When I was a little girl in the 1930s, my favorite story was Hansel and Gretel. I was an only child. But after my mother had tucked me in and turned out the light, I would close my eyes and not be me anymore.
Alone in the dark I became Gretel, with a brother two years older and much braver than I. We would live in a rough-hewn cottage deep in the woods — German woods, of course; there were no woods in New York City — and our parents were always away. But my brother would take me by the hand and lead me out of that dark place, where we were hungry and cold, to search for something better. And no matter how difficult the journey I would feel safe and happy, because I was with him.
I got over wanting to be Gretel when we began to have Current Events in school and I learned that in real life, Hansel would probably wear a Hitler Youth uniform with a swastika on it and shout, “Sig Heil!” — whereas I would have to wear a yellow armband and die in a camp, after which Hitler would make a lampshade of my skin.
That wasn’t the end of Hansel, though.
He resurfaced in the theater of my imagination three or four years later, Mediterraneanized. Sometimes he had a name, Greek or Spanish or Italian or gypsy, but mostly he didn’t. What he had was dark hair and smoldering eyes, plus rage at how things were, clenched fists, and a will to survive.
He had also developed a hard-muscled adolescent body and hungry genitals that were always seeking to escape the worn fabric of his ragged pants whenever he wasn’t being consumed with defiance at the injustices of life. [He never wore underwear. We were too poor for him to have any.]
As for his heart, it had long ago hardened and was accessible only to one other in all the world. But ah, how he loved her — for her goodness, her sweetness, her gentleness. To him, she was beautiful.
And the best part was that she never actually had to do anything to earn his love except be true, which was easy. Others might look down on him because he was poor and homeless and unlettered, but she knew that he was good [though a brawler], and therefore she trusted him and loved him and [eventually] opened her body to him. Every night she did this, if I didn’t fall asleep first.
Now, of course, he was no longer her brother. I would make him her half-brother, or step-brother, or cousin. More often, though, they would have met when very young, cast out into the world as human detritus of the war — or of some other huge, unidentified societal calamity — so that they would have lived for years like brother and sister before they became lovers and made up for everything with the pleasure they took in each other’s flesh.
I would lie perfectly still under my clean sheets, blankets and white cotton chenille bedspread from Macy’s, devising on the screen inside my eyelids their meeting and growing up together. The rags they wore, the scraps of food he stole and scrupulously divided with her, the boxcars, abandoned shacks, and shelters for the homeless in which they slept, huddled together under straw — no detail was too insignificant for my careful consideration.
Both cunning auteur and excited audience, I also arranged for them to conceal — at least for the first hour or so — their immeasurably deep feelings for each other, watching breathlessly as she restrained her impulse to smooth back the lock of dark hair falling over his forehead and hid from him her heartache when he returned to her after a street fight with torn bleeding mouth and a fresh cut under his eye. [Fortunately, both of these always healed without a scar.]
He in turn also had to experience emotions too deep for words. As when, for instance, I had him come upon her unawares as she bent diligently over her needle, patiently repairing, unasked, the rents in his few garments. In fact, dialogue was generally an unnecessary item in these nocturnal dramas, except to trigger heart-rending, albeit temporary, misunderstandings. However, for variety I did occasionally permit him to swallow his pride and beseech her, humbly, to teach him to read.
And each night I would need to determine anew whether his frayed pants should unbutton or unzip when it was time for him to release their swollen contents. On the nights I managed to stay awake until it was time for this delicious decision, the passion then unleashed, after he had deflowered her (as painlessly as possible) left me with pounding heart, gasping, and unable to sleep at all.
Then I went away on full scholarship to a prestigious college for women, where I was invited to mixers and football weekends at Ivy League schools. And the screen went dark.
One of the perks of getting old is the leisure to reflect. When I look back now on those fevered nights of my girlhood, what do I make of them?
I still love the sex parts. They’re so creative. Especially as my actual knowledge then derived entirely from what I had read in my mother’s copy of “Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living” and had discovered under the sheets with my finger. Hands-on experience with a real other person came later. Alas, much later.
I am surprised that my nights were so dark with calamities. I had never gone hungry or cold. Safe on the other side of the Atlantic, the war — World War II — never reached me. I had heard about it, read about it, adults were always talking about it. But I cannot say it colored my daily life in any meaningful way. On the other hand, there were movies, Hollywood war movies — and I loved movies. And there were my immigrant parents, who had known horrors, and who loved me, and who had therefore surrounded me with the clouds of their fear.
I am sad there was never an “I” in my stories. “He” and “she” enjoyed the action, but I could only watch. Even at night, in private, I was never off the leash. What a creature of the culture I was! You imbibed it with your mother’s milk: Men didn’t marry spoiled goods.
I am bemused at the notion that goodness and sweetness will get you a man. Or that someone will love you for being “true” — plus mending his garments and knowing how to read.
And why did I think you needed a Y chromosome to put bread on the table? That was my mother’s model. I was taking Latin and Algebra and Physics and Chemistry in school. What was that all about if the goal was to sit home and wait to be fed?
I did not grow up to be what you might call a feminist. But sixty-odd years have certainly put a different spin on things. Also, you hang around, you learn.
I do admit that the idea of not wearing underwear remains exciting. Although it may lead to more frequently having to launder your jeans.