by João Serro
One elucidating summer in the 80s, I attended a seminar at UCLA on James Joyce’s Ulysses. On the third day I noticed a young woman sitting across from me and looked over in pleasant surprise. Calypso responded in turn with a welcoming smile. She was Black Irish – porcelain skin, framed by hair as dark as the Middle Ages. But what struck me immediately was the intensity of her eyes. They blazed a life-affirming blue, so wide you could sale a ship through them. Up until that moment, I hadn’t really noticed her in class. But once she infected my consciousness, Calypso remained a permanent infatuation. I fell in love with her bubbling girlish enthusiasm.
We would go for coffee after class. Calypso chit-chatted about the slick and silly onslaught of New Wave British rock bands. Style vs substance. Depeche Mode or Simple Minds. Duran Duran or Echo and the Bunnymen. And then she would effortlessly segue into a full discourse on women’s rights or the latest book she was reading – Nora – about the patient and long-suffering wife of James Joyce. Distracted, I dunked my donut-soul in an Irish coffee and bobbed my heart in her buoyant, blue-eyed sea.
Once the seminar was over, Calypso and I continued to do the hang through the cool mornings and hot afternoons of that endless summer. My wife, Jennifer, punched a 17-hour time-clock as a migrant film worker at all the Hollywood, post-production, special effects sweat-houses. While I worked the occasional evenings massaging wealthy clients, whose largess in tips afforded me lots of free time during the day.
I remember visiting Calypso one morning, where she took a summer job as park ranger with the Los Angeles County Zoo. Waiting pleasantly at the entrance for some time before her arrival, I met her playful eyes when she finally approached me, yawning, and slightly late for her morning shift. What had this girl been up to the night before? Her disheveled hair suggested a night of fun in the haystack – or the Hollywood Hills. Wearing blue jeans and a tight fitting orange T-shirt, she smiled and the DNA in her irises hummed a cerulean song to the dominant brown in mine. Eyes as blue and clear as a summer sky on the African plain. We trundled across the zoo’s concrete plain over to the cramped, employee, changing room, where I sat in a fake zebra-skin chair as she put on her ranger uniform behind the half-open curtain. Khaki shorts and shirt streamlined her sleek shape, stretching and shifting whenever she moved, like the spots on a cheetah. Out of respect, I looked away as she undressed. Only to have my eyes land on the stainless steel water dispenser perked-up on a table in the opposite corner, where I could see reflected on its surface, every detail of her baby-smooth skin. She never needed to shave her legs because the peach fuzz that grew there was as barely perceptible as Horton hearing a Who. The hot sun had generated a few beads of perspiration, here and there, on her long neck and arms and thighs. These tiny droplets danced happily on the tips of her peachy hair like so many angels on the head of a pin. My sudden wild craving to collect those elemental beads into a shot-glass and chase down my thirst, needed to be tamed and caged.
We strolled over to her favorite animal hangout – the Orangutans. Smitten entirely by Calypso’s beauty and charm, all the alpha males ran over as soon as they saw her approaching their cement enclave – a treeless home away from home, about as dry and inviting as the L.A. River. Between us lay an abyss of stone. Across this desolate moat, which separated captive audience from captive creature, they extended their long orange arms through the retaining bars, hoping to touch Calypo’s magical physicality. They stared dreamily into the wild blue heaven of her eyes. Some irresponsible zoo visitor had provided these apes with wads of chewing gum, so they stretched and twirled the sticky gobs, like spaghetti, around their nimble fingers as they listened to Calypso’s university lecture.
She opened a massive tome, annotated and highlighted, from which she recited for them in her lovely Irish voice. Over the course of that summer, Calypso had read to her Orangutan acolytes the entire Molly Bloom chapter from Joyce’s Ulysses. The smartest animal in the world is Princess, a female Orangutan who has mastered the vocabulary of George W Bush – 40 words – in pictures. Since Orangutans have no larynx, unlike George, they need to point. But by the end of that smart, delicious summer, Calypso’s educated monkeys could have passed the SAT test with a score that would have rivaled any over-achieving Asian kids and given them a good run for their (parents) money.
The great apes and I listened attentively, to the last few pages of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, as Calypso slid down that single sentence, phrase by sensual phrase, to reach the final, famous, affirmative word – Yes.
Intoxicated by the sound of Calypso’s voice and by her parted lips as she uttered the last precious syllable, yes, I thought, yes, I would never leave that concrete island-paradise. But Calypso had other animals to attend and I had a beautiful wife waiting at home for me to attend. Yes.
So there you have it. That summer, Calypso and I did the monkey business. But only up to a point. Sensual, full-bodied hugs accompanied by sweet whisperings, laying around on her couch, or mine, with our clothes on of course, talking, occasionally rubbing my cheek across her facial skin, grazing her delicate ear with my lips and burrowing deep into her Black Irish hair, whose scent drove my leaping leprechaun over a shamrock.
But when it actually came down to the moment of truth, Calypso’s Irish moral fiber reigned victorious. She and Jennifer were fond of each other. As Jenny has been fond of all my women friends. So Calypso retreated, refusing to take it any further.
In a way, it is a bit cowardly, on my part, to always pick women who are stronger than I. Women of solid character. Women with their ethics in tact. Women with a healthy sense of themselves. Being a typical guy, the dirty dog, I avail myself by always choosing a strong woman to flirt with. This advantage gives me more wiggle room to push the boundaries – imposing the burden of restraint on them.
Consequently, in the final days of this tangled summer, Calypso and I had a falling out. She was angry with me. A complex transfer of feelings left us both confused. She wasn’t in a relationship herself, at the time, placing her emotions at a vulnerable disadvantage. For my part, I became too assertive, crowding her independence. I realized things had gotten out of hand one night, when Jennifer and I were waiting in line to see Robin Hitchcock play at McCabes. Jennifer was speaking sweetly and lovingly to me, but I wasn’t hearing a word she was saying because I was wondering what Calypso was up to that evening. All I wanted at that moment was to be near her – Calypso – while my adoring wife stood before me, under the dim lamplight, pale in comparison. Awakened by this startling epiphany, I knew I needed to regain my old equilibrium.
We distanced ourselves, Calypso and I, for a few painful months. A year, to be exact. But her friendship was vital to me. I missed her terribly. So I labored to spackle the scars and patch the gaps in our broken fence. I continued to write her the occasional letter or card. I paced myself in order to avoid any further conflict – not wishing to annoy her or to appear overbearing. Besides, this all took place in the eighties, just on the other side of the internet, which meant the old snail-mail system could provide a natural time buffer in which to heal all wounds. Eventually Calypso came around and we have been fast friends ever since. She is now married with kids, and leprechaun be damned, she is still as fine an Irish woman as there ever was one.