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ONLINE ONLY: The Natural History of Don Juan

Fiction by Netta Gillespie

When I was 2 1/2 years old, Peter Dunatov, my father’s old college roommate, moved to our town. Whenever Peter, who was still a bachelor, came to dinner at our house, he would rock me on his foot while reciting a Russian nursery rhyme that began “Trot, trot to Moscow.” My infantile sexual feelings were stirred, and I fell in love for the first time. Peter was warm and accepting, unlike my own father, who was dark and usually angry. Besides, I thought it was all right to love Peter in a romantic way, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t all right to love my father like that.

When I was 4, my mother told me that Peter was going to marry a woman named Moravia. Too soon, he brought her to visit. Moravia had an oval face, and looked like the Madonnas in my Sunday School leaflets. I was immediately overcome by a fit of jealousy. Although I had planned to wait a few years before marrying, drastic measures were obviously called for.

On the night Peter put in his last scheduled bachelor appearance at our home, I donned the light blue fairy costume my mother had made for my birthday—in my view an irresistible confection of light blue net and cheap rayon satin. So clad, I waited at the top of the stairs, and just as Peter handed his coat to my father, I made my glittering entrance, crowned in tinfoil-covered cardboard, star-tipped wand in hand.

I made it to the bottom of the stairs with what I considered to be regal dignity and confidence. Peter was smiling fondly. “Great outfit!” he proclaimed. My parents beamed somewhat nervously, wondering what I was up to this time. But when I reached the bottom stair and announced my willingness—no, my determination—to marry Peter, all three of the adults present burst into gales of laughter. Their faces got red, they shook until they had to hold their stomachs. “Isn’t she a riot?” one of them gasped between spasms.

This incident became one of their favorite stories about me. It was at that instant that I lost confidence in myself as a woman. To this day, I refuse to believe that Peter and Moravia were ever a really happy couple. At best, they probably had a pretty ordinary marriage.

I should have said that Peter had Slavic eyes, green and slanting. Those eyes were imprinted forever in whatever part of my brain has made me an easy prey to seducers fitting the same general description, regardless of their other merits—or lack of them.

On a Saturday morning in the spring of my freshman year in college, I was sitting in my dorm room trying to write a paper on logical positivism, a doctrine which, though I was by no means sure what it was, I didn’t much care for. Outside, the birds were mating, the male robins hopping over the female robins, hopping, hopping until finally coming together in a flurry of wings. The sun was shining and the air was like clear blue water that was a perfect temperature for swimming. I wanted to fly through it like a bird.

The dorm was totally silent. Everyone but me was out having fun. My roommate was off somewhere with her boyfriend. I imagined the two of them lying in a green pasture under a flowering tree. It was impossible to concentrate on anything as dull as logical positivism, and I started to feel the kind of depression you get when a too-perfect day is being totally wasted.

Then he came to the door below and yelled my name. It was the first time a man had ever yelled up the dorm stairs for me. I recognized his voice. He used to date
my former roommate until she flunked out. She would go out the back fire escape every night to meet him, and in the morning, in spite of all attempts, we could never wake her up.

I went to the top of the stairs. He had a box of laundry detergent in his hand. He said he had been on his way to the laundromat when he realized he would rather take me flying. He knew where he could borrow a plane. We could fly down the coast to Monterey. Would I come?

His eyes were green and Slavic. Sun streamed through the open door behind him. Birds were singing Rudolfo’s aria from La Boheme. The briefest memory of Peter flashed into my mind. Slowly and carefully, I descended the dorm stairs, hanging on to the banister because my legs were shaking. Did he actually know how to fly a plane? Did I care? When we got to the field it turned out he had no money for gas so I emptied my billfold and gave him all I had. It wasn’t that I wasn’t suspicious. Right then I was suspicious. But he said he would pay me back for his half of the gas.

The plane looked old and unreliable. Before he turned the engine on, he told me I had always intrigued him, but he had been a little afraid of me. I was dark and mysterious and poetic. Would I teach him about poetry? Would I go backpacking in Mexico with him? Or maybe, someday, we could fly to the Galapagos Islands?

The experience of flying was like one of those dreams where you swoop through the universe with extended arms. I caught a brief glimpse of the college far below melting into a haze. Then we passed through a cloud, and I could see green woods and a silver thread of river. He put his right arm around me. His hand crept inside my blouse and found my left breast. The noise of the engine made it impossible to protest, in case I had wanted to.

I can't remember where we landed. I think it was on a beach. Anyway, we got to a beach somehow. He knew all my favorite authors, how I felt about religion. It was as though he had been studying me from a distance and had finally, carefully decided we were soul mates. He had a blanket. I remember the sound of the waves. He never paid me back for his half of the gas.

This one had the same face, the face of an Eugene Onegin. I met him at a party. He was with a woman named Robin who worked at the ad agency with me, and he didn’t seem to notice me particularly.

The next evening I was in my apartment very caught up in Act I of La Boheme. Just as Rudolfo’s aria commenced, the phone rang. It was the man I’d met at the party last night. He said that all the previous evening he had been observing me and wishing I had been his date. Did I want to go someplace and talk? In the background, Mimi began her aria. At that moment, of course, I fell in love.

Twenty minutes later, I went down the stairs to the lobby, a bit shaky in the knees. He was sitting on a bench. As our eyes met, I tripped and almost fell down the stairs. The bar where we went first was noisy, so we ended up parked somewhere in his gray Chevrolet. He had a silver flask full of rye whiskey. As he passed it to me, he was saying how much he loved Puccini, though this was something he didn’t dare tell many people.

I found myself telling him about flying to Monterey. He said it was like a sad love poem. Without knowing how it happened, I was on his lap and my hands were inside his shirt.

He told me his desires were so strong that he couldn’t get to know a woman or care about her unless he had already had sex with her. Memories of the shore flashed through my mind. I could hear the waves, the tide coming in. He stopped calling a month later. I saw him at another party with a woman I had introduced him to.

My marriage, to a dark and not-at-all-Slavic scientist who (now that I think of it) resembled my father, was disintegrating. After some terminally angry scenes, my spouse had gone off to Colorado to camp, taking our 10-year-old son with him.

Depression and gloom were settling in when my poet friend Sylvia invited me to a party at her house. As I went down the stairs to Sylvia’s rumpus room, I saw him across the room, engaged in animated conversation with a blonde, but at the same time he was gazing at me, his green eyes at an enigmatic slant. I waited.

After awhile he came up to me and asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m nobody,” I replied. “Who are you?”

“Are you nobody, too?” he shot back.

He was actually the first man I had ever met outside of an English classroom who could quote Emily Dickinson. We talked about her for a while, but when I asked him who his favorite poet was he said slowly, gazing into my eyes, “Why, I think it’s you.”

My scruples floated for an instant on a green translucent ocean, then disappeared in foam. I invited him home with me after the party. He accepted. But before the evening was over, he had disappeared. So had our hostess.

A week later, over lunch, she told me she was leaving a marriage we all thought was perfect to go off with my Cossack. “He told me I was his favorite poet,” she explained. “This is a man who can actually quote Emily Dickinson,” she added radiantly.

I tried to warn her as far as I decently could. He made her very miserable for several years. I recovered fairly quickly, but not without a sense of loss.

Now I am a widow, retired to an apartment with my books and CDs of Puccini operas. I feel that at last I have achieved a nearly perfect tranquility. I will stay this way as long as I can, and I pray that will be the rest of my life.

Sometimes in the middle of the night, or when I am out walking in the woods, I talk to him. He always understands and says the perfect thing, and I always lose my heart. I am filled with desire for him; the desire stays long after he goes on to other conquests. He appears at different times, at different ages. The memory is sweet, but poignant with a perfect tinge of loss. It is like grief for a place where you were happy, but had to leave forever.

Then one Sunday I encounter him again at the Unitarian Church. He is younger than I am, his skin brown from the sun. He, too, is alone, he tells me.

I explain I have no further use for men. I have been hurt too many times, and all I want is peace. Besides, I am not an easy person to live with. I get depressed. He tells me that if I get depressed he will wrap me in furs and carry me to the sunshine until I am warm. Soon I will feel better and we will climb mountains and laugh together under a blue Arizona sky.

He looks into my eyes. His own are green and transparent. You can see into them to a different world, not like this one, but a place where you are fully understood and fully accepted, a place of wide spaces and distant views. He wants to move in with me.

He’s been gone quite a while now. My window looks out over the fields. There is a gummy spot in the middle of the top pane where a bird died trying to fly into a world that was a perfect mirror of her own, perhaps in love with her own reflection.

Everything moved as it should, only in reverse; and who was that bird flying so eagerly toward her? Her real mate, her other half, the one she had always longed to meet, the one who would always say exactly what she would have said. Their perfect conversation ends in an explosion of brains, hers and her imaginary mate’s, meeting on the glass.

NETTA GILLESPIE, ’52, has written and published poetry and prose since earning an English degree at Stanford. To devote more time to writing, she retired in 1991 from work in instructional technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Judges' comments on "The Natural History of Don Juan."

Bo Caldwell: I liked the economy of this story in terms of the way it handled time, jumping forward in each section, leapfrogging over years each time. I also admired the freshness of the narrator’s descriptions of her feelings (“My scruples floated for an instant on a green translucent ocean, then disappeared in foam” and “It is like grief for a place where you were happy, but had to leave forever”) and the immediacy of the voice, which has an urgency to it that makes you want to stop what you’re doing and just listen to this woman, for you feel she’s baring her soul.

Ron Hansen: “The Natural History of Don Juan” actually offers the wistful life story of a woman susceptible to such men’s attractions. She first notices the power of their handsome flair as a little girl and finds herself repeatedly falling for their charms until she wearies of finding her perfect other, that imaginary mirror of herself, and settles for an unsettling and rueful loneliness.

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