November 1, 2001
We were too insecure, back then
by Lenny Karpman
ecades later, I have had the good fortune to have tracked tigers in the lowlands of Nepal on elephant back, to have dived the deep sea walls off Isla Mujeres and the reefs of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, to have ventured into the Sahara, to have crossed the Sinai and the Vizcaino, to have visited former headhunters in Borneo and to have gone on safari in Tanzania and Kenya. I have seen tawny eagles, lions, jackals, crocs, wolves, wild dogs, sharks, barracudas, and grizzlies tear living flesh. The one and only time my flesh has been torn by mammalian claws was on that sunny July day in Vermont.
My partner and I were students then, too poor to travel very far, working at a camp on Lake George in northern New York State near the Vermont border. I taught golf and she, arts and crafts. It was our day off and we were on the road to Middlebury, to a family-style restaurant in an old colonial house that even we could afford. The smells of fresh-cut hay and cow flop were ambrosia. We were out from under the stench of the paper mill just upwind from the camp. There were no kids squealing or whining, no bells clanging, no whistles screeching - just the wind blowing through the open windows of the car, the hum of tires on the road and the song of an occasional meadowlark. As emerald pastures studded with dairy cattle glistened in the sun, we became intoxicated with wanderlust.
Silvery watering ponds, brick-red sentry barns with silos, and two-story farmhouses with porches and small flower beds scrolled by against the back-drop of pastures. Random yellow haystacks stood out sharply like decals added as an after-thought. Every other part of the terrain looked soft and smooth. The undulating passing scenes evoked magic carpets. With elbows out the windows and hair blowing, we dreamed aloud of the future and trips beyond Vermont. We agreed to visit Paris, France and London, England. We had to include the name of the country the same way we included the last name of adults. We were too insecure, back then, to skip last names. Our list of binomial destinations grew.
We were both smart, well read, competitive kids, so we engaged in dueling geography. She was good, but I was a nerdy stamp collector, so I knew all the names from Abyssinia to Zanzibar. She hated to 'lose.' I loved to 'win.' We both had a lot to learn about relationships.
Her entire world had consisted of Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and summer trips to the same camp on Lake George. I was a New Englander until I moved to New York in high school, then back to New England for college and back to New York for graduate school. Challenged, she backed into the angle between the car door and seat, crossed her legs and turned her determined shoulders towards me. She began naming trees and birds out my side window. For the few she misnamed, I dared not correct her. I lost it, though, when she called a black quadruped an Arabian stallion. My insensitive chuckle and mumbled, 'It's a mule,' hit a button and unleashed a sermonette with sharp edges about how she was a nature person and as comfortable in the wild as anyone from New England.
Mischief's opportunity drew me like a moth to a candle. About a hundred and fifty yards down the right side of the two-lane country road, a Guernsey had escaped the barbwire and was munching grass at the edge of the blacktop. I decelerated and drifted as close as I could to the edge of the road. The cow chewed in oblivion, saliva dangling several inches down both sides of its mouth, surrounded by an air force of flies. When the car coasted to a complete stop, her out-the-window right elbow was a foot away from the stalactites of saliva. She was still looking towards me, punctuating her declarations, when she noticed we had stopped. She turned her eyes from mine, over her right shoulder and into the slime covered face and flies. She screamed in her shrillest soprano, 'It's vicious!' and flung her body across my lap, piercing the skin on my chest and forearm with her nails. I might have also screamed, had I not been howling with laughter.
My skin healed quickly. Her pride did not. Her adversarial skills sharpened to match her nails, and off she went to law school. I learned my lesson slowly, long after we went our separate ways.
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