AN ANGEL, FRAIL AS A TEA CUP
After the first school break in my freshman year, I was sitting in the little park across the street from
where I lived one fine bright sunny day, alone, bemused, confused, when a girl walked up and made
me very nervous by sitting down right beside me. She made me even more uncomfortable when she
addressed me directly.
“You’re Romeo,” she said in a soft and syrupy Southern drawl.
I looked at her startled. “Uh…What did you say?”
She continued. “That’s what Joanie calls you: Romeo. Well, that’s what we all call you.”
I was surprised by every aspect of what was unfolding—the stranger (a girl) sitting down right beside
me (very closely); speaking to me (directly), in a pretty southern manner; calling me Romeo (which I
was not); admitting to some kind of weird conspiracy (“that’s what we all call you”).
“I’m Suzanne,” she said boldly. “And my very dearest friend, Joanie, wants to meet you. But, alas,”
she sighed dramatically, “she is just too shy to venture to speak to you.” She stopped, she put one
finger to her chin in thought. “I think, therefore,” she continued, “that you should embolden yourself
to go over and introduce yourself to poor little Joanie.” She pouted in an exaggerated manner. “Don’t
“I should?” She was asking me to do the impossible.
“Yes. You should. You know you should, don’t you? You two would love each other ferociously, I just
know you would.”
“I should go over and introduce myself?” This girl who I’d never seen before was asking me to stick
my head in a lion’s mouth.
“Yes,” she said emphatically. “I insist. I absolutely insist.”
“Where does she live?” I asked, though I do not know why.
“Oh, right over there at 833 Park, in the women’s dorm. Just go on over there and ask for Joanie.
She’s really as shy as can be, frail as a tea cup, very pretty and very very sweet, and, she’s just
dying inside for the want of meeting you.”
This peculiar young woman looked at me while she waited for me to respond, but I didn’t know what
to say to this proposal. Whatever else was going on, I was still as shy as any reasonably functioning
person could be, and completely confused. First, Celia would have loved me forever and now this tea
cup frail child was dying to meet me, literally, apparently. I have to borrow a phrase from my wife here
and say, “Gosh.” That pretty much captures what I was thinking.
“Please,” she pleaded.
“Well, see, I…”
“Yes, I know, you’re every bit as shy as she is.” She closed her eyes tightly and spoke with
exasperation, “Joanie has absolutely forbidden me to talk to you.” She opened her eyes and said,
“But somebody has to do something!” The urgency embedded in that statement made me look up at
her. “So,” she concluded, “maybe you could happen by tomorrow and go in and just ask for Joanie
and, well, simply introduce yourself.” It sounded so easy. “Although,” she said, “I’m fairly sure she
already knows who you are.”
“OK,” I said, and suddenly infused fully with a spirit that I didn’t know I possessed I rose from that
bench. “What’s the address again?” She repeated the address, pointed in a most feminine manner in
the right direction, and I started walking.
“You’ll go by then? …to see her? ...tomorrow?” she shouted after me.
“No,” I said emphatically, mostly to myself. “I’ll go right now.” Destiny itself was behind the wheel and
its foot was on the pedal. I felt like dancing. I felt slightly sick to my stomach. But, I was being carried
away by an irresistible force.
Arriving in front of 833 Park Avenue, of course I wasn’t so bold any more. Somehow the inspiration
that took me there abandoned me in front of the place, dumped me at the foot of the wide wooden
steps. I no longer felt like dancing, though I still felt sick to my stomach. More than that, I felt like
running away. But something inside me was putting up a valiant struggle. I stood outside of the
building for a long time. I was trying to convince myself that I could do what any other young
American male was capable of doing and, to my own surprise, after standing there for three
consecutive eternities, I mounted the steps with the bold determination of a man on his way to his
Upon entering the building I found myself facing a young girl seated behind a small desk next to a
large, intricate, polished wooden stairway.
“Visiting hours are not until one,” she said coldly without looking up from a large book in which she
was writing. I did not move. When she looked at me I guess it was obvious that this statement had
gutted me. I must have been a pitiful sight. “Unless it’s an emergency,” she added conspiratorially.
“Well,” I stammered, “It is kind of an emergency. I mean I don’t think I can ever do this again if I don’t
do it right now.”
And that was true. If I did not at that very moment follow through and meet this young woman who
was dying from wanting to meet me, this frail as a tea cup Southern beauty, then I might not ever
again capture the courage to do it. My heroine behind the desk heard the sincerity in my voice. She
looked up at me and knew that every word of it was unquestionably true. She leaned over the desk a
bit toward me and whispered, “Who are you looking for?”
“Joanie,” I said quietly.
The girl lit up, apparently delighted. She picked up a phone, dialed a number and announced
joyously over an intercom “Joanie, you have a gentleman caller.” The announcement rang
throughout the entire building. Then she locked a smile onto me as she waited with the receiver
pressed to her ear. “Romeo,” she whispered into the phone. “Yes,” she insisted. “Right now! Yes,
right here in front of me. OK. Hurry.” Then she addressed me with dramatic dignity, “Please have a
seat in the sitting room; Miss Marion will be right down.”
Immediately girls started appearing in the corners and leaning over the stairway railing and strolling
arm in arm together, just by chance, through the foyer, and a sour looking older woman soon
appeared in the doorway behind my heroine, with her arms folded across her chest. With her
appearance the girls all vanished as quickly as they had appeared. She walked up beside the girl at
the desk and soon they were engaged in an animated argument of some sort which lasted until
Joanie came drifting like a flower down the staircase.
She was all dressed in white, with lace up to her throat, more like a Gibson Girl than anything from
the 20th Century. She stood before me and smiled broadly, looking into my eyes. The older woman
said, “Miss Marion, your gentleman caller must sign in.”
Joanie said, “That’s OK, we’ll just be stepping outside.”
The woman insisted. “All the more reason. You must sign in if you are visiting with one of our young
ladies, young man.”
So, I went to the desk and the girl at the desk winked at me (may God bless her throughout eternity)
and pointed out a line in the book where I was to write my name and address and the date and the
time I first met Joanie Marion, frail as a tea cup and more charming than an angel. If that book still
exists somewhere, I’d love to pore through it and find that page and just get a look at it. As I signed I
was shaking like a leaf.
That done, the woman frowned at me, the girl behind the desk clapped her hands together in silent
enthusiastic approval, and Joanie placed one hand inside the crook of my elbow and escorted me
outside, where we walked and talked, and fell completely, irretrievably, deliriously in love.
Richmond, Virginia September, 1967