Still Andrew for Denise: When young love turns into middle age loss
by Andrew Skerritt
The news arrives as it often does these days, via Facebook messenger. It is timestamped 10:45 p.m. Tuesday Sept. 20, 2016.
It’s from my former high school biology teacher in Montserrat, the small Caribbean island where I grew up.
Her message is saturated with grief.
“You might have heard by now, but I just learned the deeply sad news that Denise passed away this evening,” she wrote. “This is such heartbreaking news for all of us here. No words to describe the shock and sadness.”
I’m at home in Tallahassee, Florida, slouching on the day bed in a guest bedroom that doubles as our television room. I flip through ESPNFC videos. While dozing, I veg on soccer. Bedtime beckons. But the tiny letters on my phone screen jolt me awake. Immediately, the television chatter seems irrelevant.
My response is both incredulous and naïve.
Her last name had changed, but there could only be one Denise – the woman whom I dated before I left home more than three decades years earlier. Just in case I doubted the authenticity of the news, another instant message arrives seconds later via Whatsapp. It’s from one of my sisters-in-law in the Bronx.
“Condolences on your loss.”
Instantly, it was as if time had stood still. I was again among the fewer than ten thousand inhabitants on my thirty-nine-square-mile volcanic island. I lived with my grandmother, my sister and cousins. I was seventeen again. And I wasn’t just Andrew. I was Andrew for Denise.
We met at a discotheque 7-4-7 located on the ground floor of a converted grocery store in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the capital, Plymouth. It was late September 1979. She was celebrating her birthday with a group of girlfriends. Denise was light-skinned enough to pass for white, but the way her hips flared and her butt pouted in her jeans, there was no doubting her mixed racial heritage. As she danced, her hips moved with a slow, seductive sensuality that captivated me as I stood watching her from afar leaning against a concrete pillar in the middle of the nightclub floor. I was five-nine, one hundred and thirty-five pounds in farmer brown jeans, black, high top Pro-Keds sneakers and short-sleeved shirts with the sleeves rolled up. After eyeing for her for a while, I walked over and whispered in her ear.
“Can we dance?” I asked. She responded by her actions rather than words.
“Sail On” the Commodores sang. We danced one song, then another. We danced all night.
The next morning, after worship service at Trinity Methodist Church, Denise walked over.
“Hello, Mr. Skerritt,” she said, feigning formality. I don’t remember my reply but I’ll never forget how my heart jumped: She was interested, my instincts told me. The following weekend, we met up at the disco. Soon we were an item. Ours was an unconventional affair, both public and unapologetic. I was a lithe school boy who excelled at track and soccer. She shared the same last name of a prominent merchant family with whom she worked. My grandfather spent decades ferrying cargo from the docks to their storerooms.
Denise was in her twenties. I never really asked her how old she was. When we were together, the difference in years between us dissolved in the ease of our physical compatibility. Age never seemed to matter to us. To everyone else, it did. Cradle robber, some of my high school classmates called her. He’s just using her, others said accusingly about me as I zipped around town in her car.
On Friday nights under the full moon, we’d drive to a lover’s lane in one of those neighborhoods with villas owned by absent American and Canadian retirees. On Saturdays, we’d return to dance at the nightclub where we first met. At church on Sundays, I watched her sing with the young adults choir and fantasized about what would happen between us after we left the movie theatre that night.
Before Denise, there had been other girlfriends. They were closer to my age, but they always conspired to leave. Some separations were emotional; most were geographic. My love interests flew back to London after a monthlong summer vacation; others left to be reunited with parents and siblings in Preston, England or New York City. But year after year, Denise stayed. To acquaintances, I became Andrew for Denise. It was island shorthand to show association. I was known by the woman whose company I kept.
An island boy’s heart is a like a bumble bee. There’s always another tree, another blossoming flower. Sometimes Denise and I were inseparable. Sometimes we weren’t. I played the field. But even after I behaved badly, even after I disappeared for a month when an old girlfriend visited the island on vacation, Denise welcomed me back. In time, her loyalty won my heart.
But when you’re young, even if you’re having all the fun imaginable, paradise can feel like a prison. I desperately wanted to go away to college. I harbored ambitions of being a writer. So a few days after Christmas 1984, I packed my bags and my hopes and my dreams. I left home and I tried to leave my reluctant love for Denise behind. I didn’t say goodbye. Denise didn’t even accompany me to the airport. How could she? Someone else was meeting me at the JFK international arrivals terminal. I didn’t ask her to wait. I never promised to return. I went away to Howard University hoping time and distance would cure me of my love for Denise. That I would forget her.
As winter turned to spring that first semester, the silence between us stretched further than the geography that separated us. There were no letters, no overseas telephone calls. But in a way, I couldn’t escape her. In the mid to late-80s, whenever I encountered old acquaintances in the Bronx or Boston or Brooklyn, they always felt compelled to tell me who Denise was dating. Or sometimes in downtown Manhattan, I’d run into someone from my hometown. Their foreheads furrowed as they struggled to put a name to my bearded face. Then a flicker of recognition would brighten their countenance. “I remember you. You’re Andrew for Denise!”
And so it was that September night, even though it had been thirty-two years since I left Denise’s bed, even though I’d been married for almost three decades, as the condolences poured in for me instead of the man to whom she had been her husband over twenty years, I felt as if time had gone backward. I was still Andrew for Denise.
But that realization was coupled with a profound sadness. I was sad the woman who shared my life as I grew from boyhood to manhood was no more. I was sad that Denise and I, unlike most of my exes, had never become friends. Facebook friends, yes, but never real friends. I reasoned that there was too much disappointment and betrayal for a friendship to bloom between us. And I was also sad because deep in the recesses of my mind, I had harbored a fantasy that in old age, when I retired, I’d return to Montserrat to write and relax. And in the late afternoons, Denise would drop by. I’d be in my khaki shorts, flip flops and t-shirt. She’d be wearing one of those floral sundresses that reminded me of her mother, Miss Amy. We’d sit on the porch and sip lemonade and eat mangoes as we watched the sun slip beneath the Caribbean Sea. We’d talk about old friends, places we’ve been. They’d be no regrets. The pain of the past would be buried in the ocean of old age and forgetfulness. Her death meant that would never happen.
And so as the night grew late, I turned off the television and headed for bed where my wife was long fast asleep. Perhaps it was the weight of my footsteps or the heaviness of my breathing that awoke her. She peeked at me from under the covers. Even through sleep-drenched eyes, she recognized my heartache. I was near tears.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
I paused, searching for the right words to reply. The truth was unavoidable.
She didn’t ask which Denise. There is only our Denise.
“How do you feel?”
I didn’t answer. I had no words to describe the thoughts racing through my mind and the uneasiness in my chest. Other than my wife, Denise was my only other adult long term relationship. After all these years, she still felt like the other woman.
My wife could have fretted over my grieving for an ex-girlfriend. Instead, she threw me a lifeline.
“Can I give you a hug?”
Without another word, I slipped into bed and under the covers beside her. And as we held each other close, my phone on the night stand chimed again and again. More messages of condolences. That September night, for people from a certain time and a certain place, it was as if nothing had changed. Dispersed like nomads on a thousand intercontinental journeys, they remained captive to the magic of us. It was as if they had retained that memory freeze dried, untouched and uncorrupted by time and distance, until as if quickened by news of the tragedy on a Tuesday night in September. We were so novel. So public. So ahead of our time. To them, I was still Andrew for Denise. And, like it or not, I will always be.
Andrew Skerritt is the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. His essays have been published in the Caribbean Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Faith & Leadership, Tallahassee Democrat, Tampa Bay Times and elsewhere. He lives and works in Tallahassee, Fla.