Through the Looking Glass: The Great Ashley

by Henry Russell | 5/7/15 7:29pm

05.08.2015.mirror.Henry-Russel.BW_Alice-Harrison
A woman Henry Russell '15 met during his freshmen year shaped his time at the College.
Source: Alice Harrison/The Dartmouth Staff

Ashley was a green light I never expected.

It was the end of my freshmen fall, and I was doing my best to woo an unreadable woman with blue eyes intense as a lion’s — the very same woman it seemed every guy on the cross country team was chasing. Ashley (whose name I’ve changed for this piece) wasn’t on my radar, except as another upperclassman runner, the one with unusually perfect skin who sat alone early in the mornings at Collis reading film reviews in The New York Times.

Ashley crashed into my world on one of the last nights of that term. I’d been following Lion Eyes from fraternity to fraternity, sipping beers as she got drunk and danced with me in that terrible just-friends sort of way. Ashley was there too, but I paid her little attention. At some point maybe we danced or shared a joke about a term paper I’d yet to start, though I can’t quite recall.

At the end of the night lion eyes was coming into what my dad would call “rare form.” Ashley and I walked her back to her dorm where Ashley, who was a type of older-sister figure on the team, said she wanted to sleep over to keep an eye on her. And then, as that door swung closed, I caught Ashley looking back. There was the sudden flick then casual roll of the eyes that seemed to say “Sorry, champ — let’s do it another time,” and as I walked home under the warm glow of the streetlamps I wondered at those eyes and just what “it” might be.

I didn’t have to wonder long. The team Christmas party was the next night.

At the party, Ashley was wearing her ugliest Christmas sweater, laughing with her group of older girlfriends as I played it cool by the stairs. I didn’t drink much in those days, and I was nursing a beer for show and leaning back against the wooden railing when Ashley appeared before me.

There was a cut on the left of her bottom lip and it was a swollen and purple.

“Jesus, what happened to you?” I said.

She laughed and her perfect skin went a little red at her cheeks and she said, “I ran into a sign.” It’s strange, but in that moment thinking about Ashley nailing her face on a road sign that morning seemed like the cutest thing in the world.

“So what are you doing standing all alone?” she said.

And I delivered a line for the ages.

“Waiting for you,” I said, and then I kissed her, swollen lip and all.

All I thought about over the Christmas holiday was Ashley, but, whether it was the time apart, the absence of that magical end-of-term euphoria or my own cowardice, I found, when I returned, I could barely get myself to speak to her.

Still, there was a silver lining: We were in the same creative writing class.

We didn’t sit next to each other. We didn’t get lunch or coffee afterward. I watched her from across the table, and I wrote for her — stories of fishing with my father and fist fights with hulking drunks, all at once fictions and yet half-truths I hoped she’d read and come to see me as not only a skilled writer but a man in the truest sense. I was writing the meat-and-potatoes Henry, the boy with an iron spirit and a 10-inch you-know-what. And it was all for Ashley.

We ran into each other in the library one night and she said, “How are ya,’ Hemingway?” which I took as a compliment and then she said, “I’ll be Fitzgerald.”

I gave her a blank stare. I’m embarrassed to say it, but, yours truly, the Henry who spent the rest of his time at Dartmouth writing short story after short story and reading every modernist text he could get his hands on, had no clue who F. Scott Fitzgerald was.

Ashley prompted me: “Ever heard of ‘The Great Gatsby?’”

“Oh, ‘Gatsby,’” I said. “Skipped that one in high school.”

The look on her face was of shock, almost disgust. The conversation ended awkwardly and as soon as she was out of sight I went straight into the stacks, pulled “Gatsby” and checked it out at the front desk.

I found Ashley studying alone in the lobby. I gathered my courage and sat down across from her and, without a word, I took out the book and I started to read. I had made it past the first party scene (“The description of the orange peels is my favorite,” Ashley said and I agreed), and then I walked her home and we kissed under the eaves.

“Lip’s a little less bloody this time,” I said and she laughed and when the door closed behind her I pumped my fist to the sky. Hemingway was back in the game, baby.

But the next day I sat again across the long table. Once more the green light drifted away as green lights are known to do.

There was just something about Ashley that made her unapproachable. Every woman on the cross country team looked up to her and I looked up to her though I couldn’t admit it. She was funny in a raunchy yet clever way. She was a great, great writer, and looking back, I wish I’d had the humility to let her know that.

One frigid afternoon I was running alone along the river in Vermont and, nearing the great Ledyard Bridge back into Hanover, I saw Ashley’s determined, shuffling stride churning along ahead of me.

“Hey, old sport,” I said as I came up behind her and she smiled and we were closing in on the bridge together when we saw what looked like a black plastic bag dangling from the center of the bridge, twirling in the wind high over the ice.

But as we ran along the path under the bridge we saw it was no bag, but rather a pigeon that had hung itself by mistake from a piece of string it was using to build its nest.

We stopped and we looked at it twirling there in the wind. The bird’s family — a mother and two little baby pigeons — was huddled against the cold in the nest above their dead, hanging patriarch.

We ran home in silence, chilled by the dark omen, and when we parted ways at campus I found a peculiar idea had come over me.

I wanted to cut down the bird.

The next morning I ran out under the bridge again. I watched the pigeon spinning over the frozen Connecticut for a long while. I made some calculations in my head. The bird was maybe 60 feet out, near the dead center of the bridge. The drop from where the bird hung to the ice below maybe 25 or 30 feet.

“Ah s--t,” I said and ran straight back up the hill.

But the next morning I walked out to the bridge again, this time with a friend, and I asked him, “Is it worth the risk?” and he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Jesus Henry. Don’t risk your life for a dead bird,” and I said, “what about for Ashley?” and he said, “you’re an idiot, you know that Henry,” and so, once more, I walked back up the hill.

Over the course of the next week I took a new approach to the bird. I began to write a story — the story, of course, of the boy who finds a hanging bird and cuts it down. Late one frigid Tuesday night I finished the story, and when the thing was done, I felt for the first time one of the most magical things about writing — the way it can change a person, change life really.

I set out alone into the night and down the hill to Vermont.

In the black underbelly of the bridge, I could feel my heart beating in my throat. My hands were sweating through my gloves and the sweat was freezing so the gloves stuck to the metal of the rafters as I climbed. I crouched and began to edge out over the ice. Inch by terrible inch I went and I was breathing hard with the effort and the fear. My eyes were only now adjusting to the dark. I came around a support beam that forced me to hang suspended in the air for a terrifying second and then I looked down and saw a stream of water running through the ice below. I felt the greatest fear of my life knowing that with one slip I would fall, break through the ice and be frozen and dead in a matter of minutes. But there was no turning back.

At last I approached the nest and I looked upon the bird, that dark ballerina pirouetting over the ice. A heavy step and the family of pigeons woke to my presence. The mother cooed and flapped her wings and shuffled the two children out of the nest, further down the ledge away from me. The family of birds watched in wonder as I reached out my hand and grabbed the string that held the hanging bird. I saw how it was tangled in his beak and then wrapped around his neck. I freed the line from the nest of twigs and held the weight of the bird in my hand and it was heavier than I’d expected. The bird’s tiny eyes were jet black, frozen beads that glinted in the moonlight. I made my way back over the rivulet of water that ran through the ice, aimed and dropped him. He hit the water with a soft kerplunk, resurfaced and floated off into the dark.

The next day, I turned my story in for the class to read.

Ashley sent me a message that afternoon: “You didn’t really climb out to get the bird did you?”

And in a final attempt at heroic mystery I didn’t ever answer that question — well, until now, I guess, in this piece of writing, three-and-a-half years later.

There have been other green lights since Ashley. There was a great runner I drove away with overeager pursuit. A summer romance with a fisherman’s daughter I never quite caught the big one for.

And then there was something new.

I met a girl with whom it was easy. We spent two years together, best friends, lovers, family. I knew her darkest secrets and she knew mine. I sobbed for her and I laughed for her. Mornings I awoke in her arms, fell back into them with night. And then, only a few months ago, we realized the timing of our imagined future just wasn’t right. She was working a 9 to 5 and I was a senior here with dreams of the great American novel. Caught up in our pursuits, we let each other go.

On the day we broke up, I sat alone in my room and listened to Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” (1975) the album my dad once said I would only understand when I experienced my first true heartbreak, when I lost the One — or at least a One.

So I listened and I cried a bit and I sang the words whose terrible majesty I was only now able to comprehend when all of a sudden I found myself surprised to be thinking of Ashley.

It’s funny, I guess, because I hadn’t thought about Ashley in years. Still, I found myself thinking it strange just how much she changed me.

It was for Ashley that I learned to read in the careful way I do today, for Ashley that I became a writer. And of course, it was for Ashley that I cut down that bird, that long lost act of strange heroism whose truest motive even I couldn’t fully comprehend.

And so I sat there, listening to Dylan wail on over the speakers and I wondered at the extraordinary ride that is our lives here. Mercy to the flick of eyes, these simplest twists of fate, we fall into green lights and then, if we’re lucky, find ourselves tangled up in blue. All the while we beat on, blind skippers at the helms of boats we hardly know we’re in. We hold tight the tiller and — if we’re wise or reckless or maybe both — we seek out those moments when we must venture under the dark bridges within ourselves and find the courage to act in ways we’ll never quite understand but will know in our hearts are necessary.

You know I saw a pigeon the other day, pecking in the dirt down by the river, and when I jogged by him he looked up at me.

I caught his black eyes just long enough to imagine him saying, “Thanks, old sport.”