By Patrick Vecchio
I got home from running a few errands today and the numeral “1” was flashing red on the answering machine. The message was for me — and it was from Caroline Kennedy.
“Hey, Pat,” said a cheery voice. My heart stuttered. “It’s me: CK!” As if I hadn’t known instantly.
CK. That’s what I used to call her 30 years ago, when she and I used to perch on stools at our favorite bar every night but Sunday, down doubles of tequila, and feed quarters into the jukebox to listen to Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye. Ah, the clink of the shot glasses, the splashes of tequila on the bar, the salt on the back of the hand, the lemon wedges, the neon beer signs in the window reflecting in her bloodshot eyes as I stared into them while the whole room spun — it all comes back to me now through a mescal haze.
We were closer than the sun and the sky for almost a year, when she attended a state college in New York, incognito and under an assumed name. It all started when I asked her to dance at a downtown bar and some goon in a bad suit muscled in and said, “She doesn’t dance,” and I’d had a few too many shots of Jack so I cold-cocked him, a one-punch knockout. The ambulance crew was rifling through his wallet for some ID when a card fluttered to the floor. No one noticed it, so I picked it up. “Paul Caruso,” it read. “Secret Service.” From there, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots between him and that girl who had looked so familiar, but in a way I couldn’t quite place. Sure, her hair was dyed copper-wire red and she wore John Lennon-style glasses with a rose tint to them. Even so, I’d pulled back the veil on the most famous presidential daughter of my generation. But when I looked for her, she was gone.
So when I saw her in the dining hall a week later, perusing the menu board and trying to decide between cheeseburgers or breaded haddock, I slipped behind her and murmured, “So, what was it like to grow up in Camelot?”
She didn’t even turn around.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said sarcastically.
“C’mon,” I said. “That creep you were with the other night wasn’t there just to keep your glass full of strawberry daiquiris. He was Secret Service — Caroline.”
“How did you find out?” she asked in an urgent whisper, whirling around, eyes darting. I had to lean close to hear her follow-up question: “Who else knows?”
“No one,” I said. “Everyt’ing is irie.”
She caught the Jamaican slang right away.
“You like Marley?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Wanna go smoke a spliff?”
“Sure!” she said, eyes brightening. So we stepped out of the dining hall into the early evening darkness and fired one up behind the fence that hid the dumpsters. It was magic — and I’m not talking about the weed.
It was the start of a beautiful but unlikely friendship: Me, from a middle-class neighborhood in a small city midway between the Rust Belt and Appalachia; her, a glamorous, high-profile but mysterious descendant of a political dynasty with some of the bluest blood in America. God knows what she saw in me, but we clicked. We belonged together like bubbles and champagne. We were inseparable, especially on those Tuesday nights when our favorite bar sold Miller, Molson or Michelob for 50 cents a bottle and we’d get there at 7:30 and drink ’til closing time at 2. We took the same classes, spent every free moment together — a classic college couple. I used to dream we’d be married, and when my imagination took further flight, I saw myself calling on her Uncle Ted, asking him for advice about how I could run for a U.S. Senate seat representing New York.
It was all so long ago, so many whispers and kisses ago, so many dreams ago, and one big heartbreak ago. We’d had too much to drink and got into a silly argument about Jimmy Carter’s sweaters. I said he looked like a dork. She said I didn’t understand presidential politics. We looked into each other’s eyes and realized it was over. The next day, she was gone. I thought I’d heard the last of her. That was 30 years ago. But then I came home today to hear her voice on the answering machine.
“I’m in Syracuse,” she said. “I thought we could get together at Dinosaur for some barbecue and a couple of shots of Jose Cuervo, just for old times’ sake. And besides, I need somebody to show me around upstate New York. Syracuse is upstate, isn’t it?
“Talk to you later,” the message continued. And then there was a pause before she said, “You know, I’ve always missed our —”
And then the message’s 30 seconds were up.
And she hadn’t left a call-back number.
It’s probably just as well. What we had between us occurred so long ago, and we’ve both changed so much since then. If people were to see us together, they would question the would-be senator’s judgment — her judgment from 30 years ago, and her judgment today. And I certainly wouldn’t want to hinder her political ambitions, even though she’d broken my heart.
As I pressed the “delete” button on the answering machine, though, it seemed the whole world stopped spinning for a moment. I swallowed hard and wondered what my life would be like today if only Jimmy Carter hadn’t worn sweaters.