Excerpt: 'The Lady and the Panda'

At the beginning of their courtship, they found themselves constantly tucked away in some corner, slugging back bootleg booze and lost in intense conversation. Addicted to reading, they soon began swapping books on their favorite subject -- exotic travel. Their leather-bound volumes were filled with high adventure and glimpses of strange cultures. Often they contained delicate fold-out maps shaded in beautiful colors, veined with blue rivers and dappled by the shadowy wrinkles of mountain ranges. The most captivating among these atlases were the half-finished ones, those in which the dense, busy portions would end abruptly, leaving blank whole uncharted territories -- regions of the world still steeped in mystery. Here were the places that had not given up their secrets to Western travelers and mapmakers. Sitting together in the haze of cigarette smoke, warmed by a glass of whiskey, their imaginations racing, Bill and Ruth always found themselves drawn to those patches of the unknown.

Bill had spent most of his short adulthood "on game trails in remote corners of the globe," Ruth said, visiting India and China, Java, Borneo, and other islands of the Dutch East Indies. He thrived on the rough-and-tumble life in the field leavened by stints of footloose merriment in exotic cities. In long letters home, and then in intimate getting-reacquainted sessions on his return, he entranced Ruth with his tales of treks abroad.

His accounts, no doubt, were as gracefully told as the sagas the couple read together. For Bill was the romantically literary type with a classical education. He had passed college-entrance examinations in Latin, Greek, French, English, and ancient history. He described himself as an author and a man of letters and was an American intellectual in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt -- the brave outdoorsman, as familiar with Milton as with a "Big Medicine" .405 rifle.

He and Ruth spent weekends at his family's estate in Connecticut, and sometimes slipped off for tropical romantic getaways to places like the Virgin Islands. They drank and philosophized. "A dash of absinthe," Ruth said, "and you analyze the hell out of everything." They read books, walked on the beach, and poured their hearts out to each other.

And there was so much to talk about. Each of them was haunted by a penetrating, persistent loneliness, suffering bouts of it even in a crowded room. Yet they craved solitude. To Bill and to Ruth, being alone was a complex state: the satisfaction of solitude played against a chronic sense of loneliness.

As they settled into a life together, and even after they were married, their rather elastic relationship was marked by intimacy and long periods of separation. Paradoxically, they seemed to grow closer while apart. When traveling, Bill found he could be utterly open with Ruth. In addressing her, he wrote more easily, and with greater clarity, than when scribbling in a private journal. Her intuition, her understanding of his very nature, was so complete, that just placing her name at the top of the page, he said, drew him out. He was so certain of a mystical connection between them that he never worried about how they would keep in touch despite the vagaries of international mail service and the fluid nature of his itineraries. "He had a divine faith," Ruth explained, "that I'd somehow know how to get letters to him and strangely enough I did."

Her responses were encyclopedic. She couldn't help "rambling" -- telling him every detail of her activities and thoughts.

For Ruth, who would always feel that her family misunderstood her, there was, in this distant intimacy, a familiarity. She was accustomed to physical and emotional separations, and as Bill continued a life constantly on the campaign, his presence was a palpable part of her life.

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