I never loved money.
But I grew up surrounded by it.
My impressionable adolescent years were spent on my island home in an environment created largely by the rich and even richer—blue bloods who made their living off the imported sweat dripping off the backs of folks like my Irish ancestors who crossed the Atlantic and then criss-crossed our nation with steel rails, guided by the black smoke marking their manifest destiny and filling the New York city coffers of my neighbors. They carved their summer cottages in the graven images of Europe, palatial knock-offs in gold and marble which lined the Bellevue Avenue of my youth where I pedaled my bike beneath the graceful dreadlocks of giant weeping beech branches. Imports, all of us.
So it wasn’t easy for me to be impressed by ordinary wealth—new money, as they call it.
Still, for a time, I was.
I grew up, parked my bike, and headed north to a small, liberal arts college where there were a lot of rich kids. And I fell in love.
I first encountered John Senior when I was sitting on a covered bridge watching orange and red leaves swirl below me in the currents of the Contoocook River which threw its watery arm around our campus like a protective lover. My reverie was interrupted by a rhythmic wooden sound and I turned to see a boy striding towards me with a chunky, carved walking stick I would soon come to know as Half-Step marking his progress. He wore a funky knit hat and a broad, confident grin.
“Hey,” he said, passing by me.
“Hi,” I said, turning back to the blinding sun in my eyes and then around to watch his retreat. In and out of my life, just like that. And that might have been the end. But it wasn’t. Not yet.
I saw him loping around campus but not up close again until one day when I was out running along a wooded path that followed our river and there he was again, his long brown hair unmistakably swinging my way with Half-Step setting his pace.
“Hey,” he said again, his grin closing the gap between us, “What’s your name?”
“Kelly,” I said, slowing to a jog to answer.
He might have asked me what dorm I lived in, I don’t recall, but I do remember the knock on my door soon afterwards and a voice, “Phone’s for you.” In those days we had one hall phone for everyone that hung on the wall—no booth, no privacy.
“Hey, it’s John,” a voice said, “from the river?”
“Hi,” I said, my heart flipping around like the coiled phone cord in my hands which delivered his voice again to my ear.
“Do you wanna go to the movies Friday night?”
Yes, I sure did. I don’t remember what movie we saw, but I do remember there were some scary parts that had me diving for the safety of his shoulder and we exited the theater with his arm wrapped around me like the river.
From there, our romance marched forward in full steps and soon I was spending much more time in his dorm room than in my own. When his room-mate failed to return to school after Spring Break, we put the twin beds together and I took his place more or less permanently.
John was the life of the party—the kind of guy they warn you not to marry. His crooked grin charmed everyone he met and his confident charisma made him the center of attention, always. When he turned his wide smile and deep brown eyes on me, there was no escape; his dark eyebrows blocked all exits. John was outgoing and generous, attracting a large circle of friends. There was no capturing him, even though I became his number one girl. He was all kinetic energy, always on the move, always ready for fun. Even when he sat down, his foot shook incessantly, ready for its next move.
I fell hard for him and there would be no easy way back up. He wrote me poetry and played songs with lyrics intended for me. We were young, strong, and smooth-skinned and I loved the feeling of his long fingers entwined in mine. Half-Step was our constant companion while we ambled through the forest, kicking our Bean boots along woodsy trails which soon filled with snow. When winter released its icy grip we threw open the sunroof and drove the countryside in his blue Honda like we'd just been born. John introduced me to Tanqueray and tonic and was rarely without a beer or drink in hand.
Our freshman year ended and we parted ways, he back to his home and me to a summer waitressing job in my neighboring state. It was too far and soon I moved over to his state and into the sprawling suburban home of his mother. John came from a trust-funded life of privilege, a boarding school brat from a world I had encountered on my own island but did not know intimately. I studied it like a refugee from my firmly middle class background. He was purportedly an heir to a Poppin-fresh fortune that would make any dough boy giggle. New money. His friends liked to party. Hard. It was the late 70’s and recreational drugs were not uncommon. We spent the last carefree days of summer swimming in his pool, hanging out with his friends on their estates or at Lake Quassapaug, and hosting a wild birthday bash for him. His last.
School bells threatened and we choked out tense and tearful goodbyes as I flew off for a semester abroad in England where I was summoned out of my very first class—a Dickens seminar. A phone call. For me. “Kelly,” his mother said, “Johnny’s dead.” On Labor Day three hired thugs had kidnapped him, shot him three times, rolled him in a rug, and dumped him in the East River as part of a convoluted criminal-plot-gone-bad drama. For a few hundred bucks, rum-drinking strangers had casually killed him. “Wrapping up loose ends,” they explained. Indeed. Any love of money I ever had evaporated.I was 18 years old and cried the proverbial river until the innocence of my youth swirled away from me in the currents of distant memories. I mourned for John, for myself, for the We that we’d tried to be. I mourned for the smooth body I'd loved so completely, violated so cruelly, so violently; it broke my heart. I managed to keep up my studies but quietly switched my major to mourning John Senior. Walking for miles and miles thru the English countryside, I became a shadow of my former self, sitting for hours in damp stone churches which were always blessedly open and empty. My fingers clutched at empty-handedness while I wandered through the ancient graveyards marking their exits, wondering at all the stories, all the broken hearts which lay buried beneath my feet. I spent a lot of time gazing at the sky and pondering the meaning of life. I could almost believe that John’s unbounded energy and zest for life were a sign we’d missed that he was not to be here for very long—live fast; die young. But it still hurt.
I finished the semester with John’s Cheshire grin filling my thoughts and his death enshrouding me and when I returned home, I transferred schools and began a new field of study.
One day, John’s mother came to visit.
“I brought you a present,” she said. I followed her out to the parking lot where she led me, smiling, to a brand new silver car shining there in the winter sun, orange letters printed across its front doors proclaiming it to be “Le Car.”
“This is for you,” she said. A car? I translated silently.
“Um, thank you,” I said, understanding the French but not fully comprehending this unlikely gift.
She hugged me and said, “I didn’t get you the stereo package; maybe your parents would like to buy that for you.”
It was so surreal. My parents had two kids in college and two more at home and no interest in buying me a car stereo. But I nodded, yes, maybe they would, because my parents would definitely want me to be polite. I could not even fathom telling them that I’d just been given a new car, much less asking if they wanted to provide the soundtrack. I was saddened that somehow she thought this all made sense, this for that, but I guess in her world it did. Le Car was definitely a step up from the red ’64 Dodge Dart with black and white checked bucket seats I manually steered around my island home when not riding my bike. I was thankful to have a sparkling new car instead. But still.
Weeping, John's mom handed me the keys and said, “Thank you for loving my son.”
I did not love cars. I did, however, love that John Knowlton Senior. But nobody needed to thank me for that.