THE DON (A story) (2 of 2)

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[….continued from previous post.]

Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.

Florence was not the ideal partner for this kind of analysis. Her lack of interest in style and grooming blinded her to the wife’s shortcomings in dress and makeup. Worse, she didn’t find Couteau as attractive as Clara did; his unfavorable report on her work in the Shakespeare seminar had jeopardized her scholarship and she’d had to write two more long papers over the summer to get it reinstated, understandably weakening her susceptibility to his charms. “It can’t be easy being his wife,” she observed. “I bet he’s a difficult man to live with.” Also she didn’t think his drinking out of Clara’s glass was going to lead to anything. She agreed it wasn’t what the typical don would do with the typical donnee’s wine glass, and further agreed he likely found Clara attractive, especially in that sophisticated corduroy outfit, or he wouldn’t have done it. That said, she was inclined to view the sip of wine as an error of judgment.

Here, Clara had to concede, Florence was the expert. Sloven or no, she had lost her virginity to a much older man almost as soon as she’d arrived at college three years before. Clara’s knowledge of her deflowering hardly constituted a confidence; she’d told at least six other people, all of whom had thoroughly discussed it with one another. He’d done it on the floor of his 57th Street art gallery, beneath a Picasso, the Saturday she went to New York to apply for a weekend job. It turned out there was no job. Just instant mutual attraction and a long affair. Even now they still connected from time to time, if their respective schedules permitted. (She checked her diaphragm in a Grand Central locker whenever she went home on school breaks.) Clearly her views on Clara’s future with their mutual don were entitled to deference.

“Look,” she said, “it was only your glass. If he really wanted to go to bed with you, why didn’t he kiss the back of your neck, or put his arm around your waist, or his hand on your tit? He could have done any or all of that while the two of you were looking out that damn window for so long.”

“No, he couldn’t,” Clara insisted. “You were there.”

“He didn’t care about me being there or he wouldn’t have done the thing with the glass. Besides,” she added, “you didn’t exactly encourage him. If you wanted to make something of it, why didn’t you turn around? You just stood there, for God’s sake. He must have thought you’d report him if he went further!”

So now it was Clara’s fault. “You really think nothing more is going to happen?”

“Not before he gets back to school,” opined this woman of the world who owned a diaphragm. “What do you expect him to do? Write you incriminating love letters? Call you on the house phone and explain to someone else why he needs to speak to you?”

“Then what can I do?”

Florence was buttoning her coat to get back to her own off-campus house. Behind as usual, she needed the Thanksgiving break to catch up on assigned reading. “Invite him over to lunch next term, after he’s back. Make hamburgers or something. This is a neat house for stuff like that. You could even serve it in your room. And see what happens then.”

Clara paced restlessly after she had left. Did she really want to steal him away from the wife in socks and become the wife herself – stepmother to his unseen little girl and slavey in his kitchen? Not really. But the delicious unhappiness of an affair with a married faculty member who couldn’t resist her: how could she not yield? Was it too dangerous? Would it jeopardize her degree? What should she do? What could she do? If only it had been a regular don-donnee dinner, without any of these troubling problems! She wished she’d eaten more of the wife’s cooking.

Taking Florence’s advice, Clara invited Couteau to lunch a few days before spring break. He seemed surprised, but accepted. In town, she bought a pound of freshly ground round, lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, and also a few hard rolls in case he needed bread. Everyone else in the house agreed to stay away for this momentous occasion. Clara cleared off her desk, borrowed a second desk chair from another room and laid out two place settings, napkins, salt and pepper, the ketchup bottle, a basket of the rolls and two glasses. Couteau arrived just as the two half-pound patties of ground round were nearing completion in the frying pan. (A half-pound was what Clara’s mother had always made for her father.) Clara slid the meat onto plates already decorated with lettuce and tomato slices, and led Couteau up the stairs, each of them carrying a plate and an eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. When he saw they were to eat in her room he hesitated momentarily, but then courageously crossed the threshold. Clara left the door open, to reassure him. “Where is everybody?” he asked.

“Why, at lunch!” she laughed gaily.

It was an awkward meal. Clara asked if the meat was sufficiently well done. He said yes, it was very good but a lot of food. Flushing with embarrassment, Clara said she thought that was the amount men ate. (This did not explain why she too had half a pound on her plate.) He said he had a class to teach that afternoon and would fall asleep if he ate it all. Hurriedly, she changed the subject and asked about his wife, his child. He said they were fine. He asked what she thought she might want to do next year. If she were applying to graduate school, he’d be glad to write recommendations, her last paper was really remarkable. She said she was putting grad school on the back burner for a while to see what real life was like. He nodded, and pushed his plate away. Half the hamburger was still there. Clara had finished all hers. He didn’t drink from her glass. He didn’t drink from his own glass either. Maybe he didn’t like Coca-Cola? He thanked her for the home-cooked lunch and got up to go. “We’ll have to do this again,” Clara said. “When you have more time.”

“When do I have more time?” he asked pleasantly.

As soon as he was out the front door, she hurried back upstairs. Damn him. Had he forgotten Thanksgiving, the heavy breathing, the sip of wine? And if he was regretting all that, if he had realized in the interim that a love between them could only come to naught, why did he agree to come to lunch and put her to all this trouble? He hadn’t even offered to help take everything downstairs! Well, of course not, why would he? That slavey of a wife did everything for him. She poured ketchup on the remains of his ground round and ate it angrily before stacking the plates. She had to make two trips because she had no tray, and had just managed to finish cleaning everything up, including the greasy frying pan, when some of her housemates returned from their own lunch in the dining room. “How was it?” they asked, curiously. They didn’t know about the heavy breathing and sip of wine.

“I’m certainly not doing that again,” Clara said, loss and indigestion throbbing in her midsection.

“Bad, huh?”

“Pretty awful.” She laughed hollowly. “And I thought I was being so nice. It just goes to show….”

 

And then it was really over. Parents began arriving for the commencement dinner. They sat on folding chairs on the small lawn in front of Clara’s off-campus house and exchanged polite remarks while waiting for it to be dinnertime. Photos were snapped. Couteau came looking for Clara in the dining room. How gracious he was to her parents, whose conventional views of life he had worked so hard, with only partial success, to eradicate in Clara. Although he sat at their table through the appetizer and entrée, chatting lightly of this and that while she hoped for a private look in her direction, he excused himself before dessert to join Florence and her parents at another table.

Following dessert and coffee Clara’s parents left too – because, said her father, it was a long drive home and they would have to get up early for commencement at eleven. Dutifully she walked them to their new Pontiac and then hurried back to the dining room. By then the dinner was breaking up. Some of the other parents were now calling taxis to go into town for drinks with each other. Clara made her way around clusters of people she didn’t know, past deserted tables littered with dirty cups and crumpled napkins, looking for Florence and Couteau. “Oh, they’ve left,” someone told her. “Her parents weren’t able to come after all, so he took her into town to the Spoon.” The Greasy Spoon was a drinking hangout. Clara had never in all her four college years been there. He took her? On the very last evening they could ever have together? Sloppy disheveled her? She swiped the last four brownies from a tray near the kitchen, wrapped them in two napkins and took them back to her room, where she ate them methodically at the desk which was no longer her desk, brown crumbs falling on her new yellow cotton dress.

The next morning the sun shone. Alphabetically by last name, the graduates lined up in black caps and gowns rented for the occasion, to sit in the first two long rows of folding chairs arranged on the broad front lawn of the administration building. Florence was two seats away. Clara leaned over the girl between them and poked her. She turned. “What happened at the Spoon last night?” Clara whispered.

“Nothing,” Florence whispered back. “He drank a lot. He looked pretty drunk by the time the place closed.”

“And then?”

“What then? I went back to my room.”

“And him?”

“He went home. At least he said he was going to.”

The girl sitting patiently between them suddenly made shushing noises. The faculty, also in caps and gowns, were filing solemnly out of the building to sit on a dais set up on the front portico. Ah, there was the college president, followed by the dean. Clara tried to make out Couteau under one of the black caps. Sour brownie rose up in her mouth, the taste of failure and gastric reflux. She swallowed hard and choked everything down, stomach acid burning her throat. A name was called, a diploma presented, hands shaken. She heard clapping from parents, families and friends of others coming from the seats on the grass in the rows and rows behind her. Another name. And another. The clapping grew slightly less enthusiastic. Too many names. It seemed to go very fast all the same. Soon she tensed. There. Her name. Up she went. Diploma. Handshake. A scattering of claps.

Afterwards there was some milling around, but everyone was anxious to get on the road. Couteau approached. Stay in touch, he said. She nodded. He walked away, out of her life. A few of the others from her senior house waved to her. Goodbye, goodbye. Stay in touch. She nodded again. You too. It was hard to say more without crying.

 

Clara kept the Neilson and Hill, but although Couteau had covered only eight of the plays in class, she never again opened it to read another. At first she feared she wouldn’t be able to duplicate her interpretive success with All’s Well That Ends Well. Later, dipping into Shakespeare slipped further and further down her to-do list. But when she was sixty, her two children grown and gone from the nest, her career as a patent lawyer settling into four unpressured days a week at a small boutique firm, she began to look back at her life and it crossed her mind she’d like to see Couteau again before he died.

Having obtained his present address and telephone number from the college and made arrangements for a visit, she discovered he now lived in a modest two-story house at the top of a very steep hill in Kerhonkson, a small town in the Catskills. Margaret Couteau opened the door with a warm smile. “He’ll be so glad you came,” she said. Although quite wrinkled, she otherwise hadn’t changed much, except for white hair and the extremely thick cataract lenses in her glasses that enormously enlarged her eyes.

Couteau, heavier and looking much older than his wife, sat hunched sourly in an easy chair before a television news channel with the volume turned up high.  Two canes leaned against the chair. He made no effort to get up, but did switch off the television with a remote. Then he stared at Clara for a moment, as if unsure of who she was, before extending a cold gnarled hand.

“His arthritis is very bad,” explained Margaret.

“Hello, Charles,” said Clara, as cheerfully as she could. “You do remember me, don’t you? Clara? From the class of ’52?

He continued to stare. “I remember you used to be angular and sharp,” he snapped suddenly. “What happened?”

Clara said nothing. It had been forty years. I was only angular and sharp for about two weeks as an entering freshman, she thought. Is it my mind he’s remembering?

“Margaret says you’re some kind of big shot lawyer now. So you sold out too.  Like most of the others.”

They had lunch in the adjoining kitchen. He needed the two canes to maneuver himself to the table. It was fillet of sole, peas and carrots. Clara noticed Margaret had actually shelled fresh peas and scraped fresh carrots. Couteau complained the carrots weren’t sweet enough. Clara had brought a good Bordeaux and the most expensive single malt Scotch she could find in her local liquor store. He nodded when Margaret showed him the bottles, but otherwise took no notice. When he had finished eating, he rose with help and stumbled painfully away for a nap on a sleeper sofa in the living room. “He can’t get up the stairs anymore,” explained Margaret when he was out of earshot. “He has to live down here now. We put in a downstairs bathroom.”

Clara helped her clear, wash up and dry. There was no dishwasher. Then they sat down at the kitchen table again. “This must be very hard for you,” said Clara. “Alone here at the top of a mountain. How do you manage?”

It seems Margaret did all the driving up and down – to get groceries, reach the drugstore, fill the tank of their fifteen-year-old Buick. Genevieve, the daughter, lived with another lesbian woman in Western Massachusetts. She did speak with her mother every week, so there was that. “But Charles is very disappointed Genevieve turned out the way she did,” said Margaret. “He feels it was some kind of failure. Unnatural, he calls it. He doesn’t want to talk to her when she calls.”

“How can that be?” exclaimed Clara. “His views about how to live were so liberating!”

“I don’t know about that,” said Margaret. “Charles was always quite a conventional man. He even made me stop working after we married. He didn’t think a wife should go out to earn money. You can see where that landed us.”  Then she noticed the expression on Clara’s face. “He did talk a good game, though,” she added kindly. “You weren’t the only student who found him inspiring.”

“You’ve got to get off this hill,” said Clara. “How much longer can you go on like this?” She wasn’t just thinking of the cataracts.

“Tell that to Charles.”

Couteau woke up in time to see Clara leave. He appeared somewhat anxious for her to be out of the house so he could turn on the television again. There was a program he wanted to watch. Only Margaret seemed sad to see her go. Before she came, Clara had imagined she might make a little joke about that sip of wine on Thanksgiving Day so long ago. All things considered, it was just as well she hadn’t.

 

 

THE DON (A Story) (1 of 2)

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[This story continues in the following post. Ideally, it should be read in one gulp. But a 5,000+ word post  might be pushing my luck.]

Professor Charles Couteau taught the full year Shakespeare seminar at the small experimental college Clara attended. It was tough to get in – especially as he hand-picked the lucky twelve or thirteen juniors and seniors who made it. However, Clara had never worried. As a freshman, she’d done extremely well in his Exploratory Literature course, which he informally called “Meeting the Serpent.” That in itself, she felt, made her a sure thing for the Shakespeare. In fact, she had sobbed in vexation when he refused to let her into it as a sophomore. To ease the year of separation until she became eligible as a junior, she asked him to be her don, a sort of in loco parentis figure established by the college to meet with each student for half an hour or so every other week and keep an eye on how things were going. He seemed pleased at the invitation. Her heart did a little flip-flop of happiness when he accepted.

Judging by the dates of his degrees from Columbia listed in the college catalogue, Couteau was about twenty years older than Clara. He was tall, broad-shouldered, had brush-cut red hair and blue-green eyes, wore rimless glasses, and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes with a slightly shaky freckled hand, exhaling the smoke with audible force. Once he mentioned he had played college football. And he was knowledgeable about so much that wasn’t just literature. The week they discussed Malraux’s Man’s Fate (in translation), Clara confided to her journal she sometimes wished she could be crushed in Couteau’s tweedy arms. Unfortunately he was married, to a woman no student had ever seen on campus, and had a three-year-old daughter named Genevieve.

The Shakespeare, when she was finally allowed to register for it, was no walk in the park. It met once a week for an hour and a half around an oval table where, under Couteau’s Socratic guidance, Clara and ten other young women, smoking heavily, struggled for a whole academic year to identify and analyze the social and psychological underpinnings of the important plays. Although campus gossip had it Couteau was a Marxist, that did not seem relevant to his obfuscations. Instead, what slowly filled the margins of Clara’s heavy Neilson and Hill Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare were despairing pencilled notes about the terms of the culture and dichotomy. She scribbled comments about the impossibility of the human. Many years later, opening the Neilson and Hill, she would also find, in her own college handwriting: Hamlet ½ god, ½ man; Claudius ½ man, ½ fiend; Laertes ½ god, ½ fiend – and even then would have no idea what that had meant. Disjointed notes at the bottom of the last page of The Tempest read: Prospero induces freedom by being conscious of the human limitation. Exists only in relationships with other men. Absolute freedom not freedom. Personal immediate sense of love childish. Why had she written this? Because they were Couteau’s words, as nearly as she could reproduce them.

The less she was able to grasp what Couteau’s perceptions had to do with the stories so familiar to her since childhood from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, the more she admired him. During one of their don-donnee conferences, she declared he should write a book. He smiled his adorable crooked smile. He had begun several times, he admitted. Then life intervened. The unfinished pages were in a drawer.

“Life?” asked Clara.

“Genevieve,” he replied.

Clara became bolder: “Lots of writers have babies. Your wife should encourage you! Doesn’t she understand how much you have to offer?”

The blue-green eyes looked deep into hers for a glorious moment. Then he asked how her term paper on Othello was coming along.

Clara was a fluent writer, but when she finally managed to disgorge the Othello paper just before Christmas it was apparently a disappointment. Couteau returned it with only two “Good!”s in the margins and many more “Develop!”s. Worse, there was no appreciative comment at the top, where at more conventional colleges, a grade might have appeared. She must have not yet sufficiently internalized his analytic vocabulary. As if to punish herself for this failure of devotion, she broke up with her long-time boyfriend during the holiday vacation. Till recently he had been enrolled at a university a safe half-continent away; now finally graduated, he was back in the East demanding payback for his two years of patient fidelity. Compared to Couteau, his personal immediate sense of love was so childish! She therefore had no dates at all during the whole ten days, not even on New Year’s Eve, which made it a relief to return in January to the thickets of iambic pentameter awaiting her in Neilson and Hill.

Couteau had news: he had bought a Victorian house in Bedford. It cost a pretty penny, and was mortgaged to the hilt, but it sat on four acres of land! His domain! He was practically chortling. They’d be moving in over the summer, after certain necessary repairs had been made. Then he’d have the whole following semester to settle in: he was taking a one-term sabbatical.

Her senior year, and he would be away for half of it! “Doesn’t all this lord of the manor stuff undercut your values?” Clara inquired acidly. An apartment dweller all her life, she was unable to share his enthusiasm for wide open spaces.

“How is that?” he asked. “I love uncultivated land in its natural state. The more of it around me the better. Then no one can box me in.”

It’s possible that by May, Clara finally figured out what Couteau wanted to see in a Shakespeare term paper. It’s also possible that the intellectual dichotomy between glorying in ownership of four acres and a big old house on the one hand and, on the other hand, finding the terms of the culture in every Shakespeare play made it impossible to be fully human — had simply eviscerated Couteau’s interpretive standards. Whatever the reason, he could not have written a better comment about her second term paper, on All’s Well That Ends Well:

This is one of the smoothest and tightest jobs I have ever read. “Words and thought” do match, and “feeling,” form and content too. You have made it sound like a fascinating novelette, with no sacrifice of interpretation.

Congratulations! Publish it.

Oh joy! She read these intoxicating words at home, where he had mailed the paper after the school year was over. Of course, she wrote to thank him. He replied that she deserved it. He signed his note “Charles.”

In early November of Clara’s senior year, Couteau telephoned the college switchboard to invite her and his other senior donnee to his new house in Bedford for Thanksgiving. Apprehensively, Clara opened the closet in the off-campus house where she was now living and was glad to discover her green corduroy outfit with full skirt and paisley blouse still fit, sort of, although it had been bought three years before. She did have a few of the freshman fifteen remaining on her hips, and there was a little bulge in her stomach especially evident in profile. But after she moved the waistband hook as far as possible, the bulge was less noticeable. If she ate very little in the week left before Thanksgiving, perhaps it would disappear altogether.

Couteau was picking them up in his car because the trains from their college town to Bedford didn’t run often enough on holidays. Florence, the other donnee, showed up at Clara’s house at the appointed time. Clara knew her but not well; she was rather messy and disorganized. Her preparations for this special occasion seemed to have been minimal: she had unearthed a respectably clean skirt and shapeless sweater, bleached the dark hairs on her upper lip yellow, and applied an unbecomingly purple shade of lipstick. Clara said she looked nice. She said Clara looked elegant and no, not fat at all. Then there was honking from the street, so they bundled up, hurried out, and climbed into the back seat. All the way to Bedford Clara wished she had thought quickly enough to sit in front next to Couteau.

They hadn’t seen him since the end of May. He seemed another man now, relaxed and jovial, as if they hadn’t been his student donnees. While he drove, he told amusing stories about moving into the new house. Florence supplied most of the necessary “And then what?”s while Clara gazed at the back of his neck and tried to decide how she would feel if he fell in love with her. Maybe twenty years was too big an age difference. Although that was exactly what made it so exciting to contemplate.

Too soon they arrived. There was much wiping of feet on the doormat and taking off coats in the front hall. His thin wife came out to greet them, flushed from kitchen heat, carrying a wooden spoon and dressed in a shabby sweater and baggy skirt around which she had wrapped an apron with food stains on it. Margaret was her name. Clara had been speculating about this wife for over three years and was pleasantly gratified to see how far she had, in the words of the ladies’ magazines to which Clara’s mother subscribed, “let herself go.” She wore socks. She hadn’t shaved her legs. Had she cut her hair herself? And no makeup at all: how did she expect to keep him, such a robust man in the prime of life? Clara began to feel very attractive.

The wife returned to her kitchen; Clara and Florence were ushered into the living room. There Couteau poured red wine into three glasses waiting on a tray. No, Margaret would not be joining them; she was still attending to the turkey and and feeding their little girl in the kitchen. Would his little girl appear? Perhaps later, briefly. He didn’t believe small children should have a role at adult social gatherings. There was chat about the college; Couteau shared some confidences about inter-faculty politics. Clara sipped carefully. (How many calories in a glass of red wine?) They toured the ground floor of the house, glasses in hand, while Clara admired this and that because it was clear he was expecting it. The new house had very little furniture in it. Faculty salaries, he explained with a rueful grin. They returned to the living room to stand by a picture window with a panoramic view of his property.

Then it happened. He put his empty glass down on the mantelpiece and came behind Clara. She sensed him close, his body not quite touching hers but almost. He stood perfectly still. She stood perfectly still. She could hear his breathing, feel his exhalations on her neck. He said something about the trees in the distance. Mmm, she agreed, hardly daring to breathe herself. He reached for her glass, took it from her hand, sipped from it, and gave it back to her. He breathed heavily again, two or three times. She sipped from the glass too. From the same place his lips had been. Oh, oh, was she trembling? He mentioned something else about the trees. Was she supposed to turn around? If she did, her breasts would brush against him. Better not. Let him make the next move.

“Dinner must be nearly ready,” he said. “Let’s go find out.” He walked away. Clara looked at Florence. She had seen it all. But there was no time for discussion; dinner was indeed ready. Still shaking, Clara headed to the kitchen offering to help; the wife shooed her away. “No, no, you’re here as a guest,” she insisted. Clara did notice Couteau didn’t get up to help her carry the heavy platters laden with food from the kitchen, but decided it would have been awkward for him to serve his own students. The wife sat down to her own plate only when all the others had been served.

It was a huge, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, prepared from scratch. After turkey noodle soup, there were freshly baked Parker House rolls with pats of butter; salad with homemade “Russian” dressing; a large beautifully browned bird with chestnut stuffing and sherry gravy; candied sweet potatoes, creamed onions, buttered brussels sprouts; and for dessert two kinds of homemade pie – apple and pecan – with store-bought ice cream on top, followed by coffee and brandy. “This must have taken you days,” said Clara. The wife shrugged. “I like to cook. And now we’ll have enough leftovers for quite a while.”

“She is a good cook,” said Couteau.

How Clara would have loved to eat it all! But what if she were on the threshold of romance and might soon need to be naked with her lover? She sipped a little soup, avoiding the noodles, teased the lettuce out from under its generous layer of dressing, ate some sprouts and two thin slices of white meat without gravy, had one taste of the candied sweet potatoes and passed on everything else. Florence was stuffing herself like a pig. Clara had brought saccharin tablets to the table in her skirt pocket and surreptitiously dropped one into her coffee cup. She did permit herself real cream in the coffee because she didn’t want to make trouble by asking for milk. The wife rejected help with clearing, too. “It’s easier by myself,” she said. “I’m so glad you could come. It means a lot to him to be able to do this for his students.”

Suddenly the visit was over. If they left now, Couteau said, they could catch one of the few holiday trains back to the college. He hurried them into their coats and into his car. They reached the station just in time. No meaningful goodbyes. No tender pressure of the hand. “See you next semester,” he said cheerfully. “Be good.” A taxi was waiting at the college station. And then they were back at Clara’s off-campus doorstep. The house was dark. Everyone else was away.

Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.

[To be continued…]

 

 

 

STUBBORN

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I suspect some not entirely desirable character traits must be genetic. They persist, despite one’s own good sense and determination to bring some moderation to their expression.  Being stubborn is one of mine.  I can’t trace it back very far, being the only child of immigrants.  But my mother was no pushover on any number of issues I would have preferred she be more compromising about when I was growing up. And if anyone said anything with which my father disagreed, don’t think he was willing to discuss it.  I can hear him now:  “I’ve got news for you, mister.”

[Then I married a man as stubborn as I was.  (Two such men, actually, but I only had children with the second one, so it’s him of whom I speak.) Our older son got it in spades. During his adolescence, our dinner table was often where rock met hard place while his father and brother rolled their eyes — me being the rock, he the hard place.  Although his children are still both under ten, I understand that even now neither of them is a piece of cake to persuade. But, like many old people, I digress….]

Getting old does soften you, though.  As your energy level drops, so does the number of things that seem worth taking a stand about.  You begin picking your battles. Why get all worked up about A or B or C and shorten your lifespan?  Which brings me to the real subject of this piece:  a world many of you have probably never heard of unless you’re an American or Canadian aspiring or established writer — the world of the “literary review.” Most, although not all, literary reviews are associated with universities or colleges, appear two or three times a year, can usually be found only in university or college libraries, and offer their select readers poems, short fiction, “literary” non-fiction, and sometimes reviews and/or art work.  They pay little or nothing, but they do offer the writer appearing in their pages publication credits that may open the door to the next publication credit. They are therefore deluged with thousands of unsolicited submissions, otherwise known (but only unofficially) as “the slush pile.”

When young, I always thought I was going to grow up to be a writer.  I grew up to be many things, and wear many hats, but “writer” wasn’t one of them, mostly because I also always seemed to need to be making pesky money. Then I retired from practicing law (the last of my serial paid professions) and had time and a new iMac desktop, and began to write short pieces of non-fiction, and guess where I sent them.  I would send them out two or three at a time, usually by snail mail because that’s what was then required, wait patiently to be rejected, and (because I was stubborn) try again.  And again. And again. This was between 2008 and 2012. Eventually, I had a file drawer full of form rejection slips, or printouts of email form rejections, and only one acceptance — from an online magazine of the arts for women over sixty.  So with the wisdom of age I stopped being stubborn about being printed in a literary review and began to blog instead.

An acquaintance with some experience of literary reviews has observed that each one is like a private club. You need to be a member or to know someone in order to be fished out of the slush pile and read by an editor. So when I met someone else who knew such a someone at one such prestigious literary review and the first someone offered to put in a word for me, I sighed and polished up a new piece to the first someone’s liking. Then the first someone put in his word, and the second someone (at the review) emailed the first someone that they’d be on the lookout for my new piece. And a month (instead of three months) later, I received an anonymous form rejection — not even from the second someone — by email.

The wisdom of age goes just so far. Then the old genes kick in again. The first someone’s second someone didn’t want it, didn’t think it was “right” for his prestigious little review that most people who aren’t writers have never heard of?  Well, I was going to show him! Borrowing a phrase from one of the dingbats seeking the Republican nomination (I forget which), I was going to “carpet-bomb” the literary review world with my piece!

And so, dear blog readers, I have just spent nearly all of the past four days compiling a list of sixty-seven literary reviews and then looking up each one on the internet. That was in order to determine whether they were still up and running (two or three had ceased to exist); whether they accepted electronic submissions (f**k mailing paper copies with cover letters and stamped self-addressed envelopes); whether they print non-fiction; whether they are reading in January and/February (some stopped in December, others won’t begin till April 1, or June 1); whether they accept simultaneous submissions or require you to wait around the five or six months while they consider what you’ve sent before submitting it somewhere else. When I had done all that, there were twenty-four functioning reviews remaining on my list with electronic submission portals still open (plus the one for women over sixty, which I’m saving for later). Some charged $3, but what the hell.  For each, I had to create and record a password, upload the piece, write something in the “comments” section of the submission form, and record what I’d done in a small notebook, so I would have a record of where I’d sent the piece in the extremely unlikely event I get a bite and have to notify all the others that I’m withdrawing the submission.

I know this is nuts, and nothing will come of it, and I shouldn’t have wasted the four days, but I loved the expression “carpet bomb” (as long as the “bombing” is harmless), and I don’t like being pushed around. If I get twenty-four rejections, at least no one can say I didn’t try. It’s not often a person with “old old” on the horizon gets to be so satisfyingly stubborn.  It feels really really good!

 

 

 

SOME DISCONTINUOUS OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LOVE

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Thanks to the give-and-take most book groups require of their members, I recently found myself obliged to read a novel by Penelope Lively called Moon Tiger.  I didn’t like it, despite the promise of its early chapters.  (A woman in her seventies, dying of cancer, looks back on her life and the important people in it.) But there was one aspect of the story that really held me — so much so I would gladly, and with excitement, have read more and more, and never mind the rest.

The heroine has a brother one year older. They grow up together and in late adolescence become lovers. No one suspects.  After a few years, the physical expression of their feeling for each other fades, but not the feeling. No one she meets subsequently, except for a British captain with whom she has a brief (and unconvincing) love affair during World War II, can compare with the brother. Throughout the rest of their lives, this feeling between brother and sister seems to trump any emotions either of them can experience for other potential love partners. When he is about to die, she rides with him and his wife in a taxi to some last meeting he insists on attending:

He goes on talking and she goes on talking and interrupting and beneath what is said they tell each other something entirely different.

I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things — love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness. I do not need to tell you, any more than you need to tell me. I have seldom even thought it. You have been my alter ego, and I have been yours. And soon there will only be me, and I shall not know what to do.

Sylvia [the wife], she sees, is weeping again. Not quite silently enough. If you don’t stop that, thinks Claudia [the protagonist], I may simply push you out of this taxi.

I was an only child. I yearned for a slightly older brother when I was growing up. But I did understand early on that as a first-born, I could never have an older sibling, except by adoption, which I felt wouldn’t have been the same. Lacking this much desired older brother, I made one up. [SeeFairy Tale,” an account of my childhood fantasy, its development as I grew older, and how it looks to me now.]

This is not to say I truly believe I could have fallen in love with a male version of me who I had known all my life.  Lively’s heroine believes that brother-sister incest requires narcissism in both parties. As I didn’t love myself enough for much of my life, narcissism does not seem to have been my problem.    What I yearned for was an alter ego, someone who would accept me as I was, knowing everything about me. Someone who was my other half.

 

Diana Athill, last mentioned in this blog for having at the age of 89 written “Somewhere Before the End,” a trail-blazing account of old old age — has come up with a sequel of sorts now that she’s 97; it’s called “Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter.In her introduction to this new book, she observes that persons in retirement homes spend a good deal of time just sitting and thinking. In her case, it’s been thinking about events in the past which were enjoyable.

Until about two months ago, those events included people, usually men. I talked about it the other day with someone who is also in her nineties, though not so far into them as I am, and she said, “Yes, of course, men. What I do when I’m waiting to fall asleep is run through all the men I ever went to bed with,” whereupon we both laughed in a ribald way, because that is exactly what I did too. It cheered me up to learn that I had not been alone in indulging in this foolishness.

Athill has now moved on from thinking about men to thinking of pleasurable scenes in nature. But let’s do a rewind for a moment: How is putting oneself to sleep by reviewing past bedmates “indulging in foolishness?”  As the saying goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, talk, write, or think about it.  I do have some years left before my nineties, but I too have sometimes counted “sheep” in somewhat the same way as Athill and her acquaintance; I review the sexual particulars of those relatively few men I have biblically known, with emphasis on the memorable ones.

However, and getting back to the theme of this piece, I don’t do that very often.  More frequently, I make up erotic stories.  They’re short on variety. I provide only two or three mises-en-scene; the two principal characters are always in their late teens or early twenties, and two or three years apart in age; I play both parts, moving in my mind from the point of view of the young man, then the young woman. But irrespective of the details of the flimsy “plot,” the underlying theme is always the same: these two grow up together, a tragic separation tears them apart, they cannot find each other, some time later, quite by accident, they do. Then nothing, nothing at all, can keep them from each other. Yes, they make love, occasionally in satisfying detail. But what is most exciting and rewarding about these pre-sleep lullabies, of which the physical “coming together” is just an expression, is the emotional coming together after having been so painfully separated.

 

The last time I read Plato’s Symposium in its entirety, somewhat unwillingly, was in the fall of 1949, when I was a sophomore in college. However, one section of it made a sufficient impression on me that I have revisited it on several later occasions.  For those of you who haven’t read it, or read about it, the Symposium is a disquisition on love as the ancient Greeks viewed it.  Since Plato wrote it, we may assume that in its entirety it represents the Platonic ideal. Briefly, six or seven of Socrates’ disciples gather with him at a dinner where they will all speak, in turn, about each one’s view of this important emotion.  The fourth in order is Aristophanes, who attempts to describe the feeling of love in “historic” terms he fears will be laughed at.

Mankind, he [Aristophanes] said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honor; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race….

In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different…. The primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast….Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods;….

Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts…. then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.”

He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson in humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms.  So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last;….

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them — being the sections of entire men or women — and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they mighty breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.

Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half….And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself….the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment….And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. [Italics mine.]

After my second husband and I separated, I sequentially looked up (and in my older son’s words, recycled) the two significant boyfriends of my premarital life. You may see where, perhaps not entirely consciously, I was trying to go with this coming together after painful separation.  I showed each of them the Aristophanes riff on love.  The first was both tactful and rueful as he turned its pages in bed:  “Here I am,” he said, “thirty-odd years later: same bathrobe, same book.” At least he didn’t laugh.  The second did laugh; halfway through his reading, the phone rang. “Hi,” he said, “I’m reading about these funny round people with four arms, four legs and two heads….”

As you may surmise, neither effort to rejoin what had come apart worked out. There’s a reason the Platonic ideal is called an ideal.  Real life just isn’t like that.  Romantic love, youthful passion, may feel so compelling nothing can get in its way.  But if satisfied, it begins to dilute itself into something else which we also call love.  However, that’s a different love: warm, safe, familiar, comfortable, with cranky moments, boring times, tough passages, and also good ones. A love that leaves time and space for the speculations in this piece.  A love to be explored in some other post.  I invite you to do that.

 

BAD IDEA BITES THE DUST

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I’m a copycat.  Not a thief, exactly.  But always on the alert as to how I can adapt someone else’s good idea.  One such “inspiration” has been the idea underlying the past 365 daily posts over at Catching Days, Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog about reading and writing books.  In January 2015, Cynthia decided she would devote a year of blogging to setting down “one true thing” about herself every day. As I understand it, she made this commitment because she was uncomfortable about revealing anything private (possibly even to herself), and thought this daily practice, as she called it, might address those feelings, or at least make her more comfortable with those uncomfortable feelings.  Four days ago, she reached the 365th post, entitled “Hallelulah!”

I followed along faithfully — not only as a nosy reader but also, as the year progressed, as a fellow-blogger with mixed emotions about the endeavor.  One emotion was increasing admiration for Cynthia’s disciplined stick-to-itiveness wherever she found herself (she travels a lot) and whatever else she might have been doing as the mother of four, grandmother of two, wife running a house, writer attending multiple writing conferences all over the country. The other was envy. She didn’t need to think up something new to write about periodically; she had her subject matter right there inside herself wherever she went. And one or two sentences every day would do it. (“I like red!” for instance.)

Why couldn’t I do something like that? Well, of course I could — but about what? I’m certainly not uncomfortable about revealing private aspects of my life and thoughts, as faithful followers of TGOB must surely realize.  Yes, it has at times seemed wiser not to write about some subjects in a venue where the entire English-speaking world can read what I say.  However, after twenty-four years of psychotherapy at various times in my life, I’m pretty sure I haven’t been concealing much from myself so far.  So a simple monkey-see-monkey-do wouldn’t work for me, even with full credit to Cynthia.

And then I had it!  A year of daily blogging, beginning six days from now, about how it will feel as getting older moves me, over the course of the coming year, into what is going to be the last phase of life. (Don’t say, “No, no!” Why mince words?)  I was going to do it as a separate blog, in case all that doom and gloom might drive away followers of this one. I even had the title! But wouldn’t a separate blog be too complicated? Daily dedication to the new one would undoubtedly lead to neglect over here. Still, no need to decide that right away when I still had six days before starting.

So I drafted the first post:

THE YEAR OF CROSSING OVER

365 truths about how it feels to be moving towards the end

January 23, 2016: 1/365

If I’m still here on July 23, six months from today, I’ll be 85. That’s the age at which geriatricians and other persons professionally knowledgeable about the latter years of life consider that you stop being “young old” and enter the ranks of the “old old.”

I don’t believe I won’t be here six months from today. I don’t believe I won’t be here a year from today. If I really thought that, I wouldn’t be undertaking this year-long daily record of what I’m thinking and feeling as I pass out of that stage of life generally illustrated in brochures for the retired by photographs of handsome silver-haired couples swinging a golf club together or leaning happily over the railing of a cruise ship.

I’m not a golfer, never took a cruise, and don’t regret either of those things. But I do regret that my 86th year is coming up. I’m not ready. (Is anyone not in excruciating pain or misery ever ready for the end?) I’ve always wanted to have things my way, and my way doesn’t include slow but sure physical and emotional decline into loneliness, weakness, dependence, and palliative care – all those things my head, which does still work properly, knows very well lie ahead unless I am carried off in the night while sleeping, a thing even a betting man wouldn’t put money on. Yes, I am selfish. Yes, I am childish. Like everyone else, except that I’m closer to it, I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be dead.

So if I am honest — and I intend to be, or  why would I be making this record? – this new one-year blog will probably not be “nice.” Nice and honest are a contradiction in terms. I have another blog where I do try to put my best foot forward. That means there’s a lot left unsaid over there about getting old. Not that all of Salome’s seven veils will necessarily drop in this one. But if I’m going to try to resign myself to what’s coming, I need to tell it like it is, including the hateful, the self-referential, the dehumanizing, the schadenfreude moments. Even if it turns out I’m writing only for myself.

Always best not to rush into something if you can possibly help it.  What looks like a sensational project in the evening, doesn’t necessarily look so hot the next day.  As many of you may remember, I had trouble hanging in there with only fifty daily blog posts last summer.  True, almost all of them were 400 words rather than a single sentence, but after a week or so it was really hard going.  How could I have believed I could possibly grind out a different post 365 days in a row?  Even if I put down something as short and monosyllabic as “I like red” — that would be just the beginning. I would need to qualify it (when, where, what kinds of red), give illustrations (the living room chairs, the dining room chair upholstery, how Bill feels about it, whether orange — his favorite color — can sometimes qualify as “red”); before we all knew it I’d be launched on a lengthy dissertation about redness.

And then the subject matter!  What was that “writing only for myself” business? Who writes only for himself? Actually, I wouldn’t want to read something every day about losing one’s contemporaries to terrible unjust diseases; about fears of running out of money, or of what the next ultrasound or cat scan will show; about gradual loss of mobility, breathlessness, easy fatigue, becoming increasingly stiff, not being able to keep up, feeling more and more left out of the currents and concerns of daily life, sensing oneself to be an afterthought, a burden. About the impotent rage and bitterness that accompanies such feelings. Or (God forbid) about finding one’s thoughts becoming fuzzy, one’s memory wobbly, one’s vocabulary beginning to disappear.

If I don’t want to read these horror stories,  why would I be committing myself to writing them? I began this blog — this one right here, not the putative “new” one — slightly more than two years ago, when I was still a relative youngster of 82, with the intention to live as fully as I can until I die, blogging about it as I go.  Was I whistling in the wind? “As fully as I can” should still be the operative words for me.  I may indeed in time encounter some, or all, of the matters in the preceding paragraph, which means mention of them will undoubtedly creep in here from time to time. They are, after all, part of getting old.

But I’m afraid you’ve just seen as much as there’s ever going to be of “The Year of Crossing Over” (YOCO), the blog.  It is that year, and I am on a moving walkway with no place to get off till it reaches the end. (As are we all.)  But let’s hope that end is a long way off yet, for me as well as all of you.

Stillborn new blog: RIP.

 

IF ONLY….

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Eventually you reach the point where most of your life is behind you. You have to exert considerable imagination to keep the days from being repetitive. What’s coming down the pike is at best not likely to be particularly exciting, at worst not advisable to think about too much.  That’s when some of us who are crossing over into old age may be tempted to amuse ourselves by wondering what sort of life we might have had if we’d played our cards differently.

Bill is a big one for this kind of fantasy. If only he hadn’t done thus and so.  If only he’d listened to M. If only he’d chosen a different career path, a different wife, a different country in which to settle. Right now he’s mourning the fact he never applied for dual citizenship and a Swiss passport at the time he was married to a Swiss national, had just become the father of a Swiss-born son, and was practicing medicine in Geneva. When he becomes especially disgusted with the domestic and international news, he so yearns to live in Geneva again! What he would do about me if he could take off for Geneva we don’t discuss, because it’s a pipe dream.  Not only would he likely find lots to dislike about present-day Geneva. He doesn’t have the passport, or the social benefits Switzerland affords its citizens.  Becoming Swiss was the road not taken.

He’s tried playing this game with my history, too. He thinks younger me, the one he never knew, had an unnecessarily hard time, beginning with college. “You’d have had a much better life if you’d gone to Radcliffe,” he declares.  In this scenario, he gives me a happier, more flirtatious four college years than the ones I lived through.  He also has me engaged to a Harvard man by the time I graduate, preferably someone who will go on to become well-fixed and famous.  I will then have the money, leisure and connections to develop my talents, whatever they might have been, instead of having had to “settle” for less than optimal husband material and then having to slog away at earning a living in various jobs/industries/professions while being married to men less meritorious, in his view, than I deserved.  When he talks like this, he almost sounds like my mother.

Does he really believe I could have attracted the likes of, let’s say, John Updike, who actually was at Harvard during the years I attended college? Maybe he does. (He overestimates my abilities in almost every area.) He’d be wrong. Or if not completely wrong, if John Updike had been fool enough to fall for insecure, emotionally immature me — then we almost certainly would have divorced each other pretty soon, as both of us did, with other people, in our actual real lives. Besides, would twenty-year-old John Updike, fresh from Shillington, Pennsylvania, have been attractive to irrationally picky me? Bill doesn’t factor in questions like that when he’s spinning straw into gold.

Mind you, he’s no dummy. He’s not a believer in the actual possibility of these alternate reality fairy tales.  Maybe it’s a holdover from all those years of doing psychiatric talk therapy with patients.  He just enjoys speculating. But count me out of the “if only” game. I don’t want to waste time on trips to la-la land. (We are ying and yang about that.) In my view, most of us played the cards we were dealt as best we could, often after careful consideration, although sometimes also driven by irrational impulses of which we were at the time unaware. If in retrospect, it seems there might have been preferable alternatives, they weren’t real alternatives.

For the record, I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College — the school Bill believes I would have done better not to attend — at a time when the last few World War II vets, beneficiaries of the GI Bill, were graduating. It would be about twenty years before the college again became co-ed. I nonetheless accepted its offer, despite the absence of men, like a wallflower being asked to dance.

Sarah Lawrence in 1948 was a twenty-year-old college, slightly north of New York City, which for its first couple of years seems to have functioned as a two-year holding pen for young ladies waiting to become wives of future lawyers, doctors and financiers. But in the early 1930s it somehow managed to transform itself into an experimental four-year adventure in learning to learn for oneself. Alas, in 1948 I was a highly conventional young person of seventeen who wanted to be like everyone else. I would have felt perfectly comfortable with a conventional college education. Experimental adventures in learning for oneself sounded absolutely terrifying. I knew how to memorize, to do extremely well on examinations, and to compose in fluent, dutiful prose any number of well-organized but boring thoughts on set topics.

This was absolutely not what Sarah Lawrence was about. There were no exams, and no memorizing, except for vocabulary in foreign language courses, of which there were few.  There were no textbooks; one read source material.  Small classes met for an hour and a half around a conference table, but only once a week. In addition, there was an independent term-long project associated with the class subject matter on which each student worked by herself and on which she reported every other week to the course professor in a private conference in his or her office. The project was supposed to culminate at term’s end in a long paper called a “contract.” There were also no grades, and therefore no conventional way of knowing how well you were doing. Every semester, you received a paragraph or so of commentary on your work from the professor of each course, assessed in terms of your ability and potential. (The office kept grade equivalents of these reports, in the event you needed to apply to graduate school afterwards, but you never saw them while you were an undergraduate. You weren’t supposed to be working for grades.)

You’d think someone whose modus operandi had hitherto been to claw her way to the top of her classes might not be ideal raw material for this educational experiment. But based on my academic record and completion of a sixteen-page application consisting of thirty-two questions about myself, each to be answered on half a blank page, I was offered a full scholarship.  It was probably a mistake in judgment on the college’s part. They may have thought they could shake up the way my mind worked. As for me, I didn’t question their motives. Despite some apprehension about the novel educational environment into which I was about to plunge myself — would I be able to keep the scholarship being the principal fear — I had no hesitation in saying yes, yes, yes.  Sauve qui peut.

The situation at home which drove my acceptance was as follows:

(1)  Radcliffe, where I did really want to go (because it was the sister school of Harvard), did not give me a scholarship and didn’t even admit me, probably because there was no point in wasting an admission on someone who needed financial aid and wasn’t going to get it.  I was “wait-listed,” a polite way of saying, “Sorry.” Did being Jewish have something to do with that? Some might have said yes, although you probably couldn’t have gotten anyone in the Admissions Office to admit it. A girl from my high school with the exact same grades as mine, but who wore a cross around her neck and sang in her church choir, was admitted — with financial aid from the Radcliffe Club of New York. I had no cross or church choir membership, although I did then play classical piano fairly well. I also remember sinking fast with the ladies from the Radcliffe Club at their tea for applicants during our high-school senior year. I was entirely inexperienced at gracefully holding a teacup and saucer, plus a cookie, plus my handbag, while trying to balance on rarely worn cuban heels and searching for subjects about which to converse with the several minimally polite Radcliffe Club members in their forties and fifties circulating the room to check me out.  Bill’s reveries about my going to Radcliffe might have made allowances for these circumstances; he himself had to go to medical school abroad — in Geneva, to be specific — because Jewish boys had such a hard time getting into medical schools here at home.

(2)  Vassar, my second choice, did make an offer but provided no aid.  The Admissions Office there informed my parents that if they could swing the first year and I did well, there might be a scholarship for the second year. Tuition and board that year was $1200. My father earned $5000 a year (before taxes) when he was working, thanks to Local 802 of the AFL Musicians’ Union.  But a hotel musician had no guarantee of a steady job, could be let go on two weeks notice, and frequently was. So my parents banked half of every paycheck that came in, and managed on the other half.  $1200 would have just about cleaned out the savings account. My father was reluctantly willing, my mother less so. She believed a woman’s economic security lay in finding a husband with a good job, not in acquiring fancy higher education that might lead to who knew what. As for me, I was afraid of wiping my father out and then finding that Vassar’s conditional second-year scholarship did not come through, leaving me without any alternative after the first year.

(3) There was also a fallback school, where I didn’t even have to apply. It was Hunter College, to which the high school for girls I attended was attached, both administratively and geographically.  A diploma from Hunter College High School automatically entitled you to a place in the freshman class of Hunter College. Moreover, because it was a city school, it was free, or almost free.  I could have gone on living at home, in the tiny room at the end of the short hall behind the kitchen which I had occupied since I was eleven, and taken the subway from Kew Gardens into Manhattan and back every day, just as I had done all through high school. I’m sure I would have received a good, if conventional, college education in some subject of my choice, probably English, and then gone on to teach it, perhaps at Hunter. Maybe I might also have met someone to marry, although I wasn’t sure where. I would also have had to go on spending too much time alone in the small apartment with my by-then depressed and menopausal mother, since my father frequently had to take out-of-town jobs. This future so much didn’t make my heart beat faster I wanted to cry whenever I thought of it.

(4)  Finally, there was Sarah Lawrence. The high-school college guidance counselor had suggested applying to at least three schools if I wanted to try to avoid enrolling at Hunter. It would have been prudent for all three to be in New York State, because there was a good chance I would win a New York State Regents scholarship in the competitive statewide examinations held midway through the last year of high school, and thereby receive $300 a year for each of four years of attendance at a New York institution of higher education.  True, Radcliffe was in Massachusetts.  But even the guidance counselor thought I should give Radcliffe a shot.  However, Vassar was in New York State. Now I needed another.  Skidmore?  Barnard? NYU?  What about this one, with the pretty light blue catalogue cover?  It offered courses described in expansive terms that had nothing to do with specific subjects — “The Individual in History,” “Classical and Christian Civilization,” “Renaissance and Reformation” — and therefore sounded grown-up and sophisticated.   “Why not? What’s the harm?” I thought, with my mind focussed on Radcliffe.  I listed Sarah Lawrence as my third choice on the SATs.  The catalogue cover was really very attractive.

And that, dear friends and dear Bill, is the story of how I became a Sarah Lawrence girl rather than a Radcliffe girl (or, for that matter, a Vassar girl).  There really was no choice; “if only” never entered into it.  What came afterwards may not have been the easier ride Bill might have wanted for me if he could have rearranged things his way, or the opportunity for a rich choice of well-heeled husbands that was undoubtedly my mother’s dashed hope.  But when I look back, it seems to me I wouldn’t have become whoever I am had I been able to follow a hypothetically easier road.  At Sarah Lawrence, I did (with angst) eventually learn to learn for myself, to connect disparate facts in a new way, and thus equipped, was later able to survive and even somewhat prosper in what was then still really a man’s world. Yes, it was sometimes lonely.  Yes, I was sometimes envious. But with time it became evident that no road is really easy. Better to learn to tough it out early, while you’re still resilient and can roll with the punches. There’s also a bonus.  In your later years, you can always blog about it, and it won’t be boring.