||You waited until you were alone.
Death is a private thing.
You knew your last act
was to a different audience.
As it entered you
oh how you must have danced!
curving toward God,
elegant and alone.
Dear one, what is it like?
Tell us! What is death?...
Paul lay on the couch, his aching legs comforted by the afghan Id made the winter we lost everything. Touching the thick stitches, I remembered howlong agowed spent months in a borrowed, snowbound cabin at Lake Arrowhead. To pass the time Id crocheted remnants of rich woolen fabric together with soft yarn. As Id laid out the various patterns, Paul and I worried over what direction our lives could take and how we might use our talents to build a future for ourselves and our three-year-old daughter, Lexi.
Wed talked about the milestones of our lives and what had brought us to such a low point. Like those remnants, could it all be combined into something new, more meaningful, and more beautiful? Our answer: yes. Our conversations then had helped us realize once again that crisis could offer gifts as well as challenges, and wed grown from the experience.
But this time, nearly twenty years later, there would be no opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We now had to face the possibility that Paul would not survive the cancer spreading through his body.
He looked plaintively at me. "Are we just fooling ourselves, Kitten?"
It was a good question. Positive thoughts or not, the radiation and chemo didnt seem to be working.
"I cant stand leaving you in a mess." Paul worried out loud about how Id run our business alone, how Id manage all of the details he was so good at handling. "Can you get a lawyer on the phone for me? I need to find out about making a will."
Within an hour wed found an attorney and dictated a simple document. The necessary signatures would be added within a few days, and now there was nothing to be done but hold each other wordlessly. When his breathing deepened, I assumed he was dozing off and rose to step silently toward the kitchen to refill his water glass. He called after me, "I dont want you to be alone!"
I didnt stop or even break my stride.
"Then send me someone!" I blurted, surprising myself.
It was an electrifying moment. Something had happened, but I didnt know what.
"I will," he said. Then even more forcefully, "I will!"
Lexi and I said goodbye to the last of the hundred or so friends who had come to our home following Pauls memorial service.
She was pale. The stress of the last four months showed in her face, making her appear older than her twenty years. Shed been a trouper during her fathers illness, moving home from college, working with our office manager to keep our business, the Inside Edge, running as smoothly as possible. Shed been so busy taking care of her dad and me, shed had little time to deal with her own feelings.
Kneeling, I arranged photographs of Paul on a small table next to the window, the same ones wed had on view in front of the altar at the memorial service. There he was, debonair in a tuxedo as he waltzed with Lexi at her debutante ball; there he was, at the helm of a sailboat, the wind blowing in his hair, the pleasure of the moment etched in his handsome face. Among the photos was also a large sepia print of our clasped hands, taken in the hospital only a few days before he died. Alongside the pictures, ashes inside a book-shaped bronze urn were all that remained of his physical form.
Now, with everyone gone, it was just Lexi and me. She sat on the floor next to me and we looked at each other, as though in our silence we might understand something more of all that had happened that day.
Finally, she started sobbing. "You know whats hardest of all for me, Mom? My daddy wont be at my wedding someday. He wont be there to give me away."
All I could do was hold her and rock her until she was quiet again, then she dragged herself off to bed. I snuffed out the candles around the pictures and flowers wed brought from the service, then changed into my nightgown and went to bed too, waiting for peaceful sleep to overtake me.
But unexpectedly I was alert, sensing Paul in the room just as clearly as I had when hed been alive. He felt so real that I felt I had to talk to him.
"Why, youre here, arent you?" I whispered aloud.
Yes, he answered in my mind.
A warm sense of release flooded through me.
Well always be together, you and I. It is our destiny. We were together even before we met...
Since his fateful diagnosis only four months earlier, I never anticipated I would actually feel his presence when he was gone. Id always thought wed die together somehow. I had even joked about a double coffin. But now I wondered if perhaps those thoughts foreshadowed something else: that wed simply be together...as I deeply felt we were now.
This meant I could speak to him anytime with my thoughts and he could speak to me.
"Am I just imagining you?" I asked aloud after a moment.
I am as near to you now as Ive ever been.
Could I believe any of this? Was my mind just playing tricks? Even if these were mind tricks, I found them comforting. Melting into him as I always had, I fell asleep as if enfolded in his arms.
The following morning I awoke feeling remarkably content. Was this denial? I knew denial, knew it because of the optimistic lies I tried to tell myself during Pauls illness. This wasnt denial. This felt like grace.
Yes. I was sure of it! Pauls presence seemed even more real, as if I had his full attention, and to a degree Id hardly known during his illness, when he withdrew more and more to a private, inner world. But now I felt as if we had truly merged. I was filled with a quiet joy. How many others had experienced these same feelings but kept silent, perhaps for fear of being misunderstood or even of seeming unbalanced?
Love endures, I heard him say. And with that thought, I knew I would find the words to tell this story.
I felt Pauls presence with me continually during the next three days. On the fourth, however, I had a fright. As I was falling asleep and tried to feel him, he hadwhat was I to call it?he had "disappeared."
"Are you there?" I whispered, as though saying the words aloud would get his attention more effectively than if I simply thought them to myself.
"Where are you?"
I felt myself starting to panic. "Paul?"
He wasnt there. Just as Id begun to get accustomed to the idea of his being closer than ever, he had vanished. Yet the next morning I felt him with me again. Soon I would find out where hed been.
Jacob, one of Pauls buddies, phoned that afternoon and said, "We held a kind of wake for Paul last night, and it turned into a real party." He lowered his voice, "It may sound strange to you, but we all felt like he was really there!"
"Oh! So thats where he was!"
"Nothing," I said. "Im just glad he was with friends."
The next morning, a Saturday, I awoke with such a fullness of Pauls presence I reached out instinctively to touch his head of dark hair. Then came the shock of remembering.
I reminded myself, "Breathe, Diana. Feelings are fleeting...
feelings are fleeting." It was a mantra Id repeated to myself inwardly over and over during the four months of his cancer treatments.
Golden shafts of sunlight streamed onto the quilt at the foot of the bed, where our calico cat, KCnamed for the KCET studio lot where we found her as a straysprawled on her back, basking in the warmth and silence. I too could linger as long as I wished. I remembered how Paul often encouraged me to stay in bed on Saturday mornings, even building a fire in the fireplace during the winter and bribing me with a breakfast tray. After straightening my pillows and placing the tray on my lap, hed watch expectantly to see my delight in the heart-shaped pat of butter he always prepared for me.
No breakfast tray this morning. I wasnt hungry anyway.
I got out of bed only long enough to start my own fire, make a cup of tea, then slip back under the warm covers.
My eyes fell on a paperweight, a sphere of crystal; its clear and opaque surface representing the earth. Paul had given it to me for my forty-eighth birthday a few weeks earlier. Now I realized it would be a touchstone, a memory of that day...one touchstone among so many for us. And I wondered what others I might findthings to remind me of the happy times before our world fell apart.
I opened the bottom drawer of my bedside table and took out a large, heart-shaped box that had held an extravagant array of chocolates one long-ago Valentines Day. In the years since, Id used it as a repository for my mementos, precious things that wouldnt fit in photo albumsPauls love letters, my sorority pin, Lexis letters to the Tooth Fairy. The dark red velvet box was faded now and all the more beautiful for its age.
I lifted the lid and set it aside. My fingers moved to feel the seed pearls stitched into the yellowed lace border of the antique handkerchief I carried at our wedding. Inside its folds rested our wedding rings, two Florentine circles gleaming with a patina of years of daily wearing. They were all we could afford at the time, and served as a symbol of my decision to let go of a life of luxury. Without the graceful spray of tiny diamonds that decorated the front of mine, it would be small enough to fit inside hisjust as I so wanted to nestle inside him, forever comforted and safe.
I felt an urge to sift down to the bottom, past the little envelope of baby teeth, past the years of Mothers Day cards and Valentine cards, to the beginningto the faded blue airmail envelopes with Hong Kong postmarks and a tiny tin of Tiger Balm purchased from a street vendor on the night I first realized I had found my destiny.
I picked up a florists card. With a fine black artists pen, Paul had drawn a sketch of a tigers tail topped with a delicate butterfly and written I Love You in Asian-style calligraphy. I arranged the card and the yellowing envelopes with their exotic stamps over the quilt in front of me, laying them out as a treasure map of the journey wed embarked on together.
Our relationship began with a rush of intuition.
Intuitionthat subtle sense of suddenly and mysteriously knowing things one has no way of knowingbecame something I would understand and trust as the years passed. I remember well my first strong intuitive moment. The event was not earth-shattering for me, but it certainly took me by surprise. I was eighteen years old in the spring of 1959 and had been studying on the pledge porch of my sorority house. Some girls were playing an Elvis Presley song on the radio.
"Can you turn that down?" I asked. One looked at me and said, "We ought to take this somewhere else. Diana doesnt like Elvis Presley." I was overtaken by the strangest of feelings, that to allow the impression to stand uncorrected would make me guilty of disloyaltyto Elvis. Someday I would meet him, I was suddenly sure, even though at the time he was in the army and in Germany, and had obviously never heard of me.
"I dont dislike him," I said, wondering why I was so sure of myself. "In fact, Im going to date him someday." I was having a moment of prescience, the first of many, and didnt know it.
The following summer my mother took me on my first trip to Europe. We were staying at the Prince de Galles Hotel in Paris. It was June 19, 1959. Bobby, a teenager wed met, ran toward us to tell me, "Elvis Presley is in the dining room! Id give anything for his autograph, but I cant get up the nerve to ask!"
I felt a start of memory but concealed it pretty well, I thought. I asked the concierge for paper and pencil and went into the dining room, Bobby trailing behind. Elvis was in uniform, his hair GI short; taking my eyes off him was even harder after my approach caught his attention. Everybody who lived through that era remembers that Elvis was a beautiful guy with a beautiful smile, but when he aimed it at you and pulled the triggeroh, brother!
"My friend Bobby would like your autograph," I said. He signed and we chatted for a few minutes. That might have been the end of it, but that night my mother and I went to the show at the Folies Bergère and, as it happened, so did Elvis.
His bodyguard recognized me, and when our tour bus returned to the hotel, Elvis was waiting in the lobby. He was very polite, even gallant, and he wanted to speak to my mother. He asked her permission to escort me to the late show at the Lido, the famous Parisian nightclub, that very evening.
It felt wonderful to be on his arm. He was impeccably polite and kind to me even as he was mobbed for autographs. We were shown to a table that was practically on stage where bare-breasted showgirls flirted wildly with Elvis throughout the performance.
The next day I was boarding a bus to leave for the next city on our tour, when Elviss bodyguard came running up with a note from Elvis giving me his phone number in Bad Nauheim and asking me to call when our group reached Wiesbaden. I called just after our train arrived, and that evening Elvis and his bodyguard, Lamar Fike, picked me up. We rode for about an hour to the little rented house he was living in off-base.
Lamar put out some dinner for us, then Elvis sang to me for hours in the living room, accompanying himself on both piano and guitar. It was the strangest experience. I couldnt think of a thing to do but smile at him, and after a while my cheeks ached.
I didnt see Elvis again for two years. We stayed in touch through Christmas cards, and I wrote to him the next year when I got engaged. When his time in the army was complete, he returned to Hollywood to make a movie and rented a house in Bel Air.
I had just broken my engagement when he called to renew our friendship.
I enjoyed how excited my brother, Gene, and my father were about meeting him, and was actually quite surprised. After all, what did Papa really know of him? Neither wanted to just hang around and stare, so they staged a seemingly natural scenario. It was decided that my brother would answer the door and escort Elvis to the den to meet Papa. Gene would offer him some lemonade, and Mother would then come in to say hello. Finally I would make my entrance.
All went as orchestrated, and I was soon waving goodbye as Elvis and I left in a limousine to ride to his home. There we spent a comfortable evening with the ten or so relatives and bodyguards who lived with him, as well as his father, Vernon, who was visiting.
We watched television and ate pizza, sitting on the couch in his den. One of his buddies, Joe Esposito, took me aside. He handed me a gold record that had arrived that day and kindly gave me the thrill of presenting it to Elvis myself.
The next time I saw Elvis, he had moved to an even larger house in Bel Air. He had even more people living with him, as well as a pet chimpanzee who misunderstood and bit me when I took his bowl of potato chips to refill it. Elvis and several of the guys had to pull him off me. The teeth marks lasted for days.
My sorority sisters had never been completely convinced that I was telling the truth about dating Elvis, so one evening after a movie I drove a few of them past his house. As it happened, it was January 8 and there was a huge party going on for his birthday. My friends insisted I ring the doorbell. Joe and Lamar recognized me and welcomed us all.
Elvis and I were friends for years after that. I know he came to a horrible end, but I prefer to remember him in his youth, joyful and full of hope, with the world in his pocket.
It was three years after that, on an afternoon in the fall of 1962, that another sense of clear knowing took me by surprise. I was twenty-one years old and alone in my room in our family home in Beverly Hills, California, when I was struck abruptly with a clear sense of my future. I knew that the man I was expected to marry was wrong for me and that my destiny lay elsewhere.
With this flash of intuition, I felt like I was stepping out of a fog into clear, warm sunlight. I trusted the feeling enough to telephone him then and there. "You dont love me the way I know I will be loved one day," I said. He was surprised, but I could tell by his voice that what Id said was so. And we ended our relationship.
At that moment my parents were packing to goby themselveson a tour of Asia theyd been anticipating for months. But when Mother learned of my canceled engagement plans, she insisted I accompany them. She stood firm in the face of my fathers fury at the last-minute change.
My father"Papa" to me; Eugene Webb Jr. to the rest of the worldwas probably afflicted with what today is called bipolar disorder. We never knew if he would come home from work on a cloud or in a rage. When my father eruptedand it could happen anywhere, public or privatehis explosion was terrifying.
My older brother, Gene, and I were shielded in childhood by our mother, who dealt with Papas sporadic and irrational furies by pretending perfect composure. When his storm passed, however, what remained was something even more frightening to me. Sheboth of them, in factwould act as if nothing had happened. And Papa never, ever apologized.
I could have responded in many ways. I might have run to my room, thrown a tantrum, argued with logic, argued with tears. Instead, as children usually do, I did what Id learned by example. I mirrored my mother and her ability to freeze: dont breathe, dont feel, it will pass.
When my father wasnt around, my motherMimiwas very affectionate, always hugging me, always telling me, "I love you with all my heart." And even though she didnt speak up when Gene and I were the subject of his rage, she was still my refuge in that unsafe world, a world in which my father punished us by stinging our legs with a riding crop.
On that day, after Papas rage had dissipated, he ranted at Mother as if I werent in the room, "Why do you let her do things like this? Ive worked my fingers to the bone to give my family everything! Why in the world doesnt she marry him? He comes from a great family and could provide the kind of life we raised her for. Now that shes dropped out of college, she wont have a chance to meet the right kind of man at all. Diana never finishes anything!"
However, I felt so sure Id made the right decision that my confidence must have been contagious, and Mother and I weathered the storm easily. The three of us departed only a few days later for Japan.
In Tokyo I had my first taste of a culture that was truly foreign and I was fascinated by its contraststhe throb of the business districts, the aroma of incense in the ancient temples, the stark simplicity of Japanese homes and meditation gardens.
Trailing behind the other members of our tour group, I was most deeply affected by our visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Walls lined with graphic pictures and vivid exhibits of the devastation of the A-bomb shocked me with their portrayal of the effects of nuclear weapons. Above the exit, words of entreaty implored us not to cast blame for what happened but to take the steps necessary to assure it will never happen again.
The appeal haunted me, leaving me silent and contemplative during the remaining three weeks of the tour. A yearning began in me that day to do something that would bring people together. Eventually, years later, this same yearning would move me to a midlife career change. Maybe its no wonder that for much of my life Ive worked to create peace and harmony.
Papa was an emotional bomb that could explode at any time. He was even more abusive to Mother, sometimes irrationally accusing her of being unfaithful, knocking her down, kicking her, and leaving her crumpled in her closet.
When I was about sixteen, I silently applauded my mother for settling the battle with Papas behavior: after years of tolerating his rages, beatings, and threats to leave her penniless and without her children, she filed a restraining order against him and sued him for divorce.
Neither of them left the house though, and after a division of community property put half of their holdings in her own personal bank account for keeps, she dropped the suit. He was much better behaved after that. Much.
Our tour opened new places to me every daythe Japanese countryside, Manila and the jungles of the Philippines, the floating markets of Thailand, the Parisian ambiance of Saigon.
In Singapore we stayed at the sprawling wooden Raffles Hotel, where so many writers have found inspiration. Thats where I tasted my first Chicken Kiev and slept under a ceiling fan in a bed swathed in mosquito netting. In Cambodia we hiked through heat and humidity in the ruins of the recently discovered temple of Ankor Wat, and our bus was spat upon by people we passed in the villages, for reasons we didnt understand. Even my father was subdued by all we were experiencing and only exploded once or twice. In my continuing quiet, receptive frame of mind, I memorized the sights and sounds and smells.
For the last stop on the tour we were booked into the new, ultramodern Hong Kong Ambassador Hotel, on the waterfront of the Kowloon section of Hong Kong. Even though everyone in our party was ready to drop, the tour guide scheduled an orientation meeting in the early evening. Afterward, my parents and I dragged ourselves up to the rooftop restaurant for what we hoped would be a quick dinner.
Too tired to wait for dessert, I asked to be excused. I didnt know it then, but as I walked to the elevator, a man who had been watching me put down his napkin and followed. He reached the elevator door just as it closed behind me.
I awoke very early the next morning and dressed quickly, not wanting to miss a minute of the day. From the street sounds outside, I knew Hong Kongs business day was already beginning. And though my family wouldnt be ready for breakfast for another hour, I hurried downstairs.
The aromas of coffee and sweet rolls were inviting and my first thought was to follow my nose. But something stopped me in the middle of the vast, pillared lobby. I asked myself, What am I doing here?
Businessmen in fashionable, narrow-lapeled suits and tourists draped with cameras rushed toward the revolving doors and the tour buses beyond. Suddenly I felt as though the world were going through its paces in slow motion. Self-consciously I headed toward a pillar not far from the elevators, drawn there by a mysterious sense of anticipation.
The doors of one elevator opened and two men with briefcases emerged. The sight of the taller one stunned me. I reeled backward as if I were going to faint and was relieved to feel the support of the column behind my back. The two men, deep in conversation, went by.
A bellboy approached the shorter man, handed him a slip of paper, and pointed toward the telephone. The taller man looked away, minding his own business as I continued to watch him. He looked around, saw me, andmomentarilyour eyes locked. Feeling blood rush to my face, I lost my nerve and looked away. Confused by the intensity of my feelings, I knew even then that I would always remember the moment. I was pleading with myself, Look at him! Dont let him walk away! When I looked up again, he was enjoying the situation immensely, his wide gray eyes dancing. He walked up and extended his hand.
"Paul von Welanetz."
"Oh. Im sorry. My name is Paul...von...Wel-a-netz."
I shook his hand.
"Easy for you to say."
"What? Oh, a joke." An eon passed. What do I say next? Come on, Diana!
"What brings you to Hong Kong?"
I told him I was on a tour with my parents.
"What countries have you visited? Which did you like most?" He had what seemed to be a faint British accent and a restrained, cultivated air. I dont remember what I said. But at least we were talkingor he was. I was just so relieved that something, anything at all, was happening between us. Somehow I knew him and sensed that later I would come to know him intimately.
I was in a whirlpool of excitement, attraction, and shyness. Out of the corner of my eye I saw his companion hang up the telephone. Paul asked me to have coffee with him that afternoon.
I accepted. At breakfast I told my parents Id met a man I was going to see again later that day. Grumbling, my father wanted to know why I would go out with some guy Id met in a hotel lobby. But Mother always trusted my judgment and, seeing the light in my eyes, understood right away that this man might be someone special.
After the morning tour, Mother and I separated from the group and she shifted into high gear to help me get ready. We crossed the road to the Peninsula Hotel, where I had my hair done. After, because I hoped my coffee date would become a dinner date, we went shopping. I chose a black velvet A-line dress, a copy of a Valentinoone I have kept all these years wrapped in tissuealong with the parasol that matched the green silk sundress Id been wearing that morning.
I spent the afternoon in anticipation that tilted beyond anxiety into near terror. I bathed, then wrapped in one of the hotels thick terry cloth robes, I peered in the mirror, trying to look past my flaws. At nearly 5' 10", with very thick, jet-black hair, I had once been interested in modeling, but even in those years I was a bit too curvy for a big-time career in New York, Paris, or Rome. Paul was also tall6' 3", I estimated. At least I wouldnt have to wear flat shoes, stoop, or bend my knees.
Attempting to get hold of myself, I curled up in a chair and tried to become involved in an Agatha Christie book. Nothing.
Ink on paper. I turned on the black-and-white TV. On the English-language channel was a fuzzy kinescope of a BBC serial, Coronation Street. The telephone rang twice, the way English telephones do.
"Ah, youre there. Its Paul. Lets meet upstairs on the roof in fifteen minutes. Ask for my table, if you can still say my name."
Paul von Welanetz rose as soon as he saw me. He had a table by the window. Far below was a panorama of sampans, freighters, cruise ships, and every possible kind of coastal vessel. Around us waiters were delivering trays of drinks. Paul regarded me with amusement.
"What?" I asked.
"You look like youd prefer a cocktail. Go ahead. Ill join you."
"Why did you invite me for coffee?"
"The way you were dressed this morning, I wasnt sure you were old enough to drink."
"It doesnt matter...Youre the most beautiful girl in the world."
I sat back, staring into those gray eyes of his.
"Youre dressed for dinner. Do you have plans?" he asked.
"None I cant break."
"Consider them broken."
Dinner was a double-date with his partner, Harry, who enjoyed talking business with Paulthe British textbook business, as it turned out. Even if Id been interested, it wouldnt have mattered, since I didnt understand the business terms they used. Harrys date was no more accessible. A Chinese movie star, she flashed me sullen, contemptuous looks while picking her teeth with an ivory toothpick behind her cupped hand, as is the Chinese custom.
Paul attempted to include me in the conversation, but being with such an obviously sophisticated trio left me afraid to open my mouth. Then there was the age difference. Paul, I had learned, was almost fourteen years my senior, thirty-five years old to my twenty-one. That, plus the fact he was so completely self-assured and at ease, left me limp with insecurity. I felt I was losing all sense of myself.
I was an open, friendly child until I was eight. I loved attending the local grammar school with my best friend, Alice. I felt powerful, and loved to jump and yell and leap off walls. I dreamed of being...fabulous.
But Papas criticism was forever in the background: the reprimands I didnt understand, the sense of being chastised and demeaned. From that I learned things about myself: I never finish anything, Ill never be able to take care of myself.
When I was entering the fourth grade my parents decided both Gene and I should go to boarding schools. Gene was sent to a military school across town and I went to a girls school only a few miles away. Just four or five of us from the lower grades boarded there, so our wing of the building was nearly empty. I had a roommate the first few days but she soon left and I had a hall of empty rooms all to myself.
Excruciatingly lonely, I was already good at numbing my feelings, and never realized I could have gone home for good if I had simply asked my mother. Fortunately, I boarded for only a year. I once asked mother why we had been sent away, and she said Papa insisted on it because we children were noisy sometimes and made him nervous.
Because I went to a different school, I didnt really fit in with the other kids in the neighborhood, and I was lonely much of the time. When not in school I spent time in the backyard by myself. Id climb up into the fig tree to listen to the wind rustle the papery flat leaves, and Id eat the sticky black figs.
On summer evenings Id capture moths off the lantana flowers and put them in a glass Mason jar, making holes in the lid with an ice pick so they would have air. My brother told me if I rubbed some of the powder off their fragile wings they couldnt fly away, so I did that, hoping they would stay and keep me company.
One evening, as I lay on the lawn, I could hear a song coming from the radio inside the house, where my parents were listening to The Hit Parade. "Someone to Watch Over Me." The singer longed for the someone who would one day be her partner, her lover. I felt a tightness in my chest, a feeling I always pushed away. How I yearned to grow up and find that someone.
Later, Paul escorted me onto the dance floor. I loved being swept into his arms there, but in my nervousness my feet danced every way but his. My legs were shaking so badly, I simply couldnt follow his lead. I stumbled more than once.
Back at the table, he studied me. I tried to hide my trembling as he lit my cigarette, then his own. Increasingly, I felt moments of panic and wanted to bolt. Silent almost all evening, I judged myself a loser and a castoff in Pauls world, but at the door to my room he invited me to dinner again the following evening.
The next day was one of mood-swings and fantasies that left me feeling completely disoriented. At dinnertime I was profoundly disappointed to discover our companions were once again to be the shop-talking Harry and the self-focused movie actress.
The four of us boarded the Star Ferry for the short trip to Hong Kong Island. As we walked along the waterfront to our restaurant, Paul stopped to negotiate the price of a small, paper-wrapped tin of Tiger Balm, which in those days was regarded as a magical cure-all. Not wanting a lump in his suit pocket, he asked me to carry it for him in my purse.
Our restaurant had a glorious view of the harbor, but once again I said almost nothing. On the ferry back to Kowloon, Paul leaned over and whispered, "Dont you ever let your hair down?"
I felt so embarrassed I couldnt answer. I didnt know why I was acting so strangely. I hated him for pointing out my stiffness, and for causing it. Desperate to be back in my room so I could be confused in private, I walked quickly, almost ran, and stayed ahead of him nearly all the way back to the hotel. After an abrupt "Goodnight!" I shut the door firmly in his face, furious with myself for having so obviously lost control.
When I was growing up, I was expected only to be cheerful and decorative. No one knew how much I slept. Sleep was my escape, the way I coped with bouts of heavy, defeating depression that had so darkened my natural exuberance. I woke one afternoon to find my worried brother holding a mirror under my nose to see if I was breathing.
Being Queen of the Beverly Hills Easter Parade in the spring of 1958,
and performing an elaborate curtsy as a debutante in the fall, were a kind of role-playing that seemed to have nothing at all to do with the real me.
I always just assumed I would be a housewife and mother like my mom, and had drifted along believing somehow I would find the perfect man for me...
someone who would fill my emptiness.
I sat down in front of the makeup mirror and raged at my reflection. "Whats wrong with you? Hes arrogant! He doesnt care a thing about you! If you ever see him again, youre nuts!"
Moments later, the telephone rang. Against my will, I smiled at the sound of his voice. "You have my Tiger Balm in your purse. May I come and get it?"
Putting the telephone down, I berated myself in the mirror. "Idiot!"
Paul knocked on the door. He leaned casually toward me with one arm against the doorjamb, charisma pouring off him like waves of light. I handed him the little paper-wrapped tin.
"How about having breakfast with me tomorrow morning? Its my day off." His voice was deep, yet sweet at the same time.
"What time?" I asked
With the door closed again, I hurried back to my reflection. "You are definitely nuts!" I glared. "What in the world are you doing?"
I was irresistibly attracted to him, yet he made me so agitated that I felt paralyzed with confusion. What in the world had happened to my comfortable intuitive sense that I already knew him? And why was he still interested in me?
in the corner of my memory box, beneath a yellowed handkerchief, lay a tiny faded photograph with a white rippled border.
It showed Paul, a rickshaw and driver behind him, in front of the Ambassador Hotel dressed in a khaki safari shirt, grinning at the miracle of our meeting. He was holding a small paper bag.
November 5, 1962
The next morning I was greeted by a wholly different incarnation of Paul von Welanetz. Id seen him only in business clotheslightweight woolens by day; more serious, hard-finish, dark blue suits at night.
I already knew this man had a sense of style, and his idea of casual was also perfect for him. He was wearing a short-sleeved, khaki safari jacket and matching slacksa look, I was to learn, he would favor the rest of his life. I had on the floral silk dress Id been wearing when we met, and today I was carrying its matching parasol.
Conversation was far easier for me that morning as we walked along Nathan Road. Away from his business associate and in his cotton safari garb, Paul was relaxed and more accessible. I enjoyed the new sense of ease between us and we chatted and laughed together as if wed known each other a long time.
We walked for hours up and down narrow alleys, through the Jade Market and the Bird Market, talking about the things we both liked. Among them, books. We entered an English bookstore, and while I browsed, Paul quietly asked for something the clerk slipped into a small paper bag Paul carried as we continued our walk.
Now and then he recited long passages of poetry from memory, in his rich and resonant voice. He said he enjoyed the works of Lin Yutang in The Art of Living and the poetry of the East. He was particularly captivated by the rhythm of an Eastern chant: ". . . one hundred thousand years or so."
We began to chant the words together and matched our steps to their rhythm..."one hundred thousand years or so"..."one hundred thousand years or so" . . . as we walked along the Kowloon waterfront and onto a dock jutting into the crowded harbor, where scores of families lived aboard colorful, traditional Chinese junks. A group of ragged children were playing with a ball, which Paul caught just before it would have sailed into the water. For thanks, they asked him for coins. He laughed aloud and knelt down to talk with them in pidgin English, his face on the same level with theirs.
I remember thinking how graceful he was for such a tall man. He moved with the easy elegance of a dancer or an athlete, and I couldnt take my eyes off him. When he stood up again, I knew he could read the expression on my face.
"Have you taken the tram to Victoria Peak yet?"
"Then lets do it now. Its a wonderful view."
We rode the Star Ferry again across Hong Kong Bay to Hong Kong Central, and this time it seemed a much lovelier, safer place. We walked across Connaught Road and climbed the hill to the Peak Tram Station, from which the funicular railway car pulled us up the side of the mountain at nearly a forty-five-degree angle. From the 2,000-foot peak we had a panoramic view of the entire harbor and the "New Territories" in the distance. It was the most romantic morning of my life.
"Whats important to you, Kitten?" Paul asked. When he said "Kitten," I felt as though hed been calling me that for years.
After a moment, I answered shyly, "Kindness."
We walkedwordlessly, hand-in-handalong Old Peak Road and past forests of bamboo and fern, until we came to the other side of the island and a view of Macao and the Chinese mainland in the distance. Paul found a small, sharp stone and, standing on a boulder, scratched in the face of a rock:
"Your turn." He handed me the stone, put his hands on my waist, and lifted me high enough so I could scratch my initials beneath his:
A gust of wind blew under and billowed my skirt. As Pauls arm moved down around my legs to hold it from flying upward, I slid down slowly, smiling, turning into his embrace. The move could not have been more natural. Every sight and scent and sacred garden of my journey through Asia had led me to this moment. Paul kissed me and I shuddered like never before. In that moment, I glimpsed a love without any boundaries, a love that would never end.
That afternoon I was to join my tour group for a boat ride around the other side of Hong Kong Island and an early dinner at the historic Repulse Bay Hotel. I longed to stay with Paul but I didnt want to disappoint my parents, or tell them what was happening yet. Paul told me he would spend the time rock-climbing and I could look for him somewhere above Victoria Peak.
Hours later I sat alone, in a romantic reverie, on the bow of the sightseeing boat. As it approached the backside of Victoria Peak,
I spotted him waving to me from atop the highest point, some five hundred feet above where wed carved our initials that afternoon.
I stood and waved back at his silhouette against the sky.
An eager and smiling Paul von Welanetz was waiting for me at the dock when the tour boat returned that evening. He held a package, a gift for me, the book hed picked up at the bookshop that lovely morning: The Rub·iyat of Omar Khayy·m.
On the blue-and-cream paper flyleaf, which hed removed from the book to insert in his portable typewriter, hed written:
I feel a great deal more kindness for you than I shall ever have time to speak. And a single page is little space for the troops of gentle thoughts that invest themselves, on every hand, with affection and chosen words.
A dreamer, I thought. In his special way, he was just perfect for me. I was just so glad he was alive. As we danced that night in the hotels intimate little cocktail lounge, our bodies melded together as if wed always been part of each other.
The next day we rode the tram again and hiked down the backside of Victoria Peak to picnic beside a reservoir. We couldnt take our eyesor handsoff each other.
He had time that day to tell me tales of his travels, noting that as a result of his wanderlust hed been around the world four times. He didnt need a book to recite to me, and easily quoted from Don Blandings poem "Names Are Ships" in his deep, modulated voice:
Names! The lure in names of places,
Stirring thoughts of foreign faces,
Ports and palaces and steamers.
Names are ships to carry dreamers.
Pago-pago, Suva, Java,
Languor, lotuses and lava,
Everything a dreamer wishes....
Paul was not only a dreamer; hed been an actor too, having attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where he developed the precise way of speaking Id noticed the morning we met. And he was an artist, trained by the graphic-artist stepfather he loved. He proudly showed me pictures of a mural hed been commissioned to paint in a church.
He was also an outdoorsman, strong and rugged, yet refined and cultured. Hed hunted white rhino in Africa on the Oomfalozi Game Reservenot to kill but to tranquilize with a dart gun so the rhino could be safely moved to another location. His more traditional hunting ended the day he killed a mother deer and decided he would never kill again. I was spellbound by stories of his adventures through the jungles of South Africa.
"What do you love to do?" he asked.
Sometimes Id get very excited about organizing clubs or producing shows for the kids in the neighborhood, or setting up a lemonade or cookie stand. I had two dreams: one of being married to a wonderful man who would cherish me and never get angry, and another of opening a restaurant to serve my mothers spaghetti, a place where families would come to enjoy my food and time together. I never cared much for dollsmy favorite game alone in my room was "short-order cook."
Mimimy motherloved cooking. The kitchen was her sanctum, our safe haven, because my father never entered. I loved to sit at the kitchen table and write pretend recipes on index cards for my own wooden recipe-file box, just like Moms. Sometimes Id beg to help, and Mimi would tie an apron around me and show me how to do something new, like shelling and chopping walnuts for her chocolate fudge.
More than anything, I loved to help Mimi make her spaghetti sauce. While the tangy tomato mixture simmered and splattered all over the white enamel stove, I would spoon a little into a saucer, open the freezer next to the stove, place it on top of the boxes of frozen vegetables, close the door, and wait restlessly until it was cool enough for a taste. On the days we made sauce, my job was to hold the bundle of dried spaghetti and insert it into the huge kettle of boiling water. I loved how the thin strands opened against the side of the pot like a burst of the suns rays.
"My passion is cooking," I said. "In fact Ive felt an urge to cook and share food with others all my life."
I told him how, as a child, I loved to go to restaurants with my family. I hadnt known my father paid for the food, and I thought waitresses were angels who, out of loving kindness, brought us anything we wanted. Whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, "Either a movie star or a waitress!"
Concerned Paul might be bored, I looked at his face. It was alive with interest so I continued.
"My favorite toy was an order pad from the dime store. Id stand by my desk and pretend to take a customers order, then tear it off and slap it on top of the bookcase Id moved to separate my room into two parts. After that, Id dash behind it to my pretend kitchen and break eggs on a pretend griddle and flip some fantasy hash browns. There was always something about nurturing others by serving them food that felt good to me."
After that, Paul told everyone I was a wonderful cook, even though hed never tasted any of my cooking. How I loved his belief in me.
One of Pauls dreams was to have a sailboat one day and sail around the world. I was ready to follow him...anywhere. If he had not been fourteen years my senior, with the maturity that went with it, we would have disappeared from the rest of the world then and there.
But we did have some problems. Big ones. I was leaving in three days, flying back to Los Angeles a week ahead of my parents to be the maid of honor in a friends wedding. Pauls business was based in London. We lived half a world apart. We would not be able to see each other for weeks. However, considering...it was probably good we would have some time to reflect.
"If things were different..." he asked me that evening, "and if this stands the test of time, would you be willing to throw in your lot with mine...for a hundred thousand years or so?"
I didnt hesitate. "Oh, yes. Definitely, yes!"
It wasnt a standard proposal and thats why I remember the words so precisely. In the look we shared following his question and my reply, we both knew things would soon be different and that we were each others destiny.
Neither of us, of course, had forgotten about my parents. Paul was sensitive to their concern about their daughters sudden romance with an older man.
But I knew everything would be all right. Mother, charmed by Paul from the moment he presented her with roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, could feel my happiness and did not voice whatever concerns she might have had. My father ignored what was happening, mumbling something about "ships that pass in the night."
Those final days in Hong Kong flew by. Paul and I must have walked every street in the city. I began to call him Tiger, because of the Tiger Balm hed had me carry for him. He continued calling me Kitten, which I loved, for it made me feel vulnerable, innocent, and cherished. He said I was a gentle butterfly and he would be my protector. He sent roses to my room, accompanied by a card on which, in pen and ink, he had drawn a tiger tail disappearing around a corner with a butterfly perched on the end. We shopped for wedding bands and had them engraved inside: 62 PW DW 100,000 years or so...
On the evening before I would be leaving, I finally brought up the matter of my intuition about him. I said I had always known he would come to me one day. I told him I had been in the strangest mood in the weeks before arriving in Hong Kongserene, confident Id done the right thing by breaking off my old relationship before leaving Los Angeles, sure something wonderful was about to happen. And it had.
"Tell me what our future holds!" he said.
"I know well always be in love! Is it dangerous for me to wear my heart so much on my sleeve? I dont ever want to hide my feelings from you!"
"Ill not hide mine either. And so I should tell you this. Do you remember when you were having dinner with your parents on your first night here? I must have known you too, because I got up and followed you to the elevator. I would have gotten in with you, but the door closed right in my face."
On my last day in Hong Kong, Paul found a coin in the street. He said it was jossan omen (at least in Hong Kong) of forthcoming good fortune. And from that day forward, Paul enjoyed dropping coins now and then from his pockets...to spread good fortune to others.
Six days after we met, we said goodbye at Kai Tak Airport. Paul held me close and promised to work hard, save money, and visit me in Beverly Hills in just a few weeks. We would plan our wedding then.
He looked at me intently. "Say I promise."
We would write each other daily of our love.
The flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles took twenty hours
a night, a day, and part of another night. I stared beyond my reflection in the window and shuffled through memories of the last
week. They were like a series of postcards sent to me from another lifetime.
At my friends wedding, in a small church in Beverly Hills, I listened closely to the solemnity of the vows, eager to make those same vows with Paul, but resigned to waiting however long was necessary. I imagined I would be settling into a routine of writing great outpourings of emotion, counterpointed by mad dashes to the mailbox to get Pauls love notes.
Indeed, his telegrams and letters did begin arriving, several a daythe envelopes and pages covered with romantic quotations, treasure maps, and charming drawings of tigers and kittens. And then the telegram:
Cant sleep. Coming home to you.
He had arranged for some time off in California on his way back to London. He would be in Los Angeles in less than three days!
And so it started, really started, fueled by the desperation of separated lovers.
With my parents still in Hong Kong, I drove to meet Paul at Los Angeles International Airport. My friends worried our ecstatic experience together had only been a holiday romance. I even wondered if I wasnt being terribly naïve, but the moment I saw him again I melted. His physical presence was even more masculine and vital than I remembered, his joy and gentleness even more apparent. Again I was sure we could stand the test of time.
We set out immediately in my car, driving north along Californias legendary Highway 1, the narrow road that follows the coastline, winding gloriously between the ocean on the left and steep, jagged cliffs on the right. Because it was a weekday in November, we had the highway all to ourselves and stopped often at the turnouts to enjoy the vast ocean views.
When we arrived at Big Sur, with its great coastal redwoods marching toward the sea, it felt for us as undiscovered as it had been when Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo first sailed past so long ago. The little hamlet of Carmel was enveloped in fog and scented with smoke from wood fires as we strolled slowly up and down its narrow streets, looking for the perfect place to stay. We settled into a cozy room with a fireplace at Vagabonds House, named for Don Blandings poem. The owners told us the poet had in fact once lived there.
Rain streaked the windows of our little hideaway for the next three days as we made love and slept and strolled around Carmel, stopping for afternoon tea at the Tuck Box, and visiting galleries where, with Pauls coaching, I began to appreciate art with new eyes. Because we werent sure when we would be able to see each other again, every moment was precious. Paul quoted Robert Frost:
These woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
He had to leave a week later to settle his complex business matters.
"I havent any choice, Kitten, but I promise to come back. I can see now the whole purpose of all my vagabond days was to find you and to love you."
He was back three weeks later for New Years Eve, surprising me that first evening with a romantic nosegay he had asked a florist to make especially for the occasion.
It was the epitome of Victorian femininity, artfully constructed of rows of dark red and pale pink baby roses, with lacy sprigs of white babys breath encircled in a lace ruffle. Multicolored satin ribbons bound the stems and hung down, looping at the ends into love knots. Feeling like a bride, I held his beautiful gift all evening as we welcomed 1963planning our wedding for the following November 2, one year from the day we met, and dreaming of our future together.
In the twenty-six years that followed, our dream continued, though the future we created was different from anything we imagined that night, different in fact from anything we could have guessed, but even more satisfying...
I fingered the faded satin ribbons from the nosegay before gathering up the photographs and letters spread on the quilt before me, then closed the lid and put the box back in the drawer for another day. And then I fell asleep.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT FOR PERMISSIONS
Excerpt from Life Prayers, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, copyright © 1996 by Elias Amidon, published by HarperSanFrancisco. All rights reserved by the author.
Excerpt from "Names Are Ships," by Don Blanding from Vagabonds House, copyright © 1928 by Don Blanding, copyright renewed 1956 by Don Blanding. Published by Dodd, Mead & Co. Used by permission.
Excerpt from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," by Robert Frost from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, copyright © 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt & Co., copyright © 1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt & Co., LLC.