Riding with Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Love Story
February 14, 2013 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
Three Fourth of July weekends ago, on a crowded Hampton Jitney, beach bag strategically placed so no one could take the seat next to me, I watched a flustered blonde board and sit down directly across the aisle. Think Marilyn Monroe gone boho in the East End swelter. The LIRR had broken down, and she had spent several frustrating hours in the humidity of Westhampton waiting for a train that wouldn’t be fixed.
By contrast, I was cool and composed, having spent the day at a painter friend’s vernissage. At the time, I was a lowly twenty-three-year-old magazine intern and had met the artist while covering an event. Now I was craving some solitude. Slouched and brooding, knees tucked up into the seat before me, I closed myself off. Coupled with my tote-bag force field, I hoped my general vibe said, “No conversation please.”
As she threw down the bag slung over her shoulder, I saw she was clutching a faded pink hardcover, a book of collected poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I caught her looking at me—a glance I interpreted as one of contempt. People who take up two seats... But when she had settled in and we began to furtively study each other through the half-light, I realized my misappraisal: she was more curious than anything. We tested the limits of our peripheral vision like elementary school pupils.
The captivity of a bus—coupled with the urgency of a short trip—blends with the spontaneity of bus reservations (compared, say, to planes booked in advance) to make chance encounters inevitable and last minute shifts in fate possible. Millay’s poem “Travel,” in retrospect, seems freakily appropriate for the cancelled LIRR and the day’s noisy disruption: “The railroad track is miles away, / And the day is loud with voices speaking, / Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day / But I hear its whistle shrieking.”
She would later tell me she was struck by how relaxed I appeared when she, by contrast, had undergone such an ordeal. How composed my body language, how casual my unbuttoned shirt (truth be told, what she interpreted as Zen was really just exhaustion).
I decided to say hello first, and we started to talk; the memory of the exact exchange is hazy, imbued as the moment was with the fluttering nerves and saccharine rush of a first encounter your subconscious recognizes as significant before you truly do.
She was an actress who nannied in the Hamptons between roles. Judging by my madras shorts and boat shoes, she assumed I was some kind of pool boy. Not quite, but I was probably one of the few on our bus without a family home somewhere between Quogue and Montauk. We playfully guessed each other’s names.
“Vanessa?” I said. (What, does he think I’m some kind of bitch?)
“Joshua?” she tried. (Is it that obvious I’m Jewish?)
Tiffan, as it turned out she was called, told me she specialized in musical theater and that she was from Oklahoma. I told her I was a writer from New Jersey.
“Of poetry?” she asked, indicating the Millay.
“No, no,” I said. I told her I wrote journalism and was working on a novel. I was brazen enough to have a business card at the time that read, “Ross Kenneth Urken–Belletrist.”
As Millay continues in “Travel” (and would it be insane to assume this poem dictated the very course of our actions?), “All night there isn’t a train goes by, / Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, / But I see its cinders red on the sky, / And hear its engine steaming.”
Our conversation was interrupted. We had pulled into a rest stop to funnel two half-filled buses into one Manhattan-bound coach. Tiffan handed me her MacBook, cushioned in a pink case, and went into the Starbucks. It was a moment of trust but also of collateral—guaranteeing that she’d see me and continue our acquaintanceship. As we reboarded some minutes later, I handed the laptop back to her. But I lingered too long: the only seat available was next to a lady with a yappy dog in the three-seat back row next to the bathroom.
At tight turns I would peer over the seats and down the bus’s nave to catch a glimpse of her. She would later tell me she resisted the urge to look back.
Back in the city I got off before Tiffan, but I said goodbye in the aisle and we exchanged cards. Millay ends “Travel” with a focus on the cordiality of new figures and the spontaneity and excitement of travel—something that evening surely provided: “My heart is warm with friends I make, / And better friends I’ll not be know; / Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, / No matter where it’s going.”
I try to pretend that I wrote her some two weeks later, but the truth is I messaged her on Facebook the next morning. She, for one, was alarmed that we had no mutual friends (this fact would scare me later: had I not gotten on the Jitney that evening, had I decided to come back earlier, had I not covered the party where I met my painter friend whose invitation catalyzed this new trajectory, had the LIRR not broken down...).
We finally managed to meet some ten days later at Giovanna’s, a little place on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy. On the restaurant’s sign, there is a picture of a cloaked woman in sunglasses. That woman in the logo was walking around the sidewalk of the restaurant that evening in real life—stooped and shuffling. Tiffan asked me in a stage whisper what she could possibly be doing. We were suspicious. Both of us are now convinced she was probably casting a love spell on us: we have been back to Giovanna’s numerous times and haven’t seen her since.
When we stood from the table, we gravitated toward each other magnetically for a kiss. The waiters cheered, and we floated west, pausing for extended teenage make-outs against the brick walls of Little Italy. A half dozen cabs drove by and beeped at us, viewing us as an easy target to bring to a homestead. It was two lovers and a self-replenishing stream of yellow taxis, blaring insistently.
A car with Jersey plates passed. The driver rolled down his window. “When’s the wedding?”
I had planned to move to Berlin. But love was an overpowering force, and this was not just a summer fling. I had decided to stay—found it impossible to leave her.
“Can I keep you?” she asked me.
I moved to Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, to write, while tutoring and publishing articles to pay the bills. Tiffan was performing in off-Broadway productions and regional theater.
There are those defining moments in life that demarcate a clear before and after. In Yiddish, bashert describes the person you are fated to meet, your soul mate. In Oklahoma, this is what’s called “a keeper.”
The first time I visited her family that Christmas, that’s what her father called me. I still had my fear of flying and took a cross-country train trip to Colorado, where her family has three rustic cabins. My fifty-hour trip impressed him, especially the frightening Greyhound leg from Denver. I wore a ten-gallon hat, a rugged leather jacket, and a John Wayne belt buckle. If you’d seen me, you’d think I spoke in clipped Cormac McCarthy dialogue and swilled straight bourbon.
When we got back to Oklahoma City, crossing the desolate panhandle, Tiffan implored me to ask her father about his classic Pontiac GTO (“the Goat”). I knew nothing about cars at the time and evaded the subject. But the next Christmas, over that GTO I would ask for Tiffan’s hand in marriage.
Tiffan and I marched around the Upper West Side after that Christmas and found what we would make a beautiful home with brightly colored walls, antique wooden adornments, tag sale finds. The railroad style apartment has a loft bed built solidly into the structure, with his-and-hers closets beneath and glow-in-the-dark stars above. There’s a keyboard Tiffan uses before rehearsals or auditions, and there’s an L. C. Smith & Corona typewriter I use occasionally to pound out pieces. We had built together the beginning of a new life. In our loft bed, we dream the dreams New York couples dream. Of children’s names. Of a house upstate. Of artistic success.
That summer, I bought a canary diamond and come Labor Day, we escaped to the Berkshires, where Steepletop, Millay’s old estate, is preserved. There is a poetry trail with her verse on placards nailed onto trees, a mossy path through the enchanting woodland. We had brought a picnic of Lunchables and Capri Sun and sat on a bench toward the end of the trail. I fumbled in my pocket for the ring case, and told her I wanted to love her, poetically, forever.
Millay is buried farther down the trail, and we lit a candle, placing it on the rock that marks her grave—offering our appreciation. Down a ways by her old homestead, there is a defunct natatorium and structure that used to be a bar. The sultry poet would host Prohibition-era parties there with one major policy: clothes by the bar, no clothes by the pool. In honor of this tradition and owing to the weekend deserted of people at Steepletop, we divested ourselves—it’s the rules, after all—and celebrated with our patron poet.