#107: Sam Cooke, "Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964" (2003)

107 Portrait of a Legend.jpg

“It can only be romantic if it’s unfulfilled.”

This, whispered in moonlight, her hand still around me, squeezing. I’m a beat behind her, opening my eyes in time to see her slip through the screen, her camp-issued counselor’s uniform white and glowing like the cranes that haunt Loon Lake. She turns back once, pausing at the fence separating the girls’ cabins from the boys’, and then she dips beneath the rails and is absorbed by the night.

This is the third time she’s run off in the middle of things, leaving me in the archery shed, surrounded by spiders. Disappointment warps quickly to something like rage, every nerve in my body on end. I step back and crack a fallen arrow at the nock; I have to stop myself from grabbing the set in my fist.

She’s trying to control things, keep my attention. She told me early on that she doesn’t believe in me, thinks I’m just in it for a quick fix, a summer fling. She was suspicious when I took her walking at midnight by the Loon, playing music from my phone, asking her to dance. She said I was trying too hard. “Sam Cooke? You must think I’m such a fool.”

That was two terms ago, almost six weeks. Now, she just thinks I’m a sap. One afternoon during Quiet Hours, we were stationed at the docks, making sure none of the older campers were sneaking out to skinny dip at the Loon’s edge. She was flicking through my music, her dark toes skimming the water. She was going too fast, playing half a second of each song, and more to stop her than anything else, I kissed her. It wasn’t the first but it was the longest, and three full songs had passed before she pulled away.

“You know this is bullshit,” she said, and it took me a second to realize she was talking about the lyrics, not the kissing. Sam Cooke again, “Nothing Can Change This Love.”

“Unconditional love isn’t a real thing. Everyone has terms. Anything can happen.” She looked really mad, completely put out. My body was still imprinted with hers, her mint chapstick buzzing on my lips. I thought about it.

“Well, okay. But I guess that’s also kind of the choice we make, right?”

“I mean. I have some serious fucking conditions.” She was staring at me.

“Okay. Like what.”

“Like don’t kill someone. Don’t be a white supremacist.”

I pulled my foot from the water, stretched my leg out around her hip. I thought about the fake yawns they used to do in movies at drive-ins, and had to stop myself from pulling back. She didn’t seem to notice.

“We all have terms. Why do you even listen to this music?”

I looked at the water, Sam’s voice that rich, rasping well of longing that seemed to carry its own echo. “Maybe it’s about his kid,” I said. “I mean, if you had a kid who killed someone, wouldn’t you still love them?”

She looked at me.

“I mean, okay, you could be like really angry with them, and not approve or whatever—”

She started laughing. We let the song play out.

Looking at the water, I found myself wondering what I liked so much about Sam Cooke, why I included him on most of my playlists. “Look, Sam Cooke was a really important forerunner to so many greats in soul, in R&B, in black American music.”

I could feel her looking at me, felt her shift a bit against my thigh. “Yeah okay. But that’s not why you like him.”

I shook my head, thinking about it. “I’ll Come Running Back To You” came on, rippling out like a breeze. But even there, in this softer, brighter, happy sort of lullaby, there was something in his voice that ached, full of a yearning so deep he seemed to be both the roaring rush of a mighty river, and the passenger desperate to cross it.

But her fingers had found my belt loop, and I found myself ducking my head down to hers, tracing the soft valley of her jaw with my nose. “He just wants her so bad,” I breathed into her ear, watching the goosebumps rise on her nape. “What’s more romantic than wanting?”

Now in the shed, I brush cobwebs off my shoulders. I can see I brought this on myself. Fucking Sam Cooke. Without meaning to, I’d convinced her—I’ve since caught her humming “Bring It On Home To Me,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Send Me.” At first she was embarrassed, tried to play it off as some kind of proximity earworm. “Shit is catchy!” she’d claim, shrugging me off. But it was all strategy.

A few more minutes pass and the adrenaline seems to have shifted from anger to some other kind of emptiness. I’m already thinking about tomorrow, mentally reviewing her schedule, trying to figure out how I can sneak her off to some piney grove, convince her to stay just a little longer. If she wants me to be Sam, I’ll be Sam. I’m not ashamed, I almost sing, slipping from the shed, carrying this hunger along, not entirely sure if it’s romance or not, almost dreading what will happen next.

—S.H. Lohmann