July 11, 2000: An Encounter with Greta Garbo

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Greta GarboThere are events in everyone’s life that sometimes take on an emotional importance spectacularly out of proportion to their physical limits. When they happen they start innocently, sneaking up on you without the slightest warning. Sometimes it begins with a look, sometimes a feeling, sometimes a smell or sound or stray thought. They sit there in the cob webby back corner of your mind, unimportant and nearly intangible before suddenly blossoming into something very important. It happens frightfully fast – almost thunderously really – like one of those time-lapse photographs of a flower suddenly blooming in the bright spring sun. They start with a wonderful tingling sensation at the back of your neck and end with the certainty that this is a moment, a memory, that will stick with you until you die.

Encounters with Nimbleness of Mind and Presence of Emotion

For me, most of those moments seemed to have come when I was in my twenties. Perhaps they need a nimbleness of mind and presence of emotion that becomes dulled by the passing of time. But, there are one or two that I remember to this day as clear and as fresh as the day they happened. Whenever I feel low, I pull them out and live them again. And for a time, feel renewed.

In my early twenties I was a student at the University of Kentucky. I was a burly guy, old beyond my years, with a great shaggy beard and shoulder length hair. I was markedly out of step with the svelte disco kings and queens, resplendent in polyester and teetering on six-inch heels who were beginning to replace the old line hippies on American campuses. I took a variety of courses, from biology to journalism law to philosophy. Though the world was moving toward an emphasis on specialization, I was steadfastly plodding along in the other direction. My curriculum was heavy with courses in literature, film, and political science. All subjects that I enjoyed and could excel at without really trying. I avoided, when possible, the sciences or any other courses that relied on rote and memorization. Though I had some intellectual interest in them, I mostly hated them and ditched them at every opportunity.

One of my favorite courses was a film criticism class. It was taught by a pompous and effete graduate from the University of Alberta. His critical method was to watch a film over and over until every moment was imprinted indelibly on his mind. Then, like a cross-eyed man squinting too close to a mirror, he would concoct a completely new reality of what he saw. He conjured up the most amazing critical theories. Every one was obviously a complete fantasy, but also enjoyable if you took them for the harmless fiction they were. My favorite pastime was to invent incredible theories of my own and introduce them to the discussions in his class. Without fail, he seized upon them and took off like a shot, conflating them with his own overwrought ideas and expanding them until they collapsed of their own faux intellectual weight. I was having the time of my life.

One of the movies assigned that semester was Anna Karenina. It was playing in a large auditorium classroom late on a cold winter Wednesday. As usual, I found a stage-center seat against the back wall of the auditorium. I sank down into my uncomfortable institutional seat, pulled out my notebook, and began to watch without the slightest intention of actually taking the first note.

The film was glorious, the first of the season that I truly enjoyed. Each time Greta Garbo filled the screen she reflected an intense white glow that bathed me in the astonishingly cold water from a Russian mountain lake. It took my breath away. As I was going down for the third time I glanced forward and to the right two rows. There, bathed in the same incredible white glow, I saw the luminescent outline of a woman’s face. It seemed to glow with the same fantastic intensity of Garbo’s. It framed her soft cheeks and eyes and made the highlights of her long dark hair sparkle like so many diamonds. I spent the rest of the film staring down two rows and to the right. To this day Anna Karenina ends for me with a kiss between Fredric March and Greta Garbo somewhere in the middle of the film.

An Encounter with Greta Garbo

As the film ended, I watched closely trying to get a look at the woman whom I had spent so much time staring at. When the house lights came up I was quite surprised. Instead of a cool, Teutonic beauty ala Garbo, I saw a woman with long shoulder length brown hair. She was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but somehow combined several features that would best be described as “pleasant”. Yet, I was entranced. Those plain features and that soft brown hair seemed almost more than I could bear. I angled for the exit, trying to place myself somewhere close to her.

We both stepped out into a bitterly cold wind, tearing at our clothes and bringing tears to our eyes. But inside, I was somehow warm and comfortable and she seemed the same. We started out across the campus, her in the lead and me just a few steps behind. Snow crunched softly under our feet. Our breath combined into a big swirling cloud of steam. I stole glances her way at every chance and suddenly realized that she was doing the same. She looked back occasionally with a tiny perfect smile and I realized that in that split second I had fallen in love.

Like a bumbling schoolboy, I thrilled at being near while secretly fretting that I had no words for her. Her delicate smiles must certainly have been invitations, yet I was at a near panic trying to come up with something, anything, to say.

We walked on for a while in silence, my panic slowly subsiding into an unusual sort of happiness. Our paths took us the long way round to no place of particular importance. Somehow walking to nowhere, while electricity crackled between us, seemed just enough.

As if in some weird movie script, she stopped, slowly turned to me, and said, “Good night.”

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