“Yes, of course,” she replied. She and her husband Will would meet me at the train station in London. I should know, she wrote, that she now used a wheelchair because multiple sclerosis had slowed her down. But they’d love to see me. I could stay the weekend with them.
I tried to envision her in a wheelchair, but I didn’t really know what to expect. When I got to the station near their house, she sped towards me in her scooter, hair still black, a grin across her face. How could this be Anna, her whole torso slackened? I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, worrying that the rough skin, which peels from my own face because of a genetic disorder, would scratch her.
“Right,” she said, “let’s show you around.” While tall Will loped behind us, Anna led the way through their leafy South London neighborhood.
All that weekend, I stayed alert to every nuance of what Anna said as I strained to reconnect with the woman I’d known. In a crowded pub on Friday evening, she laughed heartily at Will’s jokes and encouraged him to talk about his poetry. But she sometimes had to search for words while he and I waited, sliding our drinks around on the shiny brown table. “This damned MS,” she said, making me realize how the disease was affecting her mind. On Saturday, we went to a writers’ group in a community hall where Will read a selection of his poems, some comic, some deeply serious. Afterwards, once he’d lifted Anna out of her scooter and onto the front seat of the car, she gave directions about the best route, pointing with her thumb and right pinkie, her three middle fingers folded in. This gesture seemed to me the essence of Anna. She’d made it again and again when we were in our early twenties, pointing eagerly into the world.
When I was a young woman in the late 1960s, unproud possessor of a skin disorder that made my entire body scaly and pulled my lower eyelids down around my smiling Irish gray-green eyes, I was sent to the University of Oxford to get an MA so I could become a professor of English back home in the States. My parents believed I’d need to make a living on my own since no man would want me, and I believed them. I knew almost nothing about men. No one in my women’s Catholic college dated much—me not at all. When I was eighteen or nineteen, visiting our summer house on the South Jersey shore, my brother’s pals would get overly polite if I showed up in the doorway of our screened-in porch where they lounged in shorts and polo shirts, joshing each other about last night’s dates. “Sorry, Anne,” they’d say—as if they couldn’t even joke about sexuality around me with my strange skin and bookish ways. I’d stand curling my scaly toes on the doorsill, feeling humiliated and utterly shut out.
I regarded my body as something like a snakeskin—which indeed it resembled. I’d had ichthyosis, my skin disorder, since the day I was born. As I grew up, I tried mightily to ignore it, as I hoped other people would. When they stared at me in the street, I often stared back, furious—and took myself home to books. By the time I was twenty-two, ready to go to Oxford, reading seemed one of my only safe retreats. Yet reading, too, reminded me of my ichthyosis: happy marriages, like that promised at the end of Pride and Prejudice, seemed purely aspirational for me until I got cured, which was unlikely to happen any time soon, none of the eminent dermatologists my family and I consulted having been able to help. As I stood in my room in the Philly suburbs packing warm sweaters and a Brooks Brothers raincoat, it occurred to me that there might be men in my classes. What would that be like?
I went to Oxford with my head full of English poetry and my inner eye full of medieval towers. The beautiful stone spires and cloisters turned out to be reserved for men, as they had been for the previous seven hundred years. Women, admitted to the university only since the late 1800s, lived in separate “women’s colleges,” part of the university, but generally a mile or so away from the medieval heart of town where the most iconic buildings shone golden in the occasional English sunshine.
Settling into St. Anne’s College in October of 1967, I began to see a friendly young woman in the front hallway of the Victorian house in which we both lived. In the early weeks, we’d say “hi” to each other as she raced up the broad wooden stairs. Then one October afternoon, she poked her head in my door.
“Hello, there,” she said, twisting a strand of dark hair against her very pale face. Her eye caught sight of a black skirt and white blouse hanging over a chair. This was my regulation outfit for a university initiation ceremony to be held the next day. “Getting your rig together to join the British elites?” She smiled, her black eyes sparkling. In her green miniskirt, she was almost as short as I was.
I looked eagerly into this arresting face, hoping she’d become accustomed to my red forehead and scaly hands during our brief chats in the hallway near the stained-glass window which glowed blue and green at the top of the front door.
She peered at the yellow mums on my dresser. “You’ve spruced the place up.” I grinned and pointed out the pillow in an orange geometric pattern on my cot, an addition from my foray into Oxford’s trendy 1960s shopping scene. “Um, nice,” she murmured. Walking towards the large floor-to-ceiling window, she took out a French cigarette, so superior to the stale ones available at English newsagents. Tapping the end on the blue packet, she cocked her head at me.“Got a light?” The comforting haze of Gauloises wafted above her head. “Last of my French fags, this.”
Perhaps if I got her to talk, she’d stay for a while. She seemed like the warm, offbeat friends whom I had loved at home—and missed. “Were you in France this summer?” I asked.
She looked around for a seat. “Any chance of a coffee?”
She accepted my invitation to sit, wriggling in my low-slung modern chair while I put the electric kettle on and stirred Nescafé crystals into two pottery mugs.
“Where’s your tie, then?” she asked. Both women and men had to wear a black tie for the mandatory “Matriculation” ceremony, still conducted in Latin, that would formally enroll us in the university.
I set the cups on the trunk I used as a coffee table. “Haven’t a clue where to get one.”
“Woolies. Answer to everything. Cheap. They’ll flog you a black tie for a bob.”
“It’s a big barn of a place. They’ve loads of ties. You’ll feel right at home.” To have a branch of the same Woolworth’s I knew at home in ancient Oxford seemed odd—but handy.
After Anna and I chatted about her American relatives, who sometimes came over to visit with her working-class Jewish family in South London, she put her mug down and wandered over to my mantel. Standing almost on tiptoe on her slender, milky white legs, she took down and examined a photo perched there—a picture of the pink azalea bushes and pale dogwood trees that bloomed near our house in suburban Philly.
“What brought you to the U.K.?” she asked.
“I wanted to study English lit.” I didn’t mention that my dad, a successful lawyer, could afford my tuition and board at Oxford. Anna, like most British undergraduates in those enlightened days, no matter their economic background, had a government grant to cover tuition and some living expenses.
“My dad took that photo,” I explained. “It’s of our back yard.”
“Your yard?” she gasped, with a look of astonishment that made me realize that, in Britspeak, yard might have meant a small, often paved enclosure—not a generous lawn.
“Well, garden, you’d say.”
Had the picture dragged class into our new friendship? Anna was a Londoner. She’d told me her family home was a flat in Ruskin Park House, a complex south of the Thames. I thought it was maybe a mix of public and private housing.
A change of subject seemed prudent, so I asked if she had seen any good movies recently. She warmed her long fingers around her mug. “Quite a nice film down the Scala. Will and I saw it last week. French flick with Jeanne Moreau. About a girl split between two blokes, one German; one French.” She yawned a little. “You’d like it.”
I didn’t ask who Will was, afraid that, if she had a boyfriend, she might not be interested in spending time with me; and I didn’t want to be lonely in Oxford. I was used to close friendships with women, but didn’t know how to share a friend with her beau.
Children’s shouts from the St. Anne’s daycare for the children of faculty and staff brought a half-grin to Anna’s face. “The little darlings are at it again,” she said, tucking her right thumb through the ridge of black hair that bisected her forehead.
We stood at the window watching two tiny kids gleefully shoot at each other with toy guns. After a moment, Anna tapped the windowsill. “Useful, that. Your window opens outside the wall. Easy to get in and out, if you’ve been carousing about the town until dawn.”
The whole St. Anne’s complex of classrooms, dorms, and a dining hall was surrounded by a series of interconnected walls, high enough to discourage us from coming home after the gates were closed at eleven. I laughed at the thought of breaching those defenses. Fat chance I’d be coming back after hours. Yet I leaned out and inspected my window’s strategic location: it opened onto the front of the house; the wall attached to the back.
Then I understood. Maybe guys did stay over, if they could find an easy way out.
“I see,” I said, wondering if I would ever be called on to offer my escape hatch to the mysterious Will. Never before had anyone suggested I too could be part of a sexual intrigue. Thrilled at the thought, I jiggled the window latches. Were they loose enough?
It turned out that Will was in fact Anna’s boyfriend. I was surprised that she was willing to include me in some of their outings. Didn’t couples in love want to be alone together?
One November night, Anna and I met Will at their regular Indian spot, Chutneys. Lanky and smiling, he held the restaurant door open for us. When we were seated, I was glad that Anna and Will had chairs equidistant from me and not too close to each other. I didn’t want to get too near their sexual charge, which still frightened me. In the busy, fragrant dining room, I ordered plain lamb kebab. When our dinners came, I dipped my fork into Anna’s Madras curry for a tremulous bite. She leaned toward Will and peered at his tandoori chicken. “You enjoying that, Will?”
He put his broad forearms on the table and dug in. “Lovely, yes.” I leaned away from his warmth a little, dropping my left hand in my lap.
Anna looked at my bland lamb. “Umm, not too spicy for you?”
“It’s fine.” I crushed a globe of rice with my tongue. It stung a bit.
Anna grinned. “You don’t do curries in your country, I expect.”
“Nope. Not part of the Empire anymore.”
“Umm,” she murmured. “Fat lot of good that did us.” I suspected that both she and Will were what Brits might call “Bolshy,” as in Bolshevik, left-leaning.
Will, like me, studied English literature. Tonight he groused about all the Old English verse we had to read in the original.
“I had C. L. Wrenn himself,” he said, looking kind of shocked that Wrenn, who had succeeded J. R. R. Tolkien as a professor of Old English in 1945, was actually still alive. Will called him “the ancient of days.”
Scooting my chair nearer the table, I began to smell the clean soapy scent beneath Will’s sweater. Feeling more at ease near him, I described how my teacher, the terrifying Miss Griffiths, stared me down when I made a mistake in our Old English translation class. I began to feel less like an interloper as we all discussed Oxford tutors.
Anna pointed to the bottle of relish with her right pinkie and her thumb, keeping her three middle fingers tightly closed. “Send that over to me, will ya honey?” Solicitous as always, Will opened the bottle and pushed it towards her, patting her right hand. I wondered if I could ever feel this kind of simple, warm touch.
When the bill came, Will smoothed it out with his long fingers, and I leaned over him to see how much I owed. I was reluctant to reveal my scaly hand with its fretwork of dried skin; yet I felt somehow safe as I slid my three shillings onto the elephant printed on his placemat.
As we walked back toward St. Anne’s along windblown St. Giles Avenue, Will put his long arm around Anna’s waist as I scuffed wet leaves on the pavement, wondering if they would start kissing. And would that make me feel lonelier? Instead, Will bent his smiling face towards me and asked what new novels I liked. As we chatted, he moved one arm up to Anna’s shoulder and put his other around mine. I flinched a bit. Why would any man want to get close to me? But I enjoyed the warmth of his hand as the three of us—Will a head taller than Anna or I—moved down the street.
His hand left my shoulder as we picked up the pace, hurrying to get back to St. Anne’s before curfew, so Will could still go upstairs to Anna’s room. Pausing on the staircase, they wished me good night. I closed my door, hung my raincoat up on the pegged hatstand, and picked up the biography of Queen Elizabeth I I’d been reading. Tossing it onto the bed two minutes later, I walked to the sink in my room. My right hand, drawn tight with thick skin, fumbled with the stopper before I got it in place and filled the basin, my hands gradually softening in the warm water. After I’d creamed my palms and forearms, I flopped on my bed and spread my fingers along the soft, pink-and-orange Indian bedspread, enjoying every moment that the skin on my hands stayed supple before it dried in the cold air and my fingers tightened.
I tried not to think too hard about what Anna and Will might be doing upstairs. I had no designs on Will; I wouldn’t know how to lure him—and he was Anna’s man. But I was deeply pleased that, unlike my family and the teens I’d known at home—all of whom tended to hide their sexuality from me as someone who had no cause to be interested in sex at all—Anna and Will clearly felt it was fine for me to be around lovers.
I relaxed into my pillow, read until I was sleepy, then crept out of my room to use the hallway bathroom. Scuffing my slippers on the tiles, I listened for sounds from upstairs. All quiet. When I flushed the toilet by its long chain, the echo seemed to spread through the entire house. Back in my room, I put enough shilling coins in the gas heater to last, by my reckoning, until two in the morning. They clattered in one by one. Then I remembered Anna’s remark about my window that opened outside the wall. Walking to it, I opened it, one of the tall panes rattling as I did. You’re aiding and abetting a love affair, Kaier, I thought.
I lay in bed feeling part of Anna and Will’s relationship in a way I’d never been part of anyone else’s. Pulling my coverlet tighter, I chuckled, thinking that in the early hours, when I was asleep, Will would quietly open my door and maybe drop a few shillings into the gas fire so it would be warm when I woke up. Then he would walk to the window, lift his long limbs over the sash and be off down the street before the late dawn of the winter morning.
Anna and Will married and had two daughters and long careers as teachers in London. I taught English lit for years, then was a corporate copywriter before becoming a professor again. I had various lovers, at least one of them a reasonably happy match. We laughed and made love in warm Boston hotel rooms until our affair petered out and we agreed to go our separate ways.
When I went back to see Anna and Will in London, we spent the Sunday afternoon in their flat, Anna sitting in her recliner in the living room. When I tried to get her to talk about our time at St. Anne’s, she said, “I don’t remember anything!” Sitting next to her on a sofa, I thought how discouraged she must feel, how maddening it must be to know she would probably get slowly weaker in body and mind. However, she kept up her end of the conversation for the most part, pausing to gaze at a lovely tree in front of their house.
At one point, I followed Will into the sunny kitchen where he moved easily around the narrow room fixing a casserole. The space between us seemed fluid, restful. “How do things look for her?” I asked. Will pulled a blue potholder onto his long arm and slid the ceramic pot into the oven. “MS,” he said, straightening up. “It’s nasty.” He turned halfway around, started washing lettuce. “When we first got the diagnosis, I was young and naive. I told Anna, ‘This isn’t going to slow us down.’”
It had, of course. When the casserole was ready, he brought it to the dining table in the living room and helped Anna into a chair. As I enjoyed the steaming leeks and carrots, I glanced up and saw, among the CDs and orange Penguin paperbacks on a bookshelf behind us, their wedding picture from 1968 in a simple frame. Smiling broadly, young Will sported a gray suit. Anna’s white minidress showed her slender legs. She could have walked out of the Victorian house where we’d lived right into that photo.
Inside I was silently shouting: Anna, Anna, where are you? Seldom have I wanted anything more than for her to be her young self again—the bright, fastidious Anna whom I first knew in 1967, not this woman so inexorably nearer death. I was losing her, this friend who in her kindness had made me feel—for the first time—that it wasn’t odd for me to get close to the heat of a love affair, even if I still wondered whether windows to love would open for me too.
Author's CommentI get holiday cards from the couple I’ve called Anna and Will every year and see them when I’m in the UK. She’s slowly changing, but their affection for each other is as strong as it was when I knew them in our youth.