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Domestic Bliss

So far away


The noon sun beating on the slate roof of our tiny carriage house, heating the stone structure like a pizza oven, finally awakens us. We are five: twins Laura and Elaine, who are my freshman-year-in-college roommates, our friends Sue and Lee, up for a weekend in Memphis from Mobile, Alabama, and me. We are 19, an age of perfection, or at least what feels like perfection.

The two rooms where we sleep, eat, sit in front of the fire, study, listen to music and party with our friends are ravaged by last night's gathering. Our new friends Mark and Billy -- sweet and innocuous, brain-dulled stoners -- tried to make the Guinness Book of World Records by rolling the longest joint ever, then passing it around for an hour-long communal smoke.

The rest of the night was music and potato chips, and a stealthy 2 a.m. dip in Laura and Elaine's parents' swimming pool, behind the main house, the July sky over our heads black and still.

We open the doors and windows and crank up the fans, then the stereo. Carole King's Tapestry keeps us moving as we make beds, fold up couches, gather trash, sweep and clean ... But it's too late baby, now, it's too late / Though we really did try to make it ... Lee holds the broomstick like a microphone and belts it out. We all join in, every word of every song so well known by practically everyone in the United States, it seems.

We dance to "I Feel the Earth Move," the sky tumble-in down, a tumble-in down, down to our very souls. The mood becomes sexy and sorrowful with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," Carole giving it her all with her slightly scratchy nasal voice and expressive piano licks. Our voices lift with hers: Tonight with words unspoken / You say that I'm the only one / But will my heart be broken / When the night meets the morning sun?

Time has stopped on this summer afternoon.

We will live in this moment again and again, over the years and miles that separate us. All of us will marry, me first. Four of us will divorce, me last. Four of us will have children, me the most. Our friendships will spark and wane, will peter out but never completely die.

Last month I heard from Sue, married a second time, happier than she has been in years, a grandmother by marriage. Laura lives in Memphis, Elaine in Dallas. Nobody knows where Lee lives now, but we have faith that eventually she'll surface.

And Carole King, still looking at 63 like a young Earth mother, has re-emerged, touring the nation and getting rave reviews for her Living Room Tour. At Radio City Music Hall, according to the New York Times, the audience sang along to her greatest song, "Natural Woman." Tapestry on CD fills my car and my kitchen, taking me back.

From a nearly 35-year perspective, it seems odd that the other cultural event that united us that summer was the broadcast of the Watergate hearings, on television every day. Senator Sam Ervin, with his white hair and his grandfatherly countenance, was as spellbinding to our group of 19-year-olds as any movie idol, better than Steve McQueen.

And though we didn't know exactly what was happening, we knew it was big and it meant there were checks and balances in our government, deceit and illegal activities by the president and his men would surely be rooted out and put on display in our democracy, and truth-telling would prevail.

We really felt that way, watching the investigation unfold, in spite of the country's deep divisive scars over the Vietnam War.

At war again now, what unites the country during the summer my sons are 20, 18 and 18? One has spent the last six months in Iraq, serving with the Army reserve in a battle that gets hotter and uglier by the day. If he returns for a second tour, it will be with the mumbled reservations of half the nation behind him, and a president who has not been called by our elected representatives to answer difficult questions about the genesis and efficacy of the war.

The only cultural event that seems to link my two younger sons, soon to enter college, with the rest of the world is the publication of the new Harry Potter book. They will leave home to rumblings about the Karl Rove scandal and a silent White House.

Carole King's voice comes over the CD player, taking me back to the summer of Tapestry and the Watergate hearings. So far away / Doesn't anybody stay in one place any more? / It would be so fine to see your face at my door / Doesn't help to know that you're so far away.


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