Friday, March 10, 2017

Barbara Hugo

Her name was Barbara Hugo, and she was beautiful, and perhaps a touch otherworldly in her delicate loveliness. But let me make clear, she was no fragile, pretty-pretty China doll. Perhaps more like Pre-Raphaelite Alexa, a slender, exquisite mistress-model of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, really too good for the likes of him. She was very much flesh and blood, only her flesh was somehow soft-spoken, like her clear voice.

A light brunette, she must have been about five-foot-seven, and her bearing and walk were as graceful as bearing and walk can be. But it was all somehow understated without being wishy-washy, with the softness of a pillow, not an ice cream cone.

She was married to Richard Hugo, chunky and rather unprepossessing. A tolerable poet, he was at the University of Washington along with several other disciples or acolytes of the residing genius, the poet Theodore Roethke. I considered him a good minor poet, and was never forgiven for uttering it by the entire English department. I taught at the University for a year, and of course had some use for the library. The library whose librarian was Barbara Hugo. According to the poet J. V. Cunningham reflecting back, I managed to alienate everybody at U of W. But not Barbara Hugo.

It was enchantment at first sight for me, and something like it for her at second. We started seeing each other. I was subletting a one-room ground-floor apartment where Barbara started coming to me on afternoons. The window was always open, and I can still summon up the excitement of hearing the clickety-clack of her high heels approaching on the pavement. It was as lovely as any music I ever heard, perhaps even more so.

  Once in the room, she and I got on top of the bed, but never inside it. We indulged in all kinds of loving sexual play, but there was never any real intercourse. She disallowed any penetration, out of some weird kind of minimal fidelity to her husband.

This went on for most of my year at the university, an instructor in the English and Comparative Literature Department. It is curious how I have forgotten the details of our relationship (if that’s the word for it). I do remember, however, how she told me one day that she had dreamt of still being the unmarried Barbara Williams in her parents’ house, and me driving a car through all the walls to her bedroom. One did not have to be a Freudian to interpret that dream.

As I was headed back East to Cambridge and Harvard, I had to transport some of my stuff from somewhere to somewhere else, I cannot recall from where to where, but there was a lot of schlepping to do and Barbara very touchingly helped. We were both broken-hearted, only slightly comforted by the promise of writing to each other. Nothing more. She had her husband, and I had a sexy student mistress who called herself Cheryle, in incorrect imitation of Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl.
She joined me in Cambridge and, huge mistake, I ended up marrying her.

  Still, Barbara and I continued our affectionate correspondence until Cheryle dis-
covered Barbara’s hidden letters and, I presume, burned them. In any case, they have vanished. Barbara remained a memory that could not compete with reality, however prosaic. But marriage to Cheryle ended in a not very distant divorce.

A few years later, I attended a reading at the 92nd Street Y by Carolyn Kaiser , a poet I had befriended in Seattle. After the reading, she remarked to me that Barbara Hugo, now divorced, was very lonely, and I should write to her. Carolyn must have known about my “affair” with Barbara.

So I wrote to her, and before long we were again immersed in a glowing correspondence. What made Barbara’s letters even more endearing were the misspellings, droll from a librarian and poet. We decided to meet again as her vacation from the library was imminent. We chose a midway point, Toronto.

I was waiting for her at the airport, and then there she was, as winsome as ever. On the bus to the city, she confided that she had been worried that I might have turned
worse with time; I had similar worries. But we were happily unchanged.

Downtown, she had to go for a haircut, and I could hardly spare her that long. We picked a place called (if I remember correctly) Beaulieu for our French  Canadian holiday, but first she had to buy a bathing suit. The store had only two that fit: a very revealing bikini and I demure black one-piece suit. Barbara asked me to choose, and I chose the latter, which made her extremely happy.

About Beaulieu I can recall only that we felt fulfilled, and one detail. On a bosky hillside, we went picking wild strawberries, and competed for who could gather more. They tasted sweet, we were side by side, and I was pleasantly reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.” If there was a fly in the ointment, it was Barbara’s smoking, which she did keep infrequent.

At the hotel, we met a middle-aged couple who were driving back to Toronto and gave us a lift in the back seat. And then something happened reminiscent of Bergman. You may recall that in the movie the principal couple pick up a pair of young hitchhikers, who fight so vehemently in the back seat that they have to be ejected. Something similar happened to us. Barbara needed a cigarette for which we had to make a stop.

Acrimony ensued. Parting in Toronto (or was it Montreal?), was rather cool, but we professed continued correspondence. That, however, did not endure, and soon ended. There was no further contact.
I have now looked in Google, where in Richard Hugo’s bio there is mention of his marriage and of his divorce. No details about Barbara, of course. She could still be alive, but only namesakes can be found. Such delicate persons tend not to be long-lived.

Survival in memory is a melancholy business. So good-bye, Barbara, I loved you.