studio, I called them all out at once. They denied everything. Following a few volleys of ripe invective, I slammed the door and stormed down the hill. Frank looked at me, pointed across the pond, and then burst out laughing. There stood two sheep, their faces smeared with oil-paint.
That evening at dinner, Lauren and I conspired to sneak out of our rooms and go skinny-dipping. The plan was to swim out to the raft anchored offshore, and make love under the stars. Waiting by the shoreline for half an hour, I began to wonder if she had preceded me, and might be waiting for me to join her.
Silently, I slipped into the water and made for the raft. Drawing near, her silhouette came into view, sitting on the edge of the raft, legs in the water. Drawing closer, I saw a welcoming smile. Lifting myself onto the deck, we greeted each other with a deep, slow kiss. She spoke.
“I’ve been waiting for you”
“Wait a minute” I replied. “Where the hell is Lauren?”
“Never mind,” the mermaid replied.
“We didn’t swim all this way for nothing.”
We stayed together until first light. From that day on, I could think of nothing but Diana, undine, goddess of sex, warden of my heart. We spoke of growing old together. Life without one another was incomprehensible. Happiness would be ours!
Returning to the field, Frank and I battled sun-showers and bloodthirsty insects. Reveling with primal delight, I embraced my communion with nature, in every possible way. As summer drew to an end, resuming our previous lives was out of the question. Blissful exile, mountains of work, new friends and transformative adventures had filled every last one of us with a kind of jubilation.
At the same time, a sense of loss swept over me. Which romance would blossom? Which love would endure? Pledging endless devotion, we swore to keep in touch, and went our separate ways. Many years later, only one of these summer romances has stood the test of time. We’re still together, the landscape and me.