Learning to forget
There is no one left who knew Red and Rounette during their years in Florida, so it's impossible to say how their story began. At this point, however, after years of conversations and correspondence with Rounette's sister and nephew, I have formed my own version of their origin story. Imagine with me for a moment. . .
Rounette Sulpizio was not a woman who needed a man, that much Red could see. He didn't intend to try to persuade her otherwise. Twice divorced and nearing fifty, he had come to regard women as something of a curiosity, best admired from afar. But there was something about Rounette. He had first noticed her at the bar he'd begun to frequent at night, a little dive of a place that had discovered on a walk around the neighborhood when he'd moved in. She was always there by the time he arrived, making her rounds chatting up the other regulars, her raspy laugh always filling the room. She was such a fixture there that Red thought at first she might have owned the place, but once she noticed that Red was becoming one of the regulars, too, she began to include him in her rounds, telling him stories of her days waitressing at the truck stop down the road.
Red enjoyed her company, craved it even. He liked that she did the talking. And he liked that she could match him shot-for-shot, which she did most nights, between cracking jokes with the bartender or complaining offhandedly about drama of some kind or another with her family up in South Carolina. He was content to listen--she never asked any more of him anyway--and he found himself thinking of Merle Haggard as she described the various troubles of her days: This one's for my friends with problems enough to drink.
Still, along her hard edges there was a lightness about her, and she seemed to enjoy being the center of attention with the regulars, who flocked around her to see what outrageous thing she might be doing on any given night. On occasion, when the drinks had made her especially friendly, she'd sidle up to Red and whisper something in his ear, something to remind him of what he'd been missing in a woman. As time went on he found himself hoping for more of those moments with her.
But she could be difficult at times, particularly as the night wore on. She could grow moody. "Truckers are all bastards," she said one night, sighing into her glass before downing it in one swift gulp. She was a few drinks in and more somber than usual, clearly lost in a memory. Red was familiar enough with those kinds of nights, when the alcohol made him pensive instead of numb. Problems enough to drink he always thought to himself whenever Rounette would get that way. She tapped her glass on the bar and looked over to him with a strange half smile that he didn't recognize on her. "You're not a trucker are you, Red?"
He was surprised by the question, and he found his face flushing, as if she'd just accused him, though she knew he'd been working in construction since he moved to Florida a few years back. They didn't talk much about the particulars of their lives outside of the day-to-day, preferring idle chatter over anything of substance, but he suddenly he wanted to explain his past, to share his secrets with her, to unburden himself. But he could see in her wrinkled brow that she didn't need to carry his burdens as well as her own, so he tried to lighten the mood instead.
"I can be anything you want me to be, Rounette," he said, hoping she might lean in close like she sometimes did, her hand resting on his knee. Instead, she studied his face. She stared at him for so long that Red flushed again, fearing he'd made a mistake. It had been a while since he'd tried a line on a woman. Maybe he'd done it wrong.
Rounette slid off of her bar stool, never shifting her gaze from Red. She grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him toward her.
"What do you say we go forget some things for a while," she said, her breath hot against his face.
Red didn't need any more persuasion. There were plenty of things he'd be happy to join her in forgetting.
* * *
Nights when Rounette would fix her eyes on Red soon became the norm. Red, for all his promises to swear off women for good, couldn't help feeling a certain relief whenever she'd take hold of his collar and pull him close, whispering an invitation in his ear. He felt chosen, anointed even, to be the one to see her edges soften in that moment, when the rest of the world could see only the hardness about her. No woman had ever offered herself to him in that way before, so completely and without shame. He marveled at this feeling of being the object of desire.
In their moments alone in her apartment, he would stroke her cheek as she slept, surprised by the tenderness that welled up in him. She had never asked for anything but the comfort of his body. She asked nothing of his past and made no plans for the future. Their nights together were like a transaction to her, an exercise in forgetting--that's how she always phrased her invitation to him, Let's forget some things for a while--but what she seemed so desperate to forget she never shared with him. What he knew for certain is that after a while, he lost his own will to forget, at least with her. He wanted to remember. He began to memorize things about her, the curve of her back, the smell of her lotion, things that he could call upon during the day to last him until the night, until that moment when she was whispering in his ear. He began to want more from her, wanted her days as well as her nights, though this desire embarrassed him, made him feel like less of a man. He already had everything a man should want, but he wanted her company, too, her story. One night, he grew bold enough to ask her for more.
"Why don't you ever talk about your past, Rounette?
She was leaning against the windowsill next to the bed. "What's the point?" She fumbled with a book of matches and lit a cigarette. "Can't do anything to change it." She took a long drag from her cigarette and held it in for a moment before exhaling toward the ceiling.
"What about the future then?" Red felt his pulse quicken at this question, and his neck grew hot. He immediately wished he hadn't said anything.
Rounette stared hard at him. "You want to talk about the future?" She took another drag and then laughed as she exhaled. "Here's what's in my future. I'm gonna spend the rest of my life taking orders from my mama. That's what." She tamped out the rest of her cigarette and crawled back into bed. "I'm moving back to South Carolina to help with my mother. Just worked out the details with my brother Jack this afternoon." She nestled her head against his chest for a moment then looked up at him. "Red, your heart is pounding. You ok?"
Red did not pause to think about what he would say next. He didn't wait for second thoughts to settle in or to consider what Rounette's response would be. Instead, he acted only on instinct, much as Rounette had when she'd first invited him there. Instinct, it seemed, had been working in their favor.
"I want to come with you," he said.
* * *
Now imagine with me, if you will, that Rounette, soon after realizing her own feelings for Red, confided something in him. It would have been perfect pillow talk, this story, filled with the kind of vulnerability and sadness that bonds people. It was the kind of story that would make a partner profess anything in response. In this story, she would provide her reasons for treading cautiously into a new relationship. She would tell Red the story of her second marriage to a man named Rocco, who was a long-haul trucker for all the years she was with him. Maybe she wasn't meant for marriage, she might have said to Red, because she enjoyed the longs stretches of freedom while he was on the road. It hadn't been a happy marriage, and they eventually divorced. When Rocco later drowned in the St. John's River in Florida, Rounette learned that he had had a wife and children in New York all the while he was married to her. Trust was no longer something that came easily to her.
Now imagine that you are Red hearing this story for the first time. You have fallen in love, against your better judgment perhaps. You have made plans with this woman, made hopeful third-time's-a-charm jokes to reassure yourself. You are ready to share the pain of your past and usher in a new future with a clean slate. And then there's this story.
To understand how none of Rounette's family knew about Lillian and the boys, I had to come to some kind of understanding of how Red could have kept their existence a secret. Then I learned Rounette's story and things became clearer to me: If Red wanted to move forward, perhaps not just with Rounette but with his life in general, he would have to allow the past to remain where it was. And a slate can only be cleaned by erasing it.
Red did accompany Rounette to South Carolina, where they cared for her aging mother. During the day, Red drove logging trucks for one of Rounette's brothers, which would, in keeping with his history, prove tragic for him. While on a job site one day in 1976, he was waiting on a load with his back to a tree that was being cut some distance away. The tree fell in the opposite direction the logger had intended, and the top of it fell on Red, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. Though he eventually regained enough physical function to resume working in some capacity, he was left with severely slurred speech for the rest of his life.
I spoke with Rounette's nephew Marty soon after his mother received my letter. He was fond of Red and was eager to convince me that he had been a good man in his later years. He described him as a decent, hardworking man who often picked him up from school to spend time with him.
"If he saw a need to do something, he did it,” Marty said.
This wasn't to suggest that Red did not have problems. He drank heavily, vodka mainly, but only at night Marty was quick to mention. Rounette was also a heavy drinker, and she avoided conflict with Red by simply leaving when things got heated, which often prompted him to get in the car and drive off. “One night Red got shit-faced drunk and drove through the night to their house in Florida and had no idea how he got there,” Marty said, marveling at the story. I could almost see him shaking his head in wonder on the other end of the line. I thought about Red's tendency to drive off through the night. Did he abduct the boys in a booze fueled rage as well? Did he remember doing it? I tucked these thoughts away.
Rounette and Red's relationship was, in the eyes of outsiders, strained from the drinking, but it was Rounette who caused most of the strife in the family. Though she was fun loving when she was sober, she was a bitter drunk who would have everyone walking on eggshells around her. "Red was too good for her," Marty confided to me, a point that I found ironic for obvious reasons. But it seemed he had found a genuine love with Rounette, and though they never officially married, they remained together for the last twenty years of their lives, recognized as common law partners by the state. After Rounette died from cancer in 1994, Red drank even more than before, and though Rounette's sister would bring him dinner every night, he lost interest in eating, then in living. He died within a year of Rounette's passing, seemingly grieving himself to death.
"He was just a great person," Marty said, an assessment I would simply have to sit with for a while before believing.