I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name… Jane Kenyon “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”
Robbie first appeared to me as an enormous bunny rabbit. I was seven years old at a classmate’s birthday party.
Since I’m now over sixty, this first sighting of Robbie happened a long time ago. All I know for sure is that an accident wedded us, after a long spiritual connection.
The evidence is in my garage.
Kevin made me a widow in the summer before my sixty-third birthday. The department chair Miriam called to ask if I intended still to teach in the fall. Why not? Routines are survival techniques.
After that phone call I wandered into the dusty living room. As soon as I entered, I heard Kevin’s last words.
Kevin had gone quickly, one minute alive, the next dead. The only warning a series of headaches. When he slept in, I let him sleep. Except that it wasn’t sleep.
I always expected to be the first to go. I’d been waiting years for a kidney donor. The doctor gave me six months before dialysis. I didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore.
The night after Miriam’s phone call, I was restless and in darkness. I felt my way along the staircase banister and the wall. Downstairs to the left, the light from the kitchen’s backlit window transformed some droopy herbs on the windowsill into black lumps.
I crossed the hall into the living room, pitch black with the curtains closed. The profound obscurity was like stepping into a bottomless depth. I wobbled a bit on my feet, before deciding with a ragged breath to plunge inside.
Almost at once I stubbed my toe on something smooth and solid. Was the lamp base wider than I remembered? My swinging hand hit something with corners and edges, and what sounded like books tumbled onto my feet. Slippery jacket covers made the pile shift and fan out while I trod over their unevenness, like slimy stones. I was crouched by then with both arms in front of me, reaching for the sofa arm, like a swimmer. I hurtled forward, half wishing for a soft nothingness. My palms hit the wall.
Steadying myself upright, I picked along the wall, fingers edging like feet, but in spite of miniscule movements, my other hand dislodged a small, round object, which slipped off some edge. I almost went with it.
The room gave nothing of itself away. But a presence was there.
I could feel Kevin’s lounger, where he’d sat his last night. Beyond, I sensed only a dark hole where I could walk forever.
A month before he’d turned in early, complaining of another headache.
All of a sudden in the dark living room, a hoarse voice, quite unlike his own, expelled strange words. By the time I asked Kevin to repeat them, he’d already disappeared too far up the stairs. But I had heard them: “You will see him again soon.”
Those words had the effect of a gun’s report, propelling me to tumble forward. I knew then that Robbie, whom I’d seen first as a child, then in high school, and last in grad school, would appear again.
Even in daylight the day after Miriam’s phone call, the living room gave off a sudden chill, as though a window had flung open and let in the night air. The preceding night of the dark wanderings came back to me, things tumbling off. Nothing was on the floor.
Shaking my frowsy head, I’d gazed over to the recliner and tried in vain to see Kevin there. It was just a recliner, with nary a human imprint, even on its cushions.
I knew the department chair wouldn’t let me slip the time and date I was expected at school. In Miriam’s initial phone call, she’d repeated them over and over again, ending with the obligatory, “We’ll look forward to seeing you then.” After I hung up, a twitch zigzagged across my forehead, and my fingers shook. Will I find my classrooms? Do I remember my subject? I felt myself inside the teacher’s recurrent professional nightmare.
In fall, my late class was at 6 p.m., so it held mostly “non-trads.” I welcomed these older, working students, closer to my age, some as old as fifty.
It was while I was taking roll that autumn that I noticed him. He remained standing after the others were seated, yet still, I had to squint to make out from the dark in the back a skinny fellow in a black leather jacket, holding what looked like a motorcycle helmet.
That reminded me of my second viewing of Robbie at the beginning of my first year in high school. There was a boy in the back of the classroom, one the teacher never called on. He was hard to see once we were seated, what with all the heads and open desks, so I saw him only for a moment before I took my seat in the front row. His appearance didn’t stand out—nondescript clothes, dark, faded, but all-covering, even though it was warm outside.
However, that first day I spotted him across the cafeteria—not tall but severely pale and thin with straight, blue black hair. He shuffled with his tray, head down, as though hoping no one would notice him. I empathized with the urge to be invisible. Our affinity made me want to see his face.
His hair and pallid complexion startled a vague even earlier memory from a seven-year-old’s party. A boy as a big bunny—where was that? I remembered streamers, the bunny following me…Later in the bustling hall, I bumped into this classmate, hunched over. When he looked up, his face was still averted, half in shadow.
“What’s your name?” I had asked breathlessly, in a hurry before he had a chance to disappear.
He shook his head, as though I’d asked a stupid question. “Robbie,” came out in a raspy voice.
No way did I have a crush on him. Like every other girl in the school, I was swept up by Hank, our school’s basketball star, which was surprising because aside from my running, I didn’t like sports much. But my friend Sally got me hooked on basketball’s fast game.
Hank was tall, tan, sinewy, and blonde handsome. Needless to say, buxom Sally appealed to Hank more than my scrawny looks.
One day in the crowded hall a whisper tickled my cheek. The tone was sad, “Don’t bother with Hank. He’s not your type.”
My head flashed around to see for a second the back of Robbie’s head. How had he managed to say all that in the time that we passed each other? With the rush of class change, even on tiptoes, straining over heads, I could not spot him.
The weekend that Sally went to the dance with Hank marked the end of our friendship. Before then, she’d announced she’d never date a “dumb jock.”
How can you trust such a person?
Demanding loyalty and honesty, I didn’t have friends. So, through school, I spent my time, as always, reading books and running on the track team. Discipline sustained me.
If this were a romance, Robbie would have asked me out, and that’d be the end of the story. Instead, no other encounters occurred, no one knew him, and I never saw his face clearly.
In the fall semester following Kevin’s death, Miriam thought I should be kept busy, and so a morning composition class was added to my late afternoon one. I took my lunch break in the cafeteria before office hours. It seemed to help being amongst the chattering students, even in that cavernous, echoey, dimly lit room. I always sat at the only free tables in back with only the sliver of wall lighting.
My concentration over class notes was broken by a raspy voice above me. I looked up to see shaggy black hair curtaining a face. At first, I thought it was a girl, but then an older taller version of the high school motorcycle man emerged—even though it’d been years. His face, close to mine, looked tired but kind, like a caretaker, worry wrinkles on his youthful forehead. Without invitation, he plopped down and started talking.
“Hi, I’m in your class.” And then he asked questions about what we had talked about the day before. I wondered why this couldn’t wait until my office hour, but politely answered him. He echoed whatever I said—a repetition I did myself just to remember what had been covered in class and needed doing next time in my too early class.
I was discombobulated. The professional worry dream about losing direction to my classroom or forgetting my subject haunted me.
Late afternoon classes always seemed eerie. Most of the offices were dark and shuttered, my colleagues having departed for the day. The tapping of my slow steps punctuated the way down the hall to the building’s exit, the ill-lit service door.
In the gloom, I could just make out an upright figure beside a motorcycle. Seeing him made me jump.
“Sorry to startle you,” again the raspy voice.
“My mom is all upset about this motorcycle, though I’ve told her I always wear the helmet and am careful. Still, she warns me drivers don’t see black motorcycles.” Startled by this flood of words, I nodded agreement with the mother. His voice sounded disembodied in the dark.
His first paper (description) had been about the motorcycle, and I was amazed how clear he made it without any technical terms.
The next day at my table in the back of the cafeteria, I could sense a dark form before even lifting my eyes. He sat himself down, his eyes gleaming across the table.
“Your paper was very good.”
He nodded, not surprised.
When he asked about the next assignment, I told him it’d be narrative, personal experience.
“I guess I’ll write about my mom, my home,” he mused, while giving me his shoulder and mostly his back. He had already turned and next moment was gone.
The resulting paper was again more description than narrative. He talked about his working at a garage, having a nurse take care of his Alzheimer’s mother while he was out, but mostly he described his house in loving detail.
“A porch girdles the 1905 house all around. The windows are tall with eyebrow moldings. The roof is both Mansard with attic windows and Italianate with decorative brackets on the wide eaves. Unfortunately, I’ve had no time to repaint it. All I’ve done is scrape off the white paint, and now it looks even more decrepit and abandoned.”
The next day, seated at the same table under the dim wall light, I heard him ask, “So what did you think of that paper?”
“I could draw it from your detail. But you do need a focus on the rest of the paper, about your life. It seems scattered.”
“Like me,” came the almost inaudible response.
He never came to my office hours, only to the cafeteria, and I never saw him hang around his own thirty-some age group. Not knowing him well enough to ask, I was startled when he supplied an answer to what I was wondering:
“I’m drawn to you, since my own mother mostly doesn’t know me anymore.”
Once, he inquired whether I liked Mexican food. It had always given me indigestion. Kevin and I avoided anything rich or spicy; in fact, food was just sustenance for us. Robbie waxed eloquent about quesadillas, burritos, and other dishes I don’t remember. “This is the best way to make Enchiladas Rojas. You need dried ancho chilies…” I’d never heard of ancho chilies.
One evening in October, outside the building I heard, “Wanna ride?” burst from the darkness, just as I was about to step into my car.
Needless to say, I’d never been interested in motorcycles. In fact, my only memory of riding one had been with an uncle when I was a child. He’d placed me in front of him, and the bike’s roaring noise, rough vibrations, and sudden deep dips sideways terrified me.
On my first ride with Robbie, I imagined how my Robbie would look at this Robbie’s age.
I named our son Robbie, at first not knowing why. But looking at the newborn, I remembered blue black hair from high school. I told Kevin about that adolescent Robbie (the little I knew about him), and to my surprise Kevin nodded soberly and sighed as if accepting a difficult but inevitable relative.
I still remember my shock at the newborn’s dark hair. No one in our family had dark hair! The hospital staff consoled me saying the born hair often falls out to be replaced by the real color, but that didn’t happen.
The only “fight” Kevin and I had was over our child’s hair. He was adamant that there were no black-haired people in his family.
“As you know, I didn’t fool around with that high school Robbie. Ridiculous—high school was years ago, and I hardly knew him!”
“Maybe you didn’t have to.” He shrugged.
“What does that mean?” My voice rose high with fright.
Robbie was a sober, quiet child, who seemed to exude wisdom beyond his years, at least in his eyes. He watched, taking in everything, giving sage nods. For a time, others worried that he might be retarded, couldn’t form words, but he just parceled them out judiciously. He understood everything—even what we couldn’t see.
One Saturday when Robbie was about five, I visited my mother with him. I hadn’t realized until then how my fight with Kevin, revisited a week before, still worried me, and so I told my mother of my surprise at the boy’s dark hair. Mother had never expressed any surprise at Robbie’s looks. But my question made her pause from her knitting and present me with an album I’d never seen. While Robbie played on the floor, her arthritic fingers flipped through the cardboard cut out pages of ancestral pictures. Then she stopped. She handed the album to me.
There he was—topped with a fedora and sporting a bushy mustache, but still very pale, thin and with jet black hair. Two pictures of him were one as a very young man maybe in his teens, and one as a man of thirty. It was unmistakably the same man, the first one minus the mustache but with slick black hair combed back. The identification came hesitantly,
“Your great great grandmother (is that enough greats?),” she smiled, “was on holiday in Italy when she was a young girl. She was a beauty.” Mother flipped a few pages back to a full head of what I recognized as the family trait—auburn hair—in this case, gently curled around an oval face with perfect complexion.
“Well, she met Roberto there. I think he was a guide in Florence. Anyway, they fell wildly in love, and she almost did not come back home. Her father, enraged that his society girl should marry a common gold-digger, went to Italy to retrieve her. Unbeknownst to anyone, she was pregnant. When her condition was revealed, she wanted Roberto to know, but no one could find him. She almost missed out on her coming out parties, except that she never showed much. Afterwards, shuffled off to an aunt, she delivered a baby boy. The aunt raised the child as her own.”
“What was his name?” I asked, holding my breath.
“Robert, after his father. She insisted on that.”
“Do you know anything about what happened to him?”
Mother thought for a while, and then shook her head. “I just remember he didn’t live long, though he did marry…I really don’t remember. I think Mama told me about him, but no one else spoke of him.”
“But he did nothing wrong!” I retorted defiantly. My sharp tone brought Robbie’s face up for one of his long looks at me. My mother just sighed, sinking back into her armchair and into one of those unfathomable ancestral expressions—silence in sepia.
At least I had an answer for Kevin, though he waved his hand in dismissal at this seemingly irrelevant information.
“This is really living. You have to take risks.” The words flew back to me in the wind.
I never felt so free. My running days out in the country flooded back. The legs stretching forward in fluid movement, the wind in my hair, the scene flitting by fast—all that I’d loved years before. I’d always looked forward to the marathon training, those long distances on trails miles out of town.
With my hair lifted and swirling, jacket flapping wildly, the heat of the day dispersed to cool my legs even through my pantsuit. I felt a part of every atom of life inches away. The thrill rippled through me like a piercing siren.
He took me to his home in a different part of town. It was an old ramshackle house with a huge porch and sagging front steps. The house looked pockmarked with the brick showing through speckled white paint. We didn’t go inside. All my focus went to the front yard’s gigantic maple tree from which a rope hung.
Sensing my intense gaze, he said, “I used to climb that tree to the very top.” I smiled. I’d done the same with our tree when I was a child. Mother had screamed at me from the bottom, knowing, though not seeing me on the highest branch.
Under my student’s tree, while I watched a rabbit hopping, a similar image superimposed. Looking down from my heights, once I’d seen a rabbit. It seemed to sense me above, because he stopped for a long time, his big ears twitching.
And at that moment, my earliest memory of Robbie resurfaced. Oh, my goodness, what am I now recalling?
That enormous birthday bunny rabbit when I was seven years old—
I came with my friend, Sally. I’ve no idea how I got invited. Balloons floated, and different colored streamers rippled in curls from the ceiling. I hid under what could’ve been Weeping Willow branches. Then something from the corner of my eye between the streamers cut my vision into shifting slices. That something was large and white.
I was still dizzy from being twirled around blindfolded. Everyone at the party arrived masked and costumed for guessing the identity later. I remember dressing as a rabbit. No one knew who I was, except Sally.
Suddenly a big white bunny appeared in the middle of the room. Dark hair and a sliver of pale skin were visible on the top and sides of the plastic head while it hopped around and came straight for me. Whenever I tried to peek around it, it’d move the same way, blocking my view. I even went to the bathroom to see if it would come after me. When I came out, there it was, waiting. Most of my time at that party was spent hopping away, half laughing, half fearful.
But during all us kids’ departure in a clump by the door, I looked back. The bunny “Robbie”—he’d whispered his name outside the bathroom—was nowhere to be seen. I felt my first sadness with him gone, like I’d lost my favorite stuffed animal.
The next day when I asked Sally about the birthday bunny, she gave me a strange look. “What bunny? Do you mean your costume?”
“No, there was another bigger, plastic rabbit, and someone inside. It was right in the middle of the room with the balloons.”
“There was one bunny there—you. I would’ve seen any other. You must be crazy.” The birthday girl was an only child, and no boys were allowed.
My son Robbie’s most memorable birthday party was his seventh. He’d always had a bunny as a stuffed animal, but for this birthday Kevin and I planned to give him a live bunny as a pet. The memory of the big bunny from my childhood—the birthday party at the same age—gave me the idea of hiring someone to dress in the costume and follow Robbie about.
That was my last happy memory of my son Robbie. He died the following summer of leukemia. At the time I blamed myself for giving him an unlucky name. Why was I so stuck on that name? I didn’t even know the former “Robbies”—the large plastic one when I was seven, the high school one, the grad school one.
My son Robbie reacted to the live baby bunny by shaking his head vehemently, so we had to take it back. He hugged me but took his little stuffed bunny to bed instead. I still remember his small body—he never grew very tall—stomping up the stairs clutching his old worn-out bunny with the ear half off. We took that bunny to the hospital because he loved it so much.
I didn’t realize how fierce my love was until he was dying. Not a religious person, still I blasted God for taking away what He’d given me—so unexpectedly, so late in life. I kept crying, “Robbie, Robbie.”
Finally, in the hospital, he answered, his voice sounding stern and staccato. “Don’t worry. You’ll be all right.” And something about a gift.
Odd how his voice sounded transmitted through wind, words caught only in snatches.
That bike ride with my student shook me like a leaf in a storm. I had been wading all my life.
Then after the ride on Robbie’s bike, a new memory surfaced. In grad school (I must have been thirty), I read hours in the library carrels until nightfall. Once, emerging from my dark cocoon, still immersed in Ireland’s misty realm of gods and heroes, I blinked under the overly bright building entrance—and saw Robbie for (now I know) the third time.
It was raining. The wet on my face was soft but chilling too, and the street, usually so busy, sounded muffled, the outlines vague, wrapped in fog. On the other side of the street I spotted his familiar figure, black hair shiny wet, bent over and striding decisively. After fifteen years, I didn’t recall his name immediately, but the image arrested me, about to be wrapped in the swirling and thickening fog. Absurdly, I ran after him, impossible as it was to see much farther than two or three car lengths.
My excitement replaced the usual desolation whenever I left the library, with only an efficiency apartment to go “home” to.
All I could see was a black smudge ahead, his long trench coat. His route took me to an unfamiliar part of town. Finally, he disappeared in front of a 7-Eleven’s bright lights. Backing up, I dislodged an old man’s shopping bag and amongst all the confusion and apologies, I was reminded by the store that I needed to pick something up for dinner.
That’s where I met Kevin. He was looking for something easy to cook on his burner, as was I, so we practically knocked each other over, balanced on our haunches, picking through the bottom shelf of instant soups and cans of macaroni and cheese. Reaching over each other, we finally came up laughing. He was slightly built (not much taller than I), sporting wild sandy hair. But what really charmed me was the whisper of a lisp. This beginning of a quiet but happy love led us to the altar within the year.
When I began talking about buying a motorcycle after school was out, Millie, my neighbor, a woman “of a certain age” (like me), stared into my garage suspiciously. Her raised eyebrows indicated she could picture it there already.
“What will you do with it?” Her shrill voice challenged me.
I laughed, feeling good about knowing the right brand and model and questions to ask at the dealership.
By the time I bought my motorcycle, Robbie was gone. He had told me he was leaving school to go across country. I missed him, feeling the familiar pangs of detachment which come in some people’s wake. It’s like a rubber band pulled further and thinner, until it’s near to breaking. How many times did I see Robbie walk away after our rides, in the cafeteria, out of the classroom? I was always looking at his back. Strangely, I never called on him in class.
My first solo motorcycle ride after my recovery was a goodbye. I rode over to his house. Even though I did not know that part of town well, I had no trouble finding the street. The house stood last on the dead-end First Street. But when I got there, I was shocked. It was the same house but newly painted, with a children’s play set in the front yard. I might have thought I had the wrong place, except for the porch and the tree.
I surprised myself by taking off my helmet and going up the walk to the front door. A young woman in her twenties came eventually, and to my question about the previous owner, she shook her head and shrugged. “We bought this a year ago. My husband’s done a lot of work on it. It’d been abandoned for some time, the realtor said.”
A year ago?
“That’s not possible,” I wanted to scream but controlled myself. Robbie had been in my class only last semester, when he’d taken me to this very house and told me about his mother.
“How long had it been vacant?” I asked faintly. But she only shook her head and hearing a child’s scream, shrugged and leaned backwards with an exasperated look, “Gotta go.”
Facing the closed door, I cried. What a strange impression I must’ve given, a gray-haired old lady in leather and holding a helmet. Straddled over the bike, I let my tears flow, more than was warranted for a house that looked better than when I’d seen it last.
During the long months of my recuperation, to keep busy, I organized and cleaned, putting things away. One of those items was my grade book from the last semester when Robbie had been my student at least for a few weeks. I flipped it open and stared at all the class lists. I had scratched names out, those who didn’t complete the course. Barely visible, his name was underneath.
I had to rely on Millie, my neighbor, for supplies. Shortly after my return, she poked her head into the garage with a look of distaste. She gestured, “I see it’s got delivered, but you’re not going to ride that, are you?” Yes, my yellow beauty—who could expect a sixty-three-year old woman wanting a motorcycle?
She then asked if I needed anything from the grocery store. I pounced, in high gear. “Can you get me some chorizo sausages in the packaged meat section in front of the fish display?” I spoke as though I’d bought them regularly. “And ancho chilies—in the same section as the green peppers, and ginger. Five fresh tomatoes, one cup of heavy cream. Oh, I wonder where I can find lard? You better come in. I’ll give you a list.”
Her glance into the garage and my flood of words stopped her at my door.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that.” I assumed it was the lard she was balking at. “It’s only five tablespoons. I don’t suppose the store has epazote? Well I’ve written it down in case they do. You’ll have to get a clerk to find it.” My neighbor’s face had gone pale, her mouth open and eyebrows straining for height. Since I kept scribbling while I was talking, I barely registered her expression. The ingredients came to me so easily. My memory startled me. I couldn’t contain my excitement. “This dish is called Enchiladas Rojas which is fried sausage filled tortillas—Oh, my goodness, I forgot. Get me some tortillas too. Anyway, it has this marvelous hot (really spicy) red chili sauce. You have to soak the chilies and take out the seeds, because they are so hot. Then you put the onions and the garlic, epazote, sugar, salt and black pepper in with the chilies and their water. Mix them all together and—” I stopped, because her eyes had widened, her hand to her mouth, and she was backing up, the list squashed in between her fingers.
After my torrent of words, Millie mumbled down at the crumpled list, “I stopped ‘cause I thought you might be out of milk.”
Where had this craving come from? Kevin’s and my diet had consisted of salmon or chicken with salad. Millie knew that diet from being our neighbor for thirty years. Spreading out the crumpled list, she choked out finally, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes,” I spoke breathlessly, as though I could hardly wait for her delivery.
When I came out of the anesthesia, the doctor was telling me something about an accident.
The doctor had said something to me about how lucky I was—
While I’d been in the ambulance, I thought I heard the sirens of another ambulance just ahead of us. I lifted my head, the sound so near, my thrill merging into the siren’s squeal. Did I see through the ambulance’s window or in my mind’s eye an overturned motorcycle resembling a strange dark lump outlined by the streetlight?
Apparently, I’d been days away from needing dialysis—was that the luck the doctor referred to? Or was he meaning the donor’s proximity, a motorcycle accident south of town?
The donor’s proximity. Donor is he who gives life.
My donor. No, flesh of my flesh, he is more than that. He’d always been closer than that.
Olive Mullet is a retired Ferris State University English professor, who taught composition and humanities for twenty-five years.