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I was lonely at Ithaca College after my high school sweetie dumped me for a boy who’d stayed home, 1971. And of course after that and so young I looked for love in all the wrong places. Bars, particularly, as the drinking age was a near-fatal 18 at the time in New York state. And because I played in bands. You hear a lot about groupies but the truth is that the girls you actually wanted to meet weren’t the girls who’d walk up to the stage and ask about your axe. Axe was slang for instrument, I guess I’d better say. No, not those girls.
At the dentist I surreptitiously picked up an (I think) Esquire because there was an article touted on the cover: “Ten Foolproof Ways to Meet Women Who Will Actually Like You.” The tips were humorous, mostly, and pretty unexceptional, but one was “Take a dance class.” I wasn’t going to do that—I’d taken dance all through high school. Another was something about church. Church? Not me. The tip that stayed with me was to join a club, one that men didn’t usually join. Their example was a garden club. I liked gardening just fine, but I knew that joining the Garden Club would be a better way to meet my mother than any possible lover.
The lonely weeks went by. Then in Egbert Student Union one day, after having a beer at the pub (yes, we had a pub in the Student Union, and it opened at 8 am—a different era), I spotted a mimeographed flyer, and then saw it all over campus:
college knitting club forming!!!
I thought the three exclamation points were pretty funny, an attempt to create excitement where there was unlikely to be much. But an idea took hold. My grandmother had always knitted and I had always loved holding the yarn for her while her needles clattered away. She was a production knitter, my grandma, and had kept eight children and then thirty-six grandchildren in hats and sweaters and mittens and muffs. She also told great stories. One was that a horse had stepped on her cousin Molly when the poor kid was only eight—this would have been in 1895 or so—and crushed her face, creating a permanent and grotesque disfigurement. The rest of the story was about Molly’s eventual wedding to a perfectly normal fellow, and her nest full of perfectly normal kids.
I called the number on the poster, a campus number, and thought it was pretty auspicious that the young woman who answered was named Molly. Yes, she said, with three exclamation points after every phrase, the club was shaping up with three members already!!! It hadn’t ever come up whether they took boys, but why not!!!
So that next Sunday afternoon when all the boys I knew were watching football, I slipped over to Hilliard Hall, which was a girl’s dorm. Parietal rules had just been lifted, and it felt very transgressive to just march right in. Each dorm had a big lounge outfitted with couches and easy chairs and in Hilliard Lounge I found not the three women Molly had mentioned but nine, and every single one of them had a big carpetbag full of hanks and balls and skeins of yarn and bristling with knitting needles. And I can tell you, none of those young women had been stepped on by a horse, as far as was visible, and were of all shapes and sizes, all colors and creeds, every possible sort of hair, each head wilder than the next.
All conversation ceased, all eyes turned to me.
“You really came!!!” said Molly. She was Afro-American, as we said back then, and she was very tall and thin, with a long, slender neck, very striking, great halo of curls.
I was ready to flee, but Molly was quick to grab me, introduce me around. Two of the women pushed their easy chairs apart such that another—the last in the room—could be inserted in the circle, and there I perched.
“Well!!!” Molly said. “Let’s get started!!! This is going to be a sit-and-knit kind of club!!! Let’s go around and talk about our knitting experience!!!”
June was next to me. She was a woman of considerable girth and had been knitting only since the past summer on Cape Cod, she said, where her aunt had taught her few stitches and June had found she liked doing it. She’d been acting as the au pair to her aunt’s small kids, who were her own four cousins, and without the knitting, she said, she would have gone crazy. I had never heard the term au pair before, and had seldom thought of the loneliness of women, so already I was learning something.
There were two gals (they all said gals) named Patricia, soon to be Pat and Patty. Patty was the most conventionally good looking of the women, what you might call a hottie today. She said she knitted for Jesus. I knew that meant she wouldn’t be knitting for the likes of me.
There were two gals named Sarah, one of them to become known as Sarah with an H. And Sarah with an H, well, there was just something about her. She had been knitting since she was a little girl, she said. And modestly, she declared herself an expert, and willing to teach us all anything she could. Molly added a large number of exclamation points to that offer. Sarah’s sweater was dazzling, knit from something soft across the shoulders and bust, but knit from something harder and darker in the arms and belly, with a half-fringed hem, all pieced beautifully to flow into her very short skirt, which she’d also knitted, along with her very long knitted stockings, a bit of sleek thigh peeking out. Her clogs were thick felt, and I was surprised when she said she hadn’t made them. She talked about mitten patterns and crazy hats she’d invented and Afghans the size of painter’s tarps, not even a single exclamation point. She was broad shouldered, said she was a swimmer. Her legs were long and her knees grew halfway into our circle. She kept tugging her skirt up with two hands, then smoothing it back down, tugging it up, smoothing it back down, those glimpses of thigh. Her demeanor was as soft as the bust of her sweater, whatever that material was, and her hair was like a ball of yarn, pulled tightly back, yet with long loose pieces escaping the faulty bun. She was so demure that I think it took everyone by surprise when she pulled out her current project, which looked like a small, very multi-colorful sock, and announced: “I’m making my boyfriend a dick cozy.”
Everyone except Jesus Patty roared with laughter, not least myself, though it made me shy to be talking about weenies, also sad: she had a boyfriend. And already I’d decided she was the girl I’d signed on for all this to meet, the one and only. I would knit my way into her heart!
When it came to my turn to speak I mentioned my grandmother and poor, horse-stomped Molly, and that I hadn’t done a whole lot of knitting beyond that.
“We will teach you,” said Sarah with an H.
“I don’t even have the… stuff,” I said.
And quickly I was provided with several types of needles and several off-color balls of yarn. Jesus Patty stood up so I could sit by Sarah with an H, likely less to accommodate me than to get away from her.
Soon all the women were knitting away, drawing projects from their voluminous bags, and soon again I was too, knitting away, Sarah with an H reminding me of my basic stitches and even helping with my posture, her warm hand on my arm, those long legs, that soft, fuzzy bust. And the boyfriend.
That cozy she’d showed off looked awfully large to me.
* * * *
My attendance at the knitting club grew more and more spotty, and the conversation was no doubt better without me there in any case. But I’d made friends with Molly, and often saw her around campus, got to know some of her non-knitting friends, and my loneliness abated, if only slightly.
Home for Christmas, and several body blows: my old girlfriend with her new boyfriend at the carol sing, for one example. My old girlfriend with her new boyfriend at the Kellogg’s annual party for another. I’d have liked to knit him a noose, but kept it civil, got a huge laugh from the happy couple when I said I’d taken up the needles.
Back at Ithaca, I really had. Sarah with an H wasn’t getting along too well with Jesus Patty, so, like me, she’d only go to the club sporadically. But she was a devoted knitter and I’d sit in her little cinderblock dorm room—a rare single—and we’d knit and talk, and talk and knit, really lovely. We would listen to Joni Mitchell and knit quietly; we’d listen to Jimi Hendrix and knit intensely. She smelled like morning. Once she wriggled out of her skirt and stood there in torn blue panties and all innocently asked if the current project were the right length for a tea dress.
“Maybe a little short,” I said.
And she’d bid me stand and I’d try on this or that sweater, always a little too big for me, stuff destined for her huge boyfriend, whose birthday was in March. They were going skiing spring break, and she meant to give him some good cold-weather presents.
She came to see my band play at the Salty Dog, a fairly rough place at the time. Like me, she was a bit of a loner, and turned up solo, that dress now a socially acceptable length, if still quite short. The guys wanted to know who she was and I intimated that I was seeing her. “Spend half my time in her room,” I said truthfully.
She sat a table with our notebooks and extra strings and soundman and drank with him while we played. Occasionally, when no one else was, she stood up and danced, used the whole dance floor, a lot of legs, her hands shy, pulling up that hem and smoothing it down on her long thighs even as she shimmied. My heart thumped. All eyes were upon her. Sarah with an H!
She had a car, her old family station wagon, front seat like a couch. She drove me home though she said she was drunk and in the freshman parking lot at the far top of the hill she parked and we just sat there, a last, long, lovely song on her eight-track, Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” There was a moon, and as the song ended she turned to me and said “I wish you were my boyfriend.”
“I wish, too.”
“Randy is such a shit sometimes, and so far away, and here you are right here.”
My heart thumped once again. I slid to her on the seat and she slid to me and we met halfway, sat shoulder to shoulder as we did knitting. Finally, I turned to her and she turned to me and we kissed very briefly, heat rising into my face.
“Better not,” she said.
“One more,” I said.
“Okay,” she said.
And we made it a long one, slightly awkward side-by-side like that, she pulling up that hem, smoothing it down, suddenly kissing me passionately, small noises back in her throat, that morning smell. I tried pulling up the hem of her lovely knit dress and she let me get just about far enough—those sleek thighs, a certain humidity—before smoothing my hand right out of there.
“Better not,” she said again.
“Better not,” I repeated.
“Randy will kill me.”
* * * *
After that, our knitting sessions were all suppression. We’d sit hip to hip on her bed for hours, she giving me instructions in her curt way and giggling over my mistakes. For a joke I’d knock Randy’s photo facedown on her dresser, and definitely noticed when he wasn’t put right as he had been on earlier knitting nights. I’d put my head on her shoulder, and perhaps she’d kiss my cheek, but only in farewell, and only ever so briefly.
I was trying to make an Afghan of squares, but often I’d miss come crucial part of the stitch and my squares would come out as tight little triangles. Sarah said there was no reason an Afghan couldn’t be sewn of triangles, but when I tried to make them on purpose, I got squares again. She had me try on the newest sweater—the girl was a machine—and I noticed this one fit. We were awfully good friends. I’d stay the night, snuggle with her, the two of us always in our clothes, tangled with one another. I’d watch her sleep for what seemed hours sometimes, kiss her cheek, sniff her neck: dawn.
But the nights she came to my gigs, we’d make out in her car. At least that, which she always cut off before it got too heated, maybe a song’s worth, maybe two.
Just before our spring break, she gave me that newest sweater, a boiled coral-colored one with elaborate cabling, a garment I’d have for decades to come, long after I’d last seen her.
* * * *
After spring break, things were different. Sarah returned to the original knitting club. She needed friends, she said. I’d grown more uncomfortable with the club—except for Molly, none of the women had much to say to me, and I noticed that the talk died out when I arrived, or turned into a grilling: how do you stay focused on school when you’re playing in that band! How much do you drink, anyway? Why is a cute boy like you sitting around with the likes of us? Like having a dozen moms.
Except Sarah, who’d closed me out entirely.
I’d had a knitting idea that hadn’t come to fruition before the devastation of my friend’s retreat from me after spring break, which had made it seem impossible, but now I worked on it, pretty simple: I took four of those colorful triangles from my failed Afghan, sewed them together point-to-point in pairs, added some strings, and made a bikini. I should say a comic bikini, because it wasn’t one a person could wear out in public, that was for sure, not with my loose stitches and poor sense of drape, just a joke, something I hoped would lighten the mood between us.
I put it in a shoe box with a couple of smooth rocks I’d found to throw her off if she shook the box, and then I wrapped it very nicely (Sunday funnies for wrapping paper, mostly “Peanuts” showing) and left it in front of her door with a “Guess-who?” kind of note.
Not a peep.
Molly was in my Physics class. I asked if she’d seen Sarah.
“Sarah with an H? Didn’t you hear? She went home. She’s been depressed, I guess. Me, I wouldn’t go home if I were depressed!!! Home is where I go to get depressed!!!”
“I feel like an awful friend,” I said. I meant, How had I not noticed?
“Well, she’d going to flunk out if she’s not careful!!!”
So much for compassion.
Then, not three weeks later, near the end of the semester, I looked up from my keyboard at the Salty Dog and there was Sarah with an H, dancing, not a stitch or purl of knit anything, but blue jeans like she never wore and one of those Mexican wedding shirts that were so popular, flip-flops. It was a warm night and she danced till she sweated, no particular notice of me, just dancing, dancing, tall girl, the crowd shrinking and growing around her, one of my band’s best nights ever, musically speaking.
I had begun to sing a few of our songs, and the one time she caught my eye was as I was singing “Dancing in the Moonlight,” which had been written by an acquaintance, Sherman Kelly, the closest I’d ever been to any famous song, and now a girl to sing it to. Not that she seemed to care.
Then she was suddenly gone.
After, the guys and I packed up the stage a while, just the usual banter, all of us feeling pretty good about our prospects. The owner of the club had given us a bonus, unheard of. Still, I was down.
Out in the parking lot, waiting for the drummer, who was to give me a ride, a car pulled up, huge old station wagon. Sarah, of course. With an H. “Get in, get in,” she said, so urgent.
She was wearing the comic bikini, but there was nothing funny about it now. For a boy that age (or maybe any age) a girl’s skin, her figure, her willingness to show you, all of that is magic greater than the magic that made the world, or maybe the same magic; anyway, she said, “I’m cold,” and giggled like a brook falling down a mountain, more magic, and bid me slide close to her and, heater blasting, we drove up to that high lonesome parking lot side-by-side.
She parked, turned to me, suddenly all earnest: “Do you know what happened?” she said. “Spring break?”
“Of course I don’t know what happened.”
“Well, now you will. Randy had another girl there. Another girl! In another room at the ski lodge. And he was too chicken to tell either of us!”
“Is that where you’ve been?”
“I couldn’t face anyone.”
“I love your outfit.”
And she kissed me, very hungry. And took the itchy garment off.
Magic, as I have said. And so we made love, first right there in her car, then again in her room as the sun came up, all very smoothly, as if we’d been lovers a long time. “It’s always been you,” she said. We cried, that’s what I remember. I don’t know what we were mourning. The lost months, I suppose. We professed our undying love, and that was tearful, too. We kissed till our lips were sore. Well, in the end everything was sore.
At dinner later, and after a few hours sleep, she cried again, and really blubbering, said, “No one’s ever knitted me anything.”
And we had to leave the restaurant.
In her room, she put my bikini back on. It wasn’t as silly as I’d thought. Maybe she’d worked on it, I don’t know. But it was the most perfect fit of any tiny thing I’d ever seen.
She found a small box in her desk drawer, nicely wrapped. It looked as if it might have been there a while.
“I knit something for you, too,” she said, and handed it over.
I’ve had that silly cozy for decades, too, not that there’s ever been any call to wear it, not after that one night, and all the laughs, and the further tears, and the thoroughgoing magic that couldn’t last the summer.
This essay is forthcoming in Ann Hood’s Knitting Pearls, her second anthology of writing about knitting, available November 9th, from Norton. There will be a reading of selections from the book on Monday, November 9th, at the 86th Street Barnes and Noble.