For those of us who cannot afford a snuggle at a Vermont B&B, who cannot feel the crunch of leaves underfoot in Central Park en route to a rendezvous, there is a sublime alternative: Ella Fitzgerald’s 1956 recording of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” It practically defines the difference between summer sex and autumn sex. Summer sex is fast and freaky, furtive and breathless: a furious diversion when the AC’s on the blink and even moonlight feels hot on skin. Autumn sex, however, is cuddling with benefits, a fire to be stoked all night. And so is this recording—falling leaves, puddled satin, afterglow and a sated sigh of cigarette smoke all in one.
The song is from the Rodgers & Hart musical Pal Joey, where it charts a relationship in three distinct sections: initial heat (“I’m wild again, beguiled again”), full boil (“Thank God I can be oversexed again”), and the inevitable cooling (“Burned a lot, but learned a lot”). Fitzgerald’s version, by contrast, combines lust, satisfaction and a wised-up kiss-off in one seven-minute exhale of pheromones. It is a performance in absolutely no hurry. Were it a lover, it would spend from here to sundown unbuttoning your flannels and rumpling the quilt. And yet the song’s path from desire to regret, from hello to goodbye, has a cyclical quality that suits the edge of winter.
That makes Ella the perfect soundtrack to these tales of fall romance, passion and togetherness (however short-lived), ransacked from the actual personal histories of the Scene’s writers. So light a few candles, uncork the wine and tell your autumnal other that you’ve got a record you want them to hear. And don’t make any plans for going out.
Every year, the ritual was laced with irony as we piled into my roommate’s car, the collected works of Robert Frost in hand, and drove off into the amber countryside.
“After Apple-Picking,” I announced in my most earnest echo of our American lit professor’s cadence. “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still, / And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill….”
“It’s a metaphor for death,” someone in the backseat said. Or does it just mean that seasons pass, inexorably, without empathy, leaving only the memories of—as Frost might say—load on load of apples coming in?
We pulled into the white-fenced farmyard and, with baskets tucked under our sweatshirted arms, grabbed russet fruit from the lowest limbs. I tried juggling, but my hands were cold and clumsy; fruit dropped to bruise in the dirt. We played gentle dodge ball with rotten apples and staged photographs to look like we were perilously high in the trees.
When we were overtired of apple-picking, we weighed our baskets and paid for our harvest. We loaded our crop into the car and headed home.
“After Apple-Picking,” someone resumed as we turned onto the main road. But the heavy hum of the engine and rhythmic passing of the hedgerows lulled me to sleep, head dropped against the passenger window. My dreaming took the form of fruit—apples appearing and disappearing—like so many memories of fall days, cherished in hand, lifted down and not let fall. —Carrington FoxGlove affair
I met Tracie in late summer while working for a computer magazine in the Midwest. She looked like an accountant—round glasses, conservative skirt, embarrassed smile—which I found oddly appealing. Nothing happened at first. We played volleyball on opposite sides of the net during lunchtime games with colleagues. I pretended I was dunking the ball on top of her head, which she found oddly amusing. Sparks began to fly as the wind turned colder and the prairie began to brown. We walked through a corn maze at a Halloween party at a farm. She was wearing gloves; I was barehanded. For no reason I could tell, she reached over and warmed one of my hands with both padded palms. We left the maze hand-in-hand and spent the rest of the fall hiding our love affair from the rest of our co-workers. —William Dean HintonLove a fair
One fall, seven years ago, my boyfriend announced it would soon be time for Fall Fest. He stated it with a finality that left little room for debate. Not being the crafts-loving type, I hoped it was a phase that would pass as quickly as his last girlfriend. I’d never been to Belle Meade Plantation and couldn’t imagine the handmade carvings or stained-glass lampshades would ever find their way into our home, no matter how romantic the environs. The first year, we bought a Sherlock Holmes detective board game for five bucks from the barn-o’-rich-people’s donations, and on subsequent visits we would be eyed suspiciously as we flipped through rare books, or overrun by throngs of well-heeled children yelping to ride the mini-train. But somehow, it stuck. It became our very own ironic fall ritual—the day we drive to Belle Meade, pay to park in a field and drop 20 bucks to walk around in crisp autumnal quaintness for an hour or so with the people we’ll never be. We even get into it, talking it up days in advance, as though we’ve saved and planned for a trip and our hard work is finally paying off. “Two large children,” he jokes to the ticket-taker each year. We know we won’t buy a thing—particularly after the year we left abruptly after a lovers’ dispute about an overpriced belt I wanted (only $35). We never even tour the antebellum home; I’m fairly certain that costs extra. Sometimes we have a cheesesteak and a Coke and swat away bees while we eat. It’s never remotely spectacular, and yet, the year he was on tour with his band, I felt the urge to make an appearance anyway. I was quickly forbidden. As a young cohabiting couple, we don’t always get the garbage out on Thursdays, and we pay our bills only when we get around to remembering them. We still find ourselves hitting Krystal after a night of drinking. But we have Fall Fest—surely adulthood is right around the corner. —Tracy MooreConnecting pass
I am not cute on Sunday afternoons in autumn—watching a girl scream, “Come on Dawkins, fuckin’ kill him, earn your paycheck!” only appeals to a limited male demographic. In college, I spent most of my fall Sundays down at T.K.’s American Grille with the rest of the Philly diaspora, watching the Eagles and feeling a touch closer to home. My senior year the Birds went 13-3 in their best season since my conception. Most of the time I went alone, but occasionally I managed to drag along my friend Jon, a curmudgeonly Redskins fan. One Sunday, with Donovan connecting and my boys comfortably out in front, I found myself chatting with a buddy of Jon’s, perhaps the most annoying Washington sports fan ever birthed on this earth. Seth talked—a lot—and would get so worked up debating nickel defenses that you could see beads of sweat forming on his temples. But he was cute and kind of funny—plus, in that high-flying year, we swept the Redskins (we actually swept the whole NFC East), so his deluded ranting was easy to shrug off. In the end, as the weather grew cold and the Eagles marched toward their eventual Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, our brief romance fizzled. But, on that fateful day, as I sat on a friends’ couch, drinking Yuengling Lager, which I had brought up from Philly, and holding back tears, my phone beeped with a text message from Seth: “I’m sorry. That sucks.” It’s not poetry, but what can you expect from an affair sparked over sack totals and chicken wings? —Lee StabertRapture of St. Cecilia
Things can go terribly wrong when you’re restless and the new fall TV season hasn’t started yet. That’s what we learned some 10 years ago.
It was a Sunday night when our marriage was relatively new, there was nothing on the tube and we were game for anything as long as it didn’t involve a second round of de-fleaing the basement. We were young and happy, but restless and in search of something exciting and perhaps a tad bit naughty. So we packed up a bottle of wine, a blanket and some cheese and made the short trip from our rental house to the beautiful campus of St. Cecilia Academy, the Catholic, all-girls school just off of West End. We figured that neither God nor the good Sisters would mind terribly if we had a bite and some romance on the lush green lawn, under the giant trees and the stars above their canopy.
The crickets were singing, the air was mild and we were in the mood for the kind of date you grow nostalgic for once domesticity threatens to beat every amorous instinct out of you. At first, everything was fine. We busied ourselves with finding just the right spot, with spreading the blanket, opening the bottle of wine…. We had our first embrace. I leaned in, started to close my eyes, but instead of greeting my lips with his, my husband was up on his feet in an instant, whacking his ankle and grumbling, “Damn mosquitoes.”
And with that, we packed it all up and headed home. But, if memory serves, the Mad About You reruns that night weren’t half bad. —Liz GarriganStreets of flame
In the city, you can tell it’s fall when the bum fires burn into the night. In the summer those fires are gone by sunset, after all the fruit vendors have gone. But with the autumn chill come the men of the street who keep those fires—fruit crates burning in metal barrels—stoked until dawn.
The unfortunates who feed those fires stand shoulder to shoulder around the barrels. Their gaunt, creased faces reflect the hungry flames, like sinister half-moons. They hold their hands out, palms down, as if playing a ghostly piano. Maybe they pass a bottle between them.
One night in October my pals and I were coming up a dark street as if we owned it—loud, cursing, boisterous. On our way from a happy part of the city, we still wore the young, reckless energy of that place like a laurel.
But we shut up when we saw those glowing faces. The sound of fallen leaves, trash and smashed beer cans echoed from under our feet and ricocheted off the boarded up shops and parked cars. I kicked a can by accident and got scared. We were teenagers, only shortly removed from fears of ghouls in closets and monsters in the dark corners of our bedrooms.
The spectral faces and glowing hands hovered over bright, licking flames in a barrel in the middle of the street, and we stepped—not inconspicuously—to the far edge of the sidewalk.
Walking faster, our own faces buried in our collars, we neither spoke to each other, nor glanced at the circle of men.
When we were two blocks away, the fire and its eerie proctors a fading flicker in the distance, our swagger returned. We joked again. Now the street was ours, if only because we were alone. —P.J. TobiaA new leaf
Last week, I bought a new spiral notebook. There’s just something about a new notebook that reminds me of fall and all those back-to-school trips to buy pencils, erasers and color-coordinated folder-notebook combinations.
The pages are clean and white, the cover is not yet bent or smudged or stained with coffee mug rings. I want to keep my notebook clean, with neat handwriting and unripped pages, and I will succeed for a few months. But then a day will come when I’ll rush to a meeting, late, in the rain, and I’ll use the notebook to cover my head as I run to my car. Then my pen will spill ink, or I’ll interview someone over the phone, my hand scribbling as fast and illegibly as possible, and when I’m done I’ll think, what does “he and did, etc.” mean? By next summer, my notebook will be a mixture of to-do lists and hastily written reminders, and the cover will be filled with doodles of flowers.
Some people can keep a clean notebook. I went to school with them, and I probably work with one or two of them now. They have different colored pens for different subjects. They highlight their work and use sticky tabs to mark important pages. I look at their notebooks and think, Wow, I want that. Why can’t I have sticky tabs?
Then autumn comes around again, and I wander the school supplies aisles at Target. I make my selection and stand in the checkout line, behind a teenager buying a protractor. I know the fate of my new notebook. I know already that it will have a harsh life and a part-time job as a drink coaster, but there is nothing I can do about it. And yet for some reason, I always try. —Claire SuddathStrange bedfellows
A weekend in the mountains with the one you love. Sounds romantic, but to get there we actually had to climb the mountain, the height of which was not disclosed in advance. I was reluctant, but next thing I knew we were loading our backpacks with peanut butter-honey-and-banana sandwiches, as well as a few items more seasoned hikers typically avoid, like Camel Lights and a bottle of bourbon. And then there was the bear whistle to scare black bears, which, I learned, are prevalent in the Smoky Mountains. Apparently, a bear that catches the slightest whiff of food—like a peanut butter-honey-and-banana sandwich—will rip a flimsy nylon tent to shreds in search of the source. For that reason, my husband explained, we would be sleeping in a “quaint” shelter. Hours later, as we stumbled through the dark toward our destination, we encountered a burly female hiker braving the trail alone. She obviously hadn’t showered in weeks and had lost all social skills during her extended wilderness adventure. Eager to escape the awkward silence around the campfire, we headed to the shelter and found two long wooden planks with space for at least 10 campers. That’s when I realized we would be sharing our quarters with the bruiser outside. I braced myself for the stench and fell asleep. I soon woke, however, to the pitter-patter of mice crawling across my wooden plank. I jarred my husband awake, and he suggested I zip up my sleeping bag and try to forget about them. That’s when I decided to take my chances with the bears and went outside to sleep by the fire. —Sarah KelleyMountain high
My fifth year. If things had gone right, I wouldn’t have been back on The Mountain, but a few errors and 10 months in purgatory working for a moving company 50 to 70 hours a week—60 to 80 if you include the hours I spent prepping the trucks before work and cleaning them afterward—had afforded me an opportunity to pay my parents back every cent of the $15,500 of theirs I’d wasted. Of the $22,000 I’d grossed in my time away, I didn’t see a dime. But parents were proud of me again. I could see it in their eyes and feel it in the way they hugged me before I left in an old Jeep Grand Cherokee to return to the peak once again.
That last year of school I lived in a dank and dingy apartment called The Cave. The place had been rented out by a kind old man for more than 30 years, and every tenant had left something behind—on the stained walls and in the stale air. The place was always cramped, but was even more so with my roommate’s 15-year-old biting English setter hogging the couch and our freeloading friends taking up the rest of the space. That fall, when the leaves changed and the air turned crisp, I often left The Cave and drove to the end of University Avenue, where a giant cross stood guard over the quiet valley below. Those afternoons as I waited for the sun to drop like lazy leaves, I thanked God for my family, my friends and for the mountain that put me on top of the world. —Dave Rudolph