When I was 14 years old, I would have done anything for Gregory Peck. Absolutely anything.
When I met him this winter at the Kennedy Center, I felt exactly the same way. He rose to his feet, gallant as he ever was to Ingrid Bergman, and took my trembling hand in his. Leaning down from a great height, the famous arched eyebrows smiled warmly at me and the deep mellifluous voice asked, "And what do you do?"
I looked up, into smoldering dark eyes that were exactly as I remembered from every silver screen of my youthhood, and my veins throbbed.
"I kiss," I said.
Romance is different from love. Love is what you feel for solid, steady people and things in your life, and your dog and cat. Or love can go sick on you and be addiction, a definite, all-consuming illness.
Romance isn't carnal knowledge, although certainly sex has to lurk on the edges, preferably always out of reach. Romance is an enhancer, like looking at beautiful paintings, or finding a bird nest with pale blue eggs or getting a whiff of night-blooming jasmine outside your window -- delicate, ethereal, suddenly touching chords in your soul, stringing them into kaleidoscopes of longing, memory, distant music and sunshine, like heaven beyond the next hill.
Romance needs restraint and discipline, and it can easily be killed. Chewing with your mouth open in a good restraurant -- as opposed to a fast-food restaurant -- or picking your teeth can do the job. Romance is not a thing you do, it's an attitude you have, and we all need it to survive February.
I said this to my favorite cousin and he doubted me.
"I have a cold," he said. "I'm not interested in life."
"You'll feel much better if you learn something new," I assured him. "Romance is not just little dinners with candles and wine, or your very own song. You have to go back into your head, deep into your deepest dreams, and find your earliest unfulfilled longings."
"I never do that sort of thing," he said.
"Try." I rubbed his forehead. "Think. Was there someone you couldn't get together with? Maybe 15 years older than you and married, with brown hair and blue eyes, or gold hair and green eyes? Or a place you wanted to be, a Johannesburg gold mine with Olivia Newton-John or the Australian outback with Scarlett O'Harea?"
He shook his head, so I turned on yearning music. Cole Porter wrote some of the best, sexy, unrequited-love lyrics, but the '40s was a good decade, too. We listened to Rita Hayworth, singing "Amado Mio" to Glenn Ford and telling him slowly, desperately, 'I love you so much, I think I'm going to die from it," and Peggy Lee's classic "Envy." Then we heard "Close Your Eyes" and "Heat Wave," and soon my cousin felt well enough to get up and go out.
I sent him to the airport, to stand by the arrival gates and look for faces that reminded him of distant dreams, and he failed miserably. He saw one, a beautiful girl hurrying toward him on the ramp. He caught his breath, stepped forward and smiled, and she asked him where the rent-a-car check-in desk was.
"I'll never learn this," he moaned when he reported back.
"Of course you will," I sneezed -- I had caught his cold. "But you do need more tutoring."
I took him with me to the doctor's office. The doctor was late, and we sat in the waiting room, our minds drifting. The door opened and a commanding man walked in, power oozing from every pore, the clothes expensive, the face relaxed, the body tanned and exercised. Chairman of the board of a multinational corporation, he looks around the room, sizing everybody up. His eyes stop on me.
"I need you," he says simply.
"I need you too," I say. I hand him my doctor's bill.
"Romantic, and practical too!" My cousin shouts. "I understand, I understand!"
"I hope so," I coughed. "Some people think romance is just having your very own disco with John Travolta managing it, but there's much more than that."
Now my cousin was frantic to learn.
"This is going to change my whole outlook on February," he said. "I might even send someone a valentine. Let's go someplace where I can practice."
I suggested the Library of Congress. "It's a very dreamy place. People coming in and out, nooks and crannies to hide in, books to read while you wait."
"Great," he nodded. "I know just want to do."
We made our way to the stacks and sat down. I had just begun to read the Wall Street Journal when a girl walked in: willowy, athletic, luscious, energy springing through her body. Her glance fell on my cousin, and she walked rapidly toward him and got in his lap.
My cousin smiled and waved at me.
"Romance!" he hissed.
I leapt to my feet and rushed over."What do you think you're doing?" I said icily.
"Making out," the girl said. "He's cute."
I ignored her. "This is the end." I grabbed my cousin's arm. "We're leaving."
"But what's wrong? What's wrong?" he ranted all the way down the library steps. "Wasn't I doing exactly what you told me?"
"That's not the point," I said firmly as we climbed in a taxi. "You're moving too fast -- this is only February.Spring is coming, but it isn't here yet."
"What does spring have to do with it?" he said irritably. "All that happens then is the flowers come out, the air gets soft and warm, the birds sing, the bees..." his voice slowed down, his tone changed. "You mean, only a few more weeks, and I can...?"
"Exactly," I said as the taxi stopped for a light.
Ahead, the streets slanted west, full of sunlight and beckoning promise, and I became alert. Soon I saw them -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, waiting ahead at the arroyo.
Their horses moved off as the taxi started up again, going faster over the hillside, across the clouds, into the golden, shining light.
Gently I kissed the top of my cousin's head.
"You've learned at last," I say to him.
"Later..." I murmur to Redford.