THE STOCKING CAP
c1999 Caliban

Poetry class was held every Wednesday and Friday in the large hall in the center of campus. Our classroom was large, so our professor usually arranged the chairs in a circle. She said it facilitated 'good discussion'. But one girl, Amy, was always late to class, coming in twenty minutes after we had started and making a terrible racket. Due to the circular position of the chairs, our discussion fell quiet for several seconds and all eyes would fall on her. She usually entered from the back door, put down her pack, removed her jacket and took a seat at the opposite end of the circle. About five seconds lost. "Sorry," she always said.

Amy was tall, lanky, with pink cheeks, round cheekbones and a small, delicate nose. And without fail she wore cotton pants, a brown corduroy jacket and a red stocking cap. I had never seen her without it. The cap, which hid most of her head, always seemed pasted to the base of her neck. It bulged outward and backward at the top, but revealed nothing else. Its edges, as far as I could see, covered the tops of her ears and came low on her forehead, inches below any possible 'hairline'. This meant she could be bald (perhaps someone had given her a bad haircut, or she had been in chemotherapy) -- but really I had no way of knowing, and the possibilities raced in and out of my head.

She wore the cap every day. During rain, wind, calm, sun. Every day I wondered, "would she come to class without it?" But a little after four in the afternoon Amy would come in with her backpack covered in buttons and stickers and that red stocking cap clinging to her skull like the dead bird in the first Coleridge poem we studied that year.

Some days she wouldnít arrive until twenty minutes after our discussions had already begun. On these afternoons she sat impatiently at her desk and doodled until the small hand reached 'six', whereupon she would pack her books and bounce to the exit. Several times I walked out after her, but usually she was already racing down the path to the parking lot, walking in quick, close steps, the bright patch of scarlet on her head bobbing like the tip of a matchstick.

When she spoke, her voice was quiet, but clear and confident. "The poem doesnít really play by the rules it pretends to admire," she said one day in November, raising her hand as an afterthought. "The poet knows the ruling class, or royalty, or whoever, had put up arms over far more than a lock of hair," (the back of my neck tingled as she spoke this last word), "but Pope also knows theyíve done it for a lot less. Iím surprised the critics didnít receive this poem as historical document." I held my eyes on Amy for several seconds, but jerked my head down when she returned my glance. That was unexpected. I just couldnít help looking up again. She was smiling, her eyes right on me, as if to say, "you see?" My heart beat once, quickly, seeming to burst, then resumed its regular rhythm. My face was burning.

The next day we passed around our poetry, so that each person in the class could read a few short lines by every other member of the class. As she turned through the stack of poems, Amyís chin cradled in the palm of her hand, and several creases formed above her eyebrows. As she read her right hand looped elaborate calligraphic patterns in her notebook.

My poem was as follows (as best as I can do from memory):

. . . . . The tree has bindings on its higher branch
. . . . . A color of rouge or scarlet
. . . . . It holds the leaves together
. . . . . Denying their glory to the forest carpet.

An amateur effort, to be sure. But in my younger days I was accustomed to such veiled wishy-washy analogies. To be sure, it was about Amy. But it is Amyís poem I remember in the most detail; in fact, I found it first devoured it immediately:

. . . . . twenty-two a nightingale
. . . . . . nightgown
. . . . . hair at my sides, the cat crawling
. . . . . . [between]
. . . . . pull up the girdles for the day
. . . . . pull them up -

A little too modern, I decided at the time. But the poemís mention of "hair at my sides" really piqued my interest. I knew poems werenít automatically autobiographical, but why the mention of hair? "At her sides" seemed to indicate great length. Could it be hers? For years, long hair had held a great fascination and attraction for me.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Amy, bending over me with a small piece of paper in her hand. "Thanks for your poem," she whispered, handing me the paper. I froze.

"Oh... yeah," I stuttered, "totally. Sure..."

"It was really good. Do you want to study the Modernists sometime? I wrote down my number. You should call me."

"Yeah, totally, sure," I repeated clumsily, taking the paper between my finger and thumb. Amy crossed the circle to the other end of the class and put on her backpack. I was struck-dumb.

The next day I called her in the afternoon. The phone picked up on the third ring. "Hello?" a voice asked.

"Amy?"

"Whoís this?" I told her my name.

"Oh, hi!"

"I was wondering about setting up that time to study... "

"Well, tonight Josh is coming over at nine, but I have some time until then. You wanna come over now?"

Amy lived with her grandparents just outside Campbell on Mesa Verde, about a mile from the freeway. It was a breezy suburb, somewhat run-down but quiet and green. The house was white, with a garden alongside the front sidewalk and a small driveway just off the kitchen window. I rang the bell and waited on the front porch.

Ten seconds passed - nothing. I rang again. Several moments later I heard footsteps coming from (what sounded like) a back room. "Hold on a second!" a voice came from behind the door. My heart was beating hard and loud. The door opened, revealing Amyís silhouette.

"Come on in, no oneís home!" she said. I stepped behind her, and the door shut behind me.

I turned around. Amy was facing me, in a white silk shirt. Her head was bare -- no stocking cap. From the front I could see that her hair was a shiny, golden-brown color, parted down the middle and tapered somewhere behind her head. I blushed and she pretended not to notice. "Come on back - itís sort of messy, so watch your step." She bounced down the hallway ahead of me, a long braid trailing behind her. It came down a few inches past her bottom and flicked in the air as she hopped over some toys at the end of the hall. I held my chest where my heart would be -- the room threatened to teeter and move out from under me. But I gathered my senses and followed her unsteadily.

"So tell me, what did you get out of this one?" Amy was sitting cross-legged in a large wicker chair, chewing on her pencil and studying the poetry book. The wide back of the chair enveloped her and shielded her hair from view, but I could see a few loose strands running down her face and along the front of her white shirt.

I sat on a small, leathery couch and attempted to make coherent replies. "Well, it seemed minimalist," I said, "sort of red wheelbarrow-ish, but with a stricter rhythm."

"Wheelbarrow-ish? Is that a word?"

"No," I said, "but... "

"Iím kidding!" she yelped. "Anyway, can I ask you a question?" She put down her pencil.

"Okay." I stared at the words on the page in my book.

"Why are you so nervous? Itís like youíre a frightened cat."

I smiled. "Itís nothing really, maybe Iím just not used to seeing you without your hat."

"Hey, you rhymed with me! Anyway, that thing? What about it? Iíve had it forever. Itís just too much trouble to carry all this hair around during the day," she said. "I mean, I donít know if you noticed, but I have a lot of hair." She got up, turned around, and took hold of her long braid. Her fingers peeled off the tiny band holding its end together.

"I noticed, Amy. Listen, you donít have to do that," I said. My hands were shaking.

She shook it, and it all seemed to come alive, like a big brown river. "I mean, look at all this."

"I am looking."

"I have to put it somewhere."

"I know."

My face was aflame. I could feel every pint of blood chugging around my cheeks, my arms, my legs. Amy turned around, looking down on me, her face flush, her silky, wavy hair framing her cheeks and spilling past her shoulders, alongside her stomach, and ending just below her hips.

Amy looked surprised. "Whatís wrong?"

I said nothing.

"Whatís wrong? Itís just hair. Look... "

She came forward and draped her hair over me. I was shaking. "Amy," I said, "I... " But I couldnít speak. I just laughed nervously. I was smothered in its perfume, and could feel her body hovering above me, swaying somewhat awkwardly. Through cracks in the 'hair curtain' I could see her hands lifting the hair up slowly, and then dropping it onto me; her wrists rotated nimbly, like a maestroís hands in front of an orchestra. I reached out instinctively and touched it.

It had probably been six seconds or so. But when she backed away and stood in front of me, red-faced, smiling, her hair blossoming in long ringlets, I had just been in another world.

"You shouldnít do that," I said, my voice shaking.

"What are you going to do, kiss me?" She stood, grinning.

I studied her for several seconds. She didnít flinch. So I got up and took a step towards the door. She walked into me, seeking out my lips and then pressing her own against them. I let my arms wrap around her and entwine in the long plaits falling down her back and arms.

We stood like that for minutes, swaying back and forth, her hair falling soft and long against my arms, and our faces pressed together. I could hear her breathing through her nose, in quick, short gasps.

We released and the angel stood before me, eyes downcast, a slight smile on her face. She looked up at me. "Oh my."

"Amy. You have no idea... "

She pressed her finger to my lips.

"I think I do," she said, "your poem makes more sense to me now."

We stood in silence for a moment.

"Amy, one thing."

"Yes?"

"Whoís Josh?"

She threw back her head and laughed. "Josh is my brother, sillyhead."

What followed was a long weekend getting to know Amy - certainly another story. We drove up north to the beach, learning more about each other, and then spent the first evenings of the school-week 'studying' at her grandparentís house.

Wednesday afternoon she arrived in class late, without her cap, her hair done up in an elaborate bun. She walked around the circle and sat beside me.

"Hi." she said, putting her head on my shoulder.

"Hi," I said, and kissed her forehead.

Needless to say, the silence following that interruption was a bit longer than usual, involving a circle of smiles (aimed in our direction), but after that the class proceeded as usual.
 
 

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