THE FIRST TIME I SAW PRINCETON

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[I live in Princeton, New Jersey.  Bill and I moved here from Massachusetts in 2006, after I retired from practicing law.  Princeton was Bill’s suggestion, but I didn’t object. It’s conveniently located between Philadelphia and New York (where we both had grown children), and has a renowned university with a vibrant cultural life available to the community and an audit program for many of its courses which is open to residents of all ages.   Moreover, I had already been to Princeton on three prior occasions — the last two times bringing each of my sons in turn to check it out as a college where he might want to study.  By then, Princeton had become co-educational and was beginning to open its doors to a diverse and multicultural student body.  Although they didn’t choose to apply, I did think at that time it was a pretty and inviting town in which to live.  However, had neither of them wanted to see Princeton, I might have put up a fuss when Bill suggested the move.  Because long long ago, I had been here a first time. It was when I was barely seventeen, a scholarship student just out of the nest, and Princeton was quite a different sort of place  — still an all-male preserve of WASP privilege, nestled in a little town saturated with social snobbery….]

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 The photograph of me in the face book for the 1948 entering class at Sarah Lawrence College looks very young and somewhat scared. The camera didn’t lie. I was finding it hard to strike up conversations with other members of my class. The ones who impressed me the most, and who I wanted to know, all seemed like golden girls. They were blonde and tan, smoked cigarettes with their coffee, and talked about parties at which they had got really plastered.

They had also all gone either to private day schools or else to boarding schools with famous names, where they had learned to play not only tennis and golf, neither of which I had ever had the opportunity to attempt, but also field hockey, of which I had never even heard. What’s more, they all seemed either to know each other or know each other’s friends, and already had invitations to football weekends at Harvard and Yale and Princeton. Some were talking about their coming-out parties. How could I ever have thought I would fit in?

And then, a miracle!  Dora, the one golden girl with a friendly smile for everyone, asked if I could come to the Princeton-Virginia game with her. It would really help her out, she said. This guy who had invited her had a friend who also needed a date!

I asked no questions.  Into a small suitcase flew a violet off-the-shoulder dress, taken from its hanger for the first time, and a strapless bra. Clad in my new scratchy tweed football-weekend suit and only cashmere sweater — both highly recommended by Mademoiselle magazine for just such an occasion – Dora and I rode the train down to Grand Central; from there we shared a cab to Penn Station and then took another train to Princeton. Dora came from just outside Philadelphia. At Princeton, she was therefore staying with a friend of her mother’s. But a room had been arranged for me at the home of a friend of her mother’s friend.

Dora’s mother’s friend’s friend was a stern-looking matron who made no effort to conceal her scorn for both my appearance and my name when I presented myself in her front hall. A well-thumbed copy of the Social Register lay prominently open on the lamp table by the front door. (It goes without saying my family was not in it.) She gave me a tight little nod and led me in silence up two steep flights to a small third-floor bedroom, probably originally a maid’s room, where I was instructed to leave my suitcase.

Coming down again, I peeked into the open bedrooms on the second floor. They already had partially unpacked suitcases on the beds, and were much larger and airier than mine. I also noticed there were no locks on any of the bedroom doors. But then I recollected this was a private home. Surely, there was no need for concern. In any event, there was also no time to ask. Dora and the two dates had arrived to collect me for the game.   Mine came from a prep school in Minneapolis. The top of his head was level with the bottom of my nose. He was already somewhat drunk when we were introduced. Then Dora and her date took off; I was on my own with mine.

My experience with football was at this point minimal. I had been taken to two Giants games the previous year but had been entirely unable to follow the ball. Unsurprisingly, I failed to muster sufficient visible enthusiasm for whatever Princeton was doing down there on the field to dispel the initial suspicion with which my date had looked up at me when we met. And why hadn’t anyone warned me it would be cold in the stadium, even in my scratchy tweed suit?  The date had a small pocket flask from which he quaffed warming draughts from time to time, but once I had refused his first offer to partake, no more offers were forthcoming. Also everyone kept jumping up and down, waving orange Princeton pennants and yelling – for what, I wasn’t sure — which was disquieting. After the game, which Princeton lost, the date then dragged me to innumerable drinks parties on the baronial stairs and in the oak-paneled rooms of the various houses on campus to which he had entrée. It seemed as if I climbed for hours around and past seated groups of drinkers to reach rooms packed tight with the bodies of Princetonians and their girlfriends noisily drowning the sorrow of their loss.

I must have been mercifully walked back to my room at some point, to change for dinner and dancing — although I now no longer remember when, or by whom. What I do remember is the discovery that while I had been away, my suitcase had been rifled of its strapless bra. The stern-faced lady of the house, when found, disclaimed all knowledge of what she lightly termed “a youthful prank,” and implied that there was something ill-bred about my distress and use of the word “stolen.”   Begrudgingly, she gave me two little safety pins to keep the straps of the bra I was already wearing from showing under the off-the-shoulder violet dress. When inserted, the pins pulled the dress towards the bra straps rather than the reverse, thereby creating two bunched-up mounds of cloth at the shoulders and a neckline that gaped in front.

But by the time the date returned by taxi to retrieve me, he was so far gone my appearance didn’t matter. We probably ate something. We may even have danced one dance, in a room festooned with orange lanterns and more orange pennants. I seem to recollect his lurching against me and his head flopping on one bunched-up shoulder of the dress. We came across Dora and her friend, both less drunk than my date; they explained indulgently that Virginia was known for suitcase-rifling. Was it a comfort to me that my lingerie would be hung from a University of Virginia dorm window as a larcenous trophy of victory? All I could think was that the bra had cost eight dollars (at a time when you could buy a regular bra for $1.95) and was therefore a luxury in my family, whatever it might be to a golden girl — and also that it was probably tacky of me to keep harping on it. But I couldn’t help it (which was itself tacky), because being robbed just wasn’t right. Especially as I was a guest.

My date was unable to appear for Sunday breakfast. Dora and her friend made token apologies for him. On the train back to New York, Dora also said she was sorry it hadn’t worked out, gave me one of her friendly smiles, and then immersed herself in Sons And Lovers, the assignment for our next Exploratory Lit class, which met the following morning. This was to my mind cutting it rather close. I had made sure to finish the whole book before the weekend, and planned to review it when we got back to school that evening. But that’s how it was, I supposed, when your family had enough money to send you to any college you wanted and you didn’t need to focus on keeping your scholarship. I had hoped Dora and I would chat and get to know each other better on the return trip, but that was apparently not to be.

In any event, I knew one thing for sure: I was never never ever going back to Princeton again. Not for another football game, and not for anything else, either. I hated the university, the town, and the color orange.  I sought revenge for all of it, and comfort for myself, in doughnuts in the dining hall and Ritz crackers with cheese in the dorm, so that soon I didn’t have to buy another strapless bra because the violet dress didn’t fit any more. The scratchy tweed football-game suit didn’t fit very well either.

What my mother had to say about that when I next came home is another story.

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[But I probably should add that Bill’s favorite color is orange.  And that you just never know how things are going to turn out, do you?]

 

 

 

BEAR

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[I first posted this very short piece last week on the blog of Julie Lawford, who blogs as Jools at A Writer’s Notepad.  Julie had requested contributions from other writers who follow her blog, none to exceed 250 words.  She received thirteen such short pieces, including mine. The other twelve are all well worth your time, and I urge you to go take a look.  However, since this one is mine, and not all of you follow Jools, I’m putting it up here too.  Like the two preceding posts (Tweed and Bathroom), it comes from a novella in progress.]

BEAR

Just after Anna began sleeping in her new big girl’s bed, she dreamed the wild animals in the zoo escaped from their cages. Everyone had their windows shut tight so no animals could get in, except the window in Anna’s room had been left open by mistake. She was very frightened.

Sure enough, a huge brown bear climbed over the sill. His mouth was open, he had long pointed white teeth, saliva dripped from his gums; she knew he wanted to eat her. Heart pounding, she slipped out of bed. The bear saw her. She circled the bed. The bear came after her, round and round, closer and closer….

That’s when she woke up. Her mother was there. Her mother stroked her hair and kissed her and told her it was just a bad dream, but that if a bear ever did get into her room, all she had to do was feed him honey and he wouldn’t hurt her. Then Anna really did wake up and found herself all alone in her room. Her mother wasn’t there. The advice about feeding bears honey had been part of the dream, too.

After giving it a lot of thought over the next few days, Anna decided her mother’s advice in the scary dream had not been useful. How would she find honey in her room if a bear came into it? And how would she feed the honey to such a huge bear?

 

 

BATHROOM

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[From a novella in progress.]

Anna had to make a wee, but the bathroom door was closed. Although the knob was above her head, she could reach it on tiptoe — a glass knob, with little smears of white paint on it. She turned it and pushed the door halfway open.

The toilet was right behind the door. Her naked father stood in profile, holding some part of himself over the bowl. She never saw his face. She never saw what he was holding. As soon as the door opened, he slammed it shut again, just missing her. His voice was a roar: “DON’T YOU EVER COME INTO THE BATHROOM WHEN I’M IN IT!” Why was he so angry when she hadn’t known he was there?

And she had to go so badly! She burst into tears. Her mother came running. Now her father was yelling at her mother. Her mother spoke through the door, saying calm-sounding things in the foreign language they used with each other sometimes. Then she took Anna away to the kitchen, where she taught her to sit on a saucepan on the floor whenever she had to make a wee or a stinky and her father was in the bathroom. The saucepan dug a circle in her hiney. It hurt.

“Sometimes I have to use a pan, too,” her mother confided.

Grown-up Anna occasionally looks at the height of doorknobs, trying to estimate how old she could have been when this happened. Certainly not more than three.

 

 

TWEED

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[From a novella in progress.]

Anna’s mother parted her hair on the side, so you could see her widow’s peak. Her upper lip had dainty points in the middle. Her ankles were lovely, with bones that showed. And when she got dressed, she looked more beautiful than any other mother in the playground.

Sometimes Anna went into her mother’s closet and stood with her nose pressed against her mother’s good clothes and fitted coat; they smelled delicious, just like her mother. Her mother said the fragrance she wore, that lingered on her clothes, was Tweed.

After Anna grew up, she would sometimes ask for Tweed at perfume counters. The salesladies always shook their heads. “That’s an oldie,” said one. “Lentheric used to make it. I don’t know who carries it these days.” Then Anna found it, in a specialty fragrance store.

But when she sprayed it on herself at home, it wasn’t at all what she remembered. Well, she didn’t have her mother’s body chemistry. (Or — come to think of it — a widow’s peak, or visible ankle bones, either.)

She resealed the bottle as best she could and mailed it to her mother. The next time they spoke on the phone, her mother thanked her but said she hadn’t worn Lentheric for years.

Somehow that made Anna sad. She had so loved standing in the dark closet, breathing her delicious mother into herself. Now her mother was a different person, and they were separate people forever.