On New Year’s Eve, Millie and Richard went to a party at the home of a New Dramatist who lived in the Village. The New Dramatists were a group of aspiring playwrights who met periodically to read and critique each other’s work. The meetings were good for Richard because they got him out of the apartment. This party, however, was not one of the regular get-togethers. Wives and “others” could also come.
“Who’s going to be there?” Millie asked, as they peered through the icy dark at house numbers.
“Playwrights, who else?” said Richard. An elongated drop hung from his nostril; she wondered if it was going to freeze in mid-air before it could fall.
“I think it’s here,” he said, starting down the steps to the basement apartment of a brownstone.
Millie hoped it wasn’t going to be a fancy party. Her five-year-old navy blue Kimberly knit dress was not very festive, although the best she had. Also she hadn’t managed to do such a good job with the pin curls after washing her hair in the shower that afternoon.
“Come in, come in,” exclaimed the short dark-haired host, whose name Richard had told Millie was Tom; he tugged them over the threshold into a tiny vestibule and pushed them into the smoky living room so he could shut the outer door. The other guests, already seated and looking cozy, watched with interest while Millie and Richard divested themselves of knitted hats, gloves, coats and scarves, and bent down to pull off their galoshes. The hostess emerged from somewhere to gather everything up. “I’ll just put your things in the back,” she said. “To get them out of the way.” She disappeared, arms around her load.
Tom rattled off the names of the people on the sofa and in the two easy chairs, for Millie’s benefit. There was also a large very plain woman standing alone underneath the street-level window high on the wall; she had a long square face and a thick rectangular body. Then Tom brought two kitchen stools into the center of the room for Millie and Richard to sit on.
“I’ll never remember who you all are,” she ventured.
“That’s all right,” said the woman sitting in the middle of the sofa with a man’s arm around her. “We don’t remember who we all are either.”
Tom had two jelly glasses for Millie and Richard filled with something dark red that didn’t look like wine. His own jelly glass was on a table. “To Iris!” he proposed, raising his drink towards the woman on the sofa.
Syrupy and caloric, Millie thought, sipping as little as possible.
“Mazel tov!” exclaimed the man with the arm around Iris.
“Mazel tov?” asked Tom.
“It means congratulations,” Millie said. Richard kicked her, but maybe it was an accident.
The man with the arm around Iris winked at Millie. “Iris just had a play optioned for production on Broadway,” he explained.
“That’s wonderful,” she said, politely. Richard said nothing.
“Yes it is,” said the man who had winked.
“What’s it about?” Millie asked.
“Oh, we’ve already been through that,” said the man. “You two should have come earlier.”
“About a young woman with a dream,” said Iris kindly.
“Is there any other kind of young woman?” Millie asked.
Richard kicked her again. This time it hurt. If he didn’t want her to talk, why didn’t he say something himself? He had plenty to say at home.
“Good for you,” said another man, stretched out on his spine in one of the armchairs. He had long thin legs. “Brilliant and beautiful,” he said to Richard.
That’s what Edmund Wilson wrote about Mary McCarthy when they were divorcing, Millie thought. “That beautiful, brilliant girl.” Edmund Wilson had been her thesis subject, and was supposed to be her dissertation subject, too, if she could ever find time.
“Hear hear,” said Tom.
“Excuse me but I didn’t catch your name before,” Millie said to the man with the long legs.
“He’s Tom, too,” said Tom. “We’re the two Toms of the group. His wife, over there, is Alice. My wife, in the kitchen where she belongs, is Susan. You can tell us apart by the wives.”
Was everyone drunk? “When did this party start?” Millie asked.
“Long long ago,” said the man with the arm around Iris. After a thoughtful pause, he added, “Now it’s time for a change in the conversation. I am equipped to talk about two subjects. One, the dry cleaning business. Two, what’s wrong with the world. Which shall we start with?” He held out his glass for a refill to the Tom who was host.
Richard smiled — his boyish smile, not the sardonic one.
“What’s so important about dry cleaning?” Millie inquired.
“It kept a roof over Iris during the twenty-six months it took her to write her play,” said the man on the sofa. “The play should be dedicated to Sheldon’s Dry Cleaning.”
“Jewish girls are so smart,” said Sheldon.
Millie slipped off her stool and looked around. When parties are bad, head for the kitchen. The plain rectangular-shaped woman under the window pointed towards a glass-paned doorway at the side of the sofa. “Whatever you’re looking for, it’s through there,” she said.
“Who is she?” Millie whispered to host Tom.
“Against the wall?” Tom whispered back.
“Hulda. With an umlaut.”
“Over the “u.” In her name.”
“Moving on to the Cuba situation, are you going to explain Batista’s options to us?” Sheldon asked Richard.
Millie opened the glass-paned door and went down a dark hall with two more doorways. At the end was a dimly lit galley kitchen, where the hostess — Susan? Alice? no, Susan — was smearing orange cheese spread on Ritz crackers. “What can I do?” Millie asked, squeezing in sideways next to her.
“Put them on a plate?” said Susan.
Millie began arranging the finished crackers in circles on a melamine platter with a plaid pattern. “Why did Tom say your place is in the kitchen?”
“Did he say that?” A rubber band kept Susan’s dark blonde hair from falling in her face as she dug into the cheese spread. She had chewed off most of her lipstick. Better dressed and groomed, she could have been quite good looking. “He doesn’t like it that I go out to work four days a week and leave him with the baby.”
“What kind of work is that?”
“Secretarial. Temp. I wish I didn’t have to. I’d love to be home with the baby. But what choice is there? It keeps us going while he writes the play.” She sighed. “And you?”
“Ad agency. But it’s not great. I’m looking around.”
“My temp agency’s pretty good at placements,” Susan offered. “Do you want the name and address?”
Millie shook her head. “I can’t do secretarial,” she explained. “No shorthand.” That was easier than saying what she could do. Although — come to think of it – what could she do? The art director where she worked had just complained to their boss that he got nosebleeds when he had to sit down with her to develop an ad.
“Does Alice work too?” she asked.
“Well, sure. She’s a New Dramatist wife, isn’t she?” Susan scraped the last of the cheese spread out of the jar. “Do you want to see the baby?” she asked. “She’s in our bedroom.”
The bedroom was dark and warm and smelled of baby powder. A crib stood against the foot of a double bed piled with coats. “We really need another room,” said Susan softly. “She’s nearly eight months old.”
Millie could hardly make out the baby’s cheek in the feeble light from the hall. She had no experience with babies. What was she supposed to say? “She’s a good sleeper,” she finally ventured.
“I love her so much,” said Susan. “She’s the most important thing in my life. I carry her picture around with me all the time.” She pulled a small locket up from inside her blouse and opened it.
Millie nodded without coming too close. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Well,” said Susan, putting the locket back inside her blouse. “Maybe ’59 will be better.” She sighed. “We ought to get back to the others. It must be close to midnight.”
Millie wanted to look at the sleeping baby some more, but it wasn’t her baby. So how could she?
Almost everyone had switched places in the stuffy living room. Iris and Sheldon were in the easy chairs. Short Tom was perched where Millie had been sitting. Hulda, Alice and long-legged Tom were on the sofa, with Tom’s arm around Alice. Only Richard was still quiet and smiling boyishly on his uncomfortable stool. What was it with Richard tonight? Millie considered the expression fixed on his face. Actually, it wasn’t just tonight. In public, Richard was almost always that way — bland and kind of out of it. As if he wanted to join in but couldn’t. She passed around the platter of Ritz crackers.
Sheldon was still talking about Cuba. Had anyone read the cover story in Time that week, he wanted to know. Millie had, at the 53rd Street public library during lunch hour, but couldn’t remember anything she’d read except that there had also been a woman up in the Sierra Maestra — in addition to the younger brother and that other fellow from South America who was the best friend. Sitting at the library table in her winter coat, she had imagined sharing a sleeping bag in a semi-tropical forest with a hot-blooded revolutionary. Of course she didn’t know Spanish, but that didn’t matter for a fantasy. The problem was the guns. She would need passion without bloodshed.
“Countdown to midnight, people!” This from Alice, wife of long-legged Tom.
Six. Five. Four. The two Toms were counting aloud. Millie wondered what she was doing here. She had nothing in common with these people. Three. Two. One. Happy New Year!
“To Castro Fidel!” cried Sheldon, lifting his glass.
That’s wrong, Millie thought. It’s the other way around. But Richard hopped down off his stool for the first time all evening and before she could say anything to Sheldon kissed her with proprietary gusto. So she had to kiss him back.
Then she had to kiss both of the Toms. Long-legged Tom tried to stick his tongue down her throat, but she clamped her lips and teeth shut. Sheldon himself didn’t come for a kiss. She saw him go kiss big ugly Hulda instead.
Richard wanted to leave now that it was 1959. “It’s because there’s no more punch, isn’t it?” said short Tom.
Coats and galoshes appeared. At the door, one of the Toms suggested a get-together for bridge. Millie didn’t know how to play bridge. Richard pronounced bridge a great idea. “We’ll call, we’ll call,” he promised.
“So I did eventually remember everyone’s names,” Millie said as they climbed up to street level.
Richard wasn’t listening. “Iris’s play is no damn good,” he declared. “I heard some of it at the workshop meetings. She must know somebody. Or he does.” He meant Sheldon.
“Well, it can’t be Sheldon,” Millie said. “He’s a dry cleaner.”
But Richard was already ahead of her. She had to hurry along the slippery dark street to catch up.
“Why do you think Sheldon kissed Hulda?” she asked when she reached him. “Was he just sorry for her?”
“Hulda!” Edward said scornfully, hurtling down the subway stairs. “She can’t write at all! It’s a miracle she got into the group.”
What a waste of an evening, Millie thought, fumbling in her pocket at the turnstiles for their two tokens.
The only good thing about it was not having had to spend it alone with Richard. Now there was just one more day to get through, and then she could go back to work.