During happy evenings together that semester, the couple viewed scores of old films from Henry's impressive collection of video cassettes. His ancient house was a museum dedicated to what he called the "Golden Age," the 1930s and 1940s. On the walls were portraits of his heroes-Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Goodman and Armstrong, Tracy and Hepburn. Although not quite of Henry's generation, Sylvia shared his appreciation for the music, movies, and events of those long-gone decades.
For weeks the two friends floated on a sweet sea of nostalgia. Henry planned-programmed-their evenings together, focusing on his "Golden Age."
Henry was in heaven. He had never before had a companion so in tune with his interests. In the four years since his wife left him, Henry had not wanted to have a woman disturb his orderly life. Now he discovered that this very attractive woman fit right into that life.
Sylvia, too, found herself attracted to more than Henry's knowledge of old films. He could be so charming and so attentive when he wanted to be. He seemed to grow younger, more handsome, more alive, and more interesting as the autumn turned into winter. But he didn't seem to be growing closer to her, and Sylvia wanted to be something more than an audience for Henry's videos.
Henry's contentment probably blunted his sensitivity to Sylvia's changing enthusiasms:
"Have you read the new John Updike novel, Henry?" she asked one evening.
"Good grief, no! I haven't even read the old John Updike novel."
"Don't you just love how romantic the couples are in these old movies, Henry?" was her question the next evening.
"Oh, yes," he replied, "but that's just make-believe. And the people are youngsters."
Sylvia brought her favorite Gloria Estefan hits over one evening and learned that there was no room on the agenda for such stuff. Instead, they listened to tapes of Fred Allen and Jack Benny radio programs.
The telephone also carried intimations of change:
"Henry, I am so sorry, but I can't make it this evening. I'm on the department's New Course Committee, and we'll be meeting quite a bit during the next three weeks. Oh, and the chairman has invited me to attend the fall concert series that starts next week."
But Henry failed to notice the warning signs, and that made the end much more shocking.
The end came on a Sunday afternoon in December. Henry and Sylvia hadn't been together for two weeks. He had missed her and had gone all-out to make their reunion special.
He preceded the entertainment with a description of the delights that were to follow: "I dug up two wonderful Bogart movies. And I bought a cassette called The Torch-Bearers: Songs of Unrequited Love, 1930-1940."
But Sylvia decided it was time for honesty. Softly, even lovingly, she asked, "Henry, don't you think that we're overdoing old times a bit? How about expanding our interests?"
"What do you mean?" Henry asked. "I have a lot of good stuff here-videos and cassettes-that we haven't used yet. What more do you want?"
"Henry! You're forcing me to embarrass myself. I'm just suggesting that not all of our time has to be spent watching old movies. Couples do other things, you know. How about going out to dinner now and then? Dancing? Or, if we want to stay home, how about having some good personal conversation, and, well, even being a bit affectionate, damn it!"
"Good grief, Sylvia!" Henry sputtered. "We aren't college kids, you know. Why...why...I thought you wanted to be good friends, not..."
Less gently, Sylvia responded that Henry was acting like an old man.
"I am an old man!" Henry shouted.
"Well, you're sure as hell trying to be," Sylvia replied. "You're afraid of life, Henry. You're afraid to open yourself to anything new, and you can't grow that way. Even a lobster takes the risk of giving up its shell so it can grow."
"Well, I'm no lobster!"
Sylvia hooted at that defense. She reminded him of Wordsworth's lines:
"ÔThough nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;/ We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind.'
"You have so much strength, Henry. Can't you use it to live in the present, not the past?"
No, he couldn't, and 20 minutes later Henry was still defending his dug-in lifestyle. But he was defeated.
"It's over, Henry," Sylvia told him. "I need the present more than the past, and I need love. I just don't understand you, Henry. Am I special to you, or am I just convenient? Do we have a future, or will we just say THE END when we've seen all the movies?" He seemed unable to respond or even to move. "Goodbye, you dear, doomed man," she added as she walked to the door, out of the house, out of his life.
Later, still in shock, Henry had a drink-an old-fashioned, of course-and listened to his new torch-singer cassette. "I'm Dancing with Tears in My Eyes," sang Ruth Etting, while Henry, with tears in his eyes, made a second old-fashioned. "It's over and I miss her," he said to Ruth.
Then, a desolate Billie Holiday was crying, "But Not for Me" "...when every happy plot/ends with a marriage knot/and there's no knot for me."
"Oh, there's no knot for me either, and no Sylvia, and I've made a terrible mess of things," he told Billie. "Why did I let her go? I want her, and damn it, I'm going to call her and tell her so! Just as soon as I think of how I can say it."
And maybe he would actually have done so. But before he could test that resolve, the front door opened and in walked Sylvia.
As Henry's mouth fell open with amazement, she explained, "Don't get up, Henry. I just came back to pick up my books and tapes and to give back your key. No, that's not it. I came back to tell you that you're stupid, Henry, and blind. Can't you see we should be together-really together? I love you, Henry, or at least want to be with you to find out if I love you. I want you!"
"My God, Sylvia, that's just what I decided to tell you. I don't want to live without you." And all at once-before he had time to plan it-they were kissing, happily, madly. Gasping for breath, he added, "So, you see, I was really ahead of you in bringing us back together."
"Well, yes and no," Sylvia replied. "The fact is, Henry, I brought my toothbrush and nightie with me."
"Sylvia, I'm shocked!"
"You'll get over it."
"I am over it, Sylvia, and I look forward to our night together."
"Night? Henry, didn't you ever hear of love in the afternoon?"
"My God, I really am shocked, Sylvia. I know-don't tell me-I'll get over it."
About the author: As Professor of Family Studies at Purdue University, Dick Kerckhoff published scores of research-based articles. Now in retirement, he reports getting even more satisfaction out of the acceptance of the short stories he has been writing. His stories often focus on how other people complicate and also enrich our lives