A Taste of Honey - Katherine Ryden

As I sat nervously waiting in a trendy Greek restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, an older man walked quickly toward me and sat down in the leather banquette facing me. He removed a tweed cap to reveal that he was quite bald and sporting a rather large sandy mustache. He was a wearing a bulky cable knit sweater, but I could see that his body had filled out, and he appeared fit and outdoorsy with a ruddy complexion. For a moment, I did not recognize him. Peter, my first love, who had just retired from teaching high school in a small town upstate, had asked me to lunch. I was surprised but flattered and intrigued. We had not been alone together in over forty years.

I chose a favorite restaurant of my husbands’ and mine that was, in retrospect, a poor choice. He was confused by the foreign Greek menu, and seemed out of place, very small town. I was self-conscious about how heavy I had become in late middle age and had draped a paisley shawl to cover my thickened waistline and was carefully made-up. I wondered if he had a hidden agenda and was proven right when he suddenly asked. “Kathy. Excuse me, now you call yourself Katherine.”

“Peter, I’ve been Katherine since I was about twenty, but you can call me Kathy. Actually, most people call me Kath.”

“Okay, Kath, I’ve got to ask you this. Why did you break up with me? Did you know that you actually made me cry?”

“Oh God, Peter, I don’t know what to say. I was too young. It was so intense and I was just fifteen!”

We had gone so far and I didn’t know how to turn down the heat.

When I looked into his amazing, topaz-colored eyes, I remembered how he looked the afternoon we met. He had been wearing a red and black plaid wool hunting jacket that made him look like a hick in preppy Forest Hills Gardens where he had just moved from Whitestone, Queens. He wasn’t perfectly handsome, but was well-built with lank dark blond hair, golden skin and almond-shaped topaz-colored eyes. Peter and I lived a few doors apart on Burns Street in modest attached row houses only yards from the thundering Long Island Railroad. I was tall so Peter assumed I was his age, but my geometry textbook gave me away as only a sophomore.

After days of flirtatious bantering, he asked me out on a date. He came to our door wearing a blue button down shirt, and a necktie, but oddly, no sports jacket. We went to see A Taste of Honey, a sad movie about an abandoned, white, teenage girl in working class England who gets pregnant by a black sailor. I was upset by the story with its haunting theme song and embarrassed by its strong sexual content. Peter and I slowly walked home from the movie through the tree-lined streets. It was dark and misty and I could hear our footsteps echo on the pavement. We had never been alone before. He lingered at my front door for a long time. I wanted him to kiss me, but I did not know how to help him do it. Finally, quoting Cassius from Julius Caesar, he said, “You have a lean and hungry look.”

And, so, we kissed. His lips were dry and slightly chapped, but I was not disappointed. Every day after school I threw off my scratchy wool tartan uniform and knee socks and put on tight denim cut offs and my brother’s button down shirt. I was tall and skinny at a time when thin was not in fashion with a chest so flat I stuffed my bra with tissue paper. The daughter of a beauty with two handsome twin brothers, I had a low opinion of my desirability. My parents led busy social lives and my adored older brothers were long gone from home. I was a lonely girl who was more than ready to grow up and so we found each other and he became my trusted confidante. His parents often argued, and Peter found out that his provocatively attractive mother, June, was having an affair with her high school boy friend, a family he knew well. He was deeply troubled by this and kept his anger to himself, confiding only in me. We quickly became obsessed with each other. He gave me Ambush cologne, and his precious gold signet ring. Going steady had a certain status and I was the first of my friends to have a real boyfriend. I had never had this kind of special attention.

I was poor at math, but he patiently helped me with my geometry homework. Peter knew even then that he wanted to be a teacher. In return, I wrote him a poem and reluctantly watched the Giants play the Green Bay Packers on TV, his hand slipping under my skirt. His parents, who were heavy drinkers, had a small, dark, finished basement with a real bar that reeked of cigarettes and booze and a wall filled with hundreds of LP records. We listened to a satire of the glamorous First Family. Jack Kennedy was President, but we were largely unaware of the world around us. We lay on a slouchy divan in the dark basement with our bodies pressed together listening to Dave Brubeck play “Take Five.” We kissed for hours, his hands and mouth everywhere. I never told anyone what we did, even my closest girlfriends, but while our parents watched TV, we met in the back alley along the train tracks. No one went back there, except to take out the garbage, and we took full advantage of the dark alley, standing in the cold kissing hungrily. We lay on the grass in the dark in the small park across the street his body covering mine. I would shudder with pleasure, not understanding what was happening inside my trembling young body, not understanding what an orgasm was. My sex education consisted of a brief talk with my mother when I began to menstruate. She warned me never to let anyone “pet me” as if I were a dog, and made it clear that she was a virgin when she married and expected me to do the same.

On summer weekdays, Peter came home for lunch from his job at a local hardware store. I can see him standing at the sink, bare-chested, his skin tanned to a deep gold. I tasted the perspiration on his neck. I knew that we were going too far, too fast, and I was terrified of “going all the way” and its consequences. One afternoon, he came out of the shower, a towel wrapped around his waist and I was lying on his bed fully clothed. His mother walked in. I protested “but we weren’t doing anything!”

“I know, honey,” she said quietly. “But be careful.” June was cool and unconventional, but empathetic, and she agreed not to tell my mother if we behaved. It seems unbelievable that my mother was oblivious to our passion, although she later expressed relief when we broke up. Mom and Daddy, both self-absorbed in their own ways, had a way of seeing what they wanted to, but I didn’t know that then, and in the Sixties, teenagers lived largely unsupervised lives.

After almost a year, our intense love affair became too much for me to handle. One night in the dark park, we began to argue, and in a fit of temper, I threw Peter’s gold ring into the night. It was rash and cruel and I regretted it the second the ring flew out of my hand. I had a wild temper that I could not always control.

“Kathy, why the hell did you do that? What going on? You are acting like a little bitch!“ Peter was furious and stunned by my crazy behavior.

***

About ten years later, I was staying at my parents’ apartment while they were out of town. It was a steamy summer night and I was walking Robbie, their Westie, around the same park along Burns Street. Out of the darkness, a man appeared. Startled at first, but I recognized his walk and his face came out of the shadows.

“Peter, is that you?”

“Well, look who’s here,” he said, rather casually. (Was he hoping to see me, I thought.)

“Why are you in Forest Hills?

“I drove down to see Mom,” he explained. “And you?

“Mom and Dad are in Europe, their first trip and I am Robbie-sitting.” He bent down to pet the white terrier.

“How about coming up for a night cap?”

“Why not?” he answered, and he followed me up the steep stairs to my parents’ apartment. I was aware that I was skimpily clad in a clingy tank top and short cut-offs. I poured two glasses of cold white wine and we sat on the living room couch, and began to chat, awkwardly at first, and then I confided that I was going through a rough divorce. I was raw and needy.

“I never understood why you married him in the first place!” he blurted out.

I swigged down my second glass of chardonnay and said “Peter, I am just so glad it is over. I’ve got my name back, and I am looking for an apartment in the City.”

The unfinished business of our unconsummated lovemaking hung in the humid summer night. We could not have planned a more perfect assignation. I smiled and looking into his amber eyes, I tried my “lean and hungry look,” but Peter acted nervous.

“Kathy, I am getting married on Saturday. I think I better go now.”

I think I saw desire and then regret flash in his eyes. “Well, then,” I said. “Good night. Be happy!” Shit, I thought, what lousy timing. I felt spurned.

Soon after, I met my husband Paul, and I rarely thought about Peter. Loving Paul was all inclusive and my past seemed remote and irrelevant. Over the years, Peter and I were in distant touch through our mothers, Peg and June, neighbors who met though us and had become close friends. Peter and I were now both long married and encountered each other only briefly on Christmas Eve gatherings back in Forest Hills. His wife was small and mousy and said little. I wondered at the choice. They were both teachers and lived in rural upstate New York. My handsome husband was warm and outgoing, mingling easily with the old Forest Hills crowd. Paul and I lived in Manhattan, living busy social and professional lives. Paul was a partner in technical theatre and I had a senior management job in book publishing.

Forty years later, at lunch that day in the Greek restaurant, I realized that it was the first time we had been alone since that hot summer night on the eve of his marriage. We both carried scars from our year together, but we also shared an easy kind of tender affection. I had an appointment that afternoon, and he walked with me all the way across town on that cold windy day as if he did not want to say goodbye.

After we parted, I tried to think clearly about why I had jilted him. There was the sex of course, the fear of being found out, of “going all the way,” but it was more than that. I felt stifled. We went to different schools, he to a large overcrowded high school on the other side of town, me to a small prep school with an intensive, demanding academic workload, and I was often not home until dark. We had almost no friends in common, and our relationship had nowhere to grow. Perhaps, even then, I had an instinct for self-preservation. I learned that later when I walked out on my abusive, premature marriage.

All those years ago, I did not understand why I threw Peter’s ring into the dark, but knew that I felt smothered and trapped. We stopped speaking. It was over. He began seeing a short blonde with a squeaky voice who lived two houses down. I winced every time I saw them walk by my window, hand in hand, and wondered if he had gone all the way with her. But I also felt relief from our passion. I drifted away from Burns Street and cautiously began to see other boys. At 16, I had tasted honey and was terrified of its force.

Katherine Ryden lives and writes in coastal Connecticut with her husband and dog.

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