I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t care what her relationship with that boy was. It didn’t matter. It was as if I’d been given a command. I wish I could describe her beauty with the thunderbolt-like power I felt then. Sarah. Sarah Wills. She had full lips, supple blonde hair, Nordic fair skin, a dangerous sexuality, a slight touch of handsomeness. She had a husky Bordeaux-wine tone to her voice, with strong traces of the South, a honeyed huskiness. It was one of the few times in my life when I didn’t think carefully about whether to act or not. I knew I had to be alone with her.
I remember exactly where I was sitting that day when she walked into the living room with a friend of my brother’s. The boy was talking. I was looking at her as his words tumbled insignificantly onto the floor. He was invisible next to her. I knew that when he left, he would take Sarah with him. I had to do something. Sarah was smoking a cigarette. Everyone smoked back then.
“Where’re you from?” I asked Sarah.
“Roanoke,” she said in three separate, but equal, syllables, typically Virginian. Ro-a-noke.
“You havin’ a good time?” [End Page 87]
“Where’re you stayin’?”
“The Cherry Motel.”
The infamous Cherry Motel! Girls from all over the state stayed there when they came to Virginia Beach in the summer for vacation. It was cheap, not far from the beach and highly unsupervised. I stored that information. Sarah said she was going back to Roanoke in a few days. When she and the boy left, I began plotting. How would I see her again? I called the Cherry Motel later and left a message for her with my telephone number. I’m normally shy and reluctant, but I wasn’t that day. I was haunted.
It was the summer of 1966, and I was between my junior and senior year at the University of Michigan. I was living at my father’s sprawling house in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I was living a typical beach-boy existence, a blend of laziness and indulgence encouraged by the sun. I was soaking it in contentedly. Virginia Beach in 1966 was the sultry, easygoing Tidewater resort it had been for years. It was a dangerous place for a nineteen-year-old boy living pretty much without any rules. The beaches were wide with pliant, warm sand. The ocean was lively, and the froth in the waves played over your face and body. Afterwards, the hot Virginia sun would dry you and leave a film of salt on your arm. Sometimes you licked it off for the taste. This is how it was every day.
What had been a rather easy summer suddenly became fervid, urgent.
When I didn’t hear from Sarah in a few anxious hours, I called her back. This time, she was there.
“Do you remember who I am?” I said over the phone.
“I know who you are,” Sarah said.
“Uh . . . did you go to the beach today?”
“I just came back.”
I was drinking that Bordeaux-flavored voice of hers.
“I was thinking about you,” I said.
“Yes. Was that your boyfriend?”
I heard her take a deep pull on a cigarette on the other end. [End Page 88]
“We’re having problems.”
“Don’t be. It’s time.”
“Will you go out with me?” I blurted.
There was a brief pause.
Her voice was calm. There was no real enthusiasm, just affirmation. The simple directness of her answer staggered me. How different from the giggling, resistant girls I met on the beach every day.
We went to the Pier that evening, where they played rock ‘n’ roll, served beer, and didn’t check your ID carefully. Then we came back to my father’s house. He went to bed early, as he always did, and slept behind a soundproof door. Sarah and I went outside to the porch. We sat in the darkness. The night air wafted over us, with...