Hunger, A Love Story by Nancy Graham Holm
Home delivery service in rural California was standard during the Covid19 pandemic, and Amelia was grateful for it, especially since the delivery boy was so attractive. Tall. Muscular. Light blue eyes framed by dark curly hair – someone her granddaughters would say is "hot."
Nobody would suspect this 80-year-old woman was nurturing a craving buried in her memories. Lust. She smiled when she thought about it, amused that she still experienced sexual arousal.
"Please! I'm so grateful to you," she said, hiding behind her surgical mask the next time he delivered her groceries. "Will you accept a tip?"
He nodded, wiping a ten-dollar bill with sanitizer before putting it in his pocket. He refused her invitation for coffee, but from within the safe interior of his car, he dropped his mask and flashed her a smile. Wham! There it was again! How could this simple gesture unleash such intoxicating desire?
Twice married with many lovers in between, Amelia was well acquainted with lust. She'd discovered it at puberty when she gained a bad reputation for allowing boys to go "too far" while making out. She knew she was the subject of gossip, but it made no sense to her. How could it be that female sexuality pleased boys but also unnerved and frightened them? Why the ambivalence? Why the double standard? What saved Amelia from disgrace was her grade point average. She graduated valedictorian of her class.
After a brief career as a fashion model, this tall, stunning woman with auburn hair and green eyes stopped merchandising her physical charm and devoted her time to education.. Her phenomenal memory for taxonomy astonished her colleagues as she worked through the biological sciences to a doctorate in botany. Biology helped Amelia understand how high levels of certain hormones in some women make them sexually promiscuous. While her girlfriends were looking for love, she was often predatory, looking merely for sexual satisfaction, a good scratch to satisfy the itch. Yes. She was well acquainted with lust, but she'd laid it to rest long ago. Or so she thought.
His name was Kory, short for Konrad. He was twenty-eight and a medical student between his third and final year. Unfortunately, this is all Amelia could learn from him since he never responded to personal questions. Then one day, Kory mentioned something that completely changed everything. He had just been notified that he failed pharmacology, and he needed to give up his delivery job to study for a make-up exam.
"Don't quit! I'll help you!" Amelia said, offering her scientific credentials. Kory was skeptical, yet Amelia immediately saw how his perception of her shifted as she spouted chemical valences and casually mentioned drug derivatives. No longer a fragile old woman whose groceries he delivered, she was now a competent source of biochemical knowledge Kory needed to learn. He accepted her invitation and agreed to some pandemic ground rules to avoid contamination. To sign the contract, they knocked elbows. The next day he brought his books.
And so, it evolved. They became an odd couple, seeing no one socially outside their shared bubble of self-quarantine. The relationship quickly grew beyond teacher-student boundaries into a warm friendship of equals whose topics of conversation moved from pharmacology to music and literature. Kory often stayed for dinner, staying late into the evening and enjoying the old lady’s intelligent company.
At first, their dinner conversations were limited to genetics and molecular chemistry, but then one evening, Kory casually mentioned that he'd been an English major as an undergraduate. His only science courses had been the standard prerequisites for medical school.
"So. You're a reader. Who's your favorite author?"
"I like Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot - although he's more British than American. I fell in love with poetry when I first read Eliot. Have you ever read The Waste Land? No?" Suddenly, Kory was talkative, and his exuberance amused Amelia. "You should. But as much as I like Eliot, he’s not my favorite poet."
"Not really. The one who speaks to me the most is a woman.
"And who's that?"
"Dickinson? Remind me. What does she write about?"
"She wrote hundreds of poems about the nature of death and immortality."
Amelia bristled. "Death? Isn't that just a little pretentious in someone so young?"
"Did you know she was also a botanist?"
Zap! A surge of jealousy. "Recite one of her poems for me. Not about plants and not about death. Choose one about love." Amelia was prepared to coax him, but it wasn't necessary.
Kory closed his eyes.
"Wild nights – Wild nights! Were I with thee. Wild nights should be Our luxury!"
What? Wild nights? Amelia felt herself blushing as Kory continued: "Futile – the winds – To a Heart in port – Done with the Compass – Done with the Chart! Rowing in Eden – Ah – the Sea! Might I but moor – tonight – In thee!"
He opened his eyes.
“Bravo!" Amelia clapped her hands. "You have a nice voice for recitation,"
she said, as she picked up her iPhone and snapped a photo.
Amelia loved these evenings, basking in his presence and sharing ideas while longing to hear him say something personal. What did she want to hear? An acknowledgment of attraction? Not likely. Age mattered, and Kory was younger than her oldest grandchild.
She forced herself to let go of the fantasy, admitting to herself that her obsession wasn't so much with Kory but with the buzz he gave her, that lovely intoxicating sensation of lust.
She called it hunger, a feeling that started with a prolonged bout of kissing … intensifying … as a musk-scented pheromone triggered an ethereal gaze in the lover's eyes. Amelia had always loved that expression, the one musicians get when the sounds of their instruments shift their consciousness to another realm. Where do they go when they leave their bodies, she’d always wondered? She wondered about Kory’s body. How did his eyes look when he was aroused? How did his skin smell?
Music entered their relationship when Kory introduced Amelia to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday. When it was her turn, she introduced him to the differences between Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. It was new territory for both, and they enjoyed learning from each other.
Kory loved to listen to music with Amelia because the old lady provided the best weed he'd ever smoked, cannabis that she grew in her garden, her very own strain, cultivated from seeds she'd collected in Costa Rica. Kory had tried to pretend he wasn't shocked the first time Amelia offered him a joint. He expected it now, especially when they agreed to take a break from tedious pharmacology. Music had become a new language for them, listening and then telling each other what they heard.
"You're so rational. I bet Baroque is your favorite period," Kory said.
Ouch. The comment pinched her. "I am, but I'm also romantic. You don't know that about me. I'm an emotional woman. I feel ... very deeply ... about many things."
"But do you really find Baroque music emotional? I mean ... it seems pretty intellectual to me."
"Not if you listen carefully."
"Did you ever see the film A Star is Born?" Kory asked. "The new version, the one with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper?" Amelia frowned. "The song, Shallow? No? I guess you don't know it."
"You guess right."
"They sang it together at the Academy Awards and ... it was ... I mean ... just amazing! It blew everybody away."
Amelia was disappointed. She thought teaching Kory about classical music would give them something to share. Now he was showing his age, preferring popular music. Lady Gaga, Kory? Really?
"I use music to escape," Kory said. "And you like music ... for healing."
"Healing? Am I wounded?"
"Wounded? No. More like craving comfort."
Amelia stared at him, speechless.
How did Kory know that Amelia needed comfort? Fully aware that people her age die in their sleep, she'd become fearful and sought consolation in her favorite composers. Rachmaninoff was one, but not his piano concertos. Instead, she loved his Vespers, choral music featuring bass voices. Did anyone else recognize the sexual power in these singers of Russian Orthodox music?
Amelia wondered about this as she searched the internet for the best version. When she found it, she gave the link to Kory so he could download it to his iPhone. He needed coaxing to listen to this liturgical music, but when he did, he was surprised.
"Wow! I've never heard music like this. It's different, but ... I really like it." Amelia was thrilled. In Vespers, they had a new bond.
Kory’s presence transformed Amelia’s life. He gave her a reason to get up in the morning because she had a job to do. She used Kory's pharmacology textbook to organize her instruction, applying her expertise in taxonomy to shape her lessons. Her exceptional memory guided him through the categories of drugs according to their chemical structure, therapeutic effects, and potential for abuse. At the end of each formal review, she quizzed him. Kory had taken to wearing a surgical mask during these sessions and tilting it as a cowboy tilts his hat whenever his answer was correct.
"Right!" Amelia would shout.
"Much obliged, mam!" Kory would say in an exaggerated western drawl, pulling on the elastic bands and tipping the mask in Amelia's direction.
"You need a nickname," Amelia said. "One day soon, you'll be Dr. K., but until then, I think I'll call you ... what? I know. How 'bout Cowboy?"
"Cowboy? Heck, mam! I can’t even ride a horse."
“Ah, but you smile like a rodeo king! See! You're doing it right now." She held up her iPhone and took a selfie.
"What did you look like when you were my age?" Kory asked. Amelia dup up an old colored photograph of herself and gave it to him.
"Hey! Dr. A! You were a babe! How tall are you, anyway? Much taller than Grandma."
"I used to be five-ten. I think I'm a little shorter now."
"Your eyes are still the same color. I bet you had a lot of boyfriends."
Finally! A personal remark. "Yes. I've had many boyfriends. I like men." She smiled, waiting for more. But Kory was silent. "What about you? Many girlfriends?"
"Not many," he blushed. "I was sick as a child. Asthma. I think it robbed me of self-confidence."
"What you need is an older woman. Someone to teach you how gorgeous you are!" she said, waiting for a response, but Kory was silent. He stared at his shoes. Then, after an excruciating silence, he politely excused himself, leaving a discouraged Amelia alone with her thoughts. If only she were forty years younger. She looked for the photo - her younger version - but it was gone. Kory had taken it with him.
"Remember when you said I seek comfort?" she asked Kory as they were peeling potatoes one evening. He nodded. "I've thought about it. I think I'm afraid to die. I've had a wonderful life. My work ... all the people I've loved … I don't want to leave."
"Am I one?" he asked. "Do you love me?"
"You know I do."
"But do you think you know me?
"Not as well as I'd like."
"I want you to know me. Being known by someone you love is our only protection against existential loneliness."
Existential ... what? Loneliness? Amelia moved closer to Kory. "So, you must love me, then?"
"Of course I do. But I worry you wouldn't love me if you really knew me."
"Is there something about yourself I need to know?"
Kory walked around the room. "I'm worried I'm not smart enough to be a good doctor. I worry that someone will come along that I can't help, and the person will die ... before they're supposed to."
At the end of summer, the market suspended home delivery except for the elderly. Amelia qualified but couldn't bring herself to use the service because she wouldn't know the driver. With only one day’s warning, Kory had quit his delivery job to return to medical school. He came to say goodbye, but she wasn't prepared for his sudden departure.
"Thank you," Kory said, still standing six feet from her. "Thank you for everything. I'll miss you."
Amelia could barely speak. She wanted him to hug her. Instead, after knocking elbows, he climbed into his car, tooted the horn, and disappeared. Just like that. A banal ending, a stomach punch.
Three days later, he texted. "Passed pharma—ninety-six percent!” plus three little hearts. “Couldn't have done it without you!" with two more hearts.
She texted and waited, and then again, and then a third time, including a smiley face with heart eyes, but no response came. After three weeks of silence, she thought about phoning him, but her attitude mutated from humiliation to cold rage. Why should she be the one to reach out? Self-absorbed, Kory wasn't thinking about her.
In a peak of anger, Amelia changed her telephone number and email address. Then she deleted his phone number and promised never to contact him again. That night a sharp chest pain woke her up. "Damn you, cowboy!" she screamed into her pillow. "Now you've done it! You've broken my heart!"
She went to her local library and checked out books of poetry by Emily Dickinson.
It was easy to understand how the nineteenth-century poet had also been a botanist, but how could someone who loved nature also be so morbid?
"Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves. And immortality."
Amelia spent the whole afternoon reading Dickinson's death poems. Later that evening, after smoking a joint, she allowed herself to get sentimental and listened to John Coltrane’s In a Sentimental Mood. Her memory called up emotionally charged comments Kory had made.
“Hey, Dr. A., you were a babe!”
“Much obliged, mam!”
"I worry that someone will come along that I can't help, and the person will die before they're supposed to."
What? An epiphany? It was. Kory had been talking about her. Why hadn't she seen it before now? His comment was code for: "I can't love you the way you want to be loved, and I'm afraid it will kill you before you're supposed to die?"
With this new insight, Kory's absence ceased to be a weight on her heart. Instead, she found consolation in his vivid presence in her dreams. At first, it was random, but gradually she met him almost every night.
"I see you, Kory! You’re suffering from fear. Why? You're an exceptional person. You're going to make an extraordinary healer! Do you hear me? Look at me! I'm talking to you, Cowboy!"
Months passed, and then it happened. A letter arrived, a real one through the postal service from Kory, who apologized and begged her forgiveness for not communicating. He'd struggled his last year of medical school, lost his confidence, almost flunked out, and considered confiding in her but was too ashamed. When he finally decided to tell her everything, her phone number and email no longer worked. He wanted her to come to his graduation and needed to introduce her to someone important - his fiancée, Kelly.
"Along with you," he wrote, "she’s the most important person in my life."
What? Amelia read that last sentence again. What did he mean? She decided to telephone and make him explain. He was thrilled to hear from her. After banal pleasantries, she asked him:
“So, who’s Kelly?”
"A friend introduced us,” he said. “She's older than I am. Much older, almost twelve years. She works as an ER physician, a specialist in trauma medicine. She's different. Super intelligent. She changed my life, Dr. A.”
"How'd she do that?" Amelia asked.
"I don't know. Loving her has given me the confidence I lost.”
"And when did all this start?"
"The change came to me in my sleep. I dreamed about you several times when you gave me pep talks. Eventually, my fear just disappeared, and my confidence returned. I felt a frenetic energy but also longing."
"Yes. I needed to see you, but when I tried to contact you, none of your numbers worked! I thought you'd died! I told Kelly about my dreams. She listened and convinced me you were still alive. That's why I wrote to you."
Amelia tried very hard not to feel jealous. She was the one who gave Kory his confidence, not this Kelly. Kory and Kelly. Kelly and Kory. It was almost kitsch. She buried her cynicism, made travel arrangements, and prepared herself to accept the inevitable, but nothing could have prevented the shock she experienced.
The woman was tall, far over five foot ten. Her long hair, tied in a ponytail, was brilliantly auburn. Her eyes? Green, of course. Seeing this slim, beautiful redhead was like looking at herself sixty years earlier.
Kory had never touched Amelia before, but now he did for the first time by putting his hand on her forehead. "How are you, Dr. A? Are you taking care of yourself? You must be by my side when I get married."
"By your side?"
"Yes! We want the ceremony in your garden."
"Among my roses?"
"Right! And we're going to use Rachmaninoff's Vespers as music! You'll love it!"
“Yes! The Vespers!" he shouted.
"I'm not deaf, Konrad!" she shouted back. "What happened to Lady Gaga?"
He pulled her to him. Flashing his Kory smile, he gave Amelia a tight, unbroken hug. She closed her eyes, breathed into his neck, and recognized the scent she always knew he’d have. When Amelia opened her eyes, a tearful Kelly stood across the room, watching with a broad grin on her face.