THOSE WERE THE DAYS

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[A story.]

 I’m quite certain Paul came with me to Andre de Renski’s housewarming party in October 1960 because back then I never went anywhere, except to work, without Paul. Although I have no specific recollection of whether or not he gave me a hard time about putting on his grey flannel suit (which I had bought for him back in our honeymoon days) in order to attend this event, he would have eventually agreed to come – preliminary objections or no — so as not to jeopardize my paycheck, which was, in a manner of speaking, our paycheck.

I do remember that it was Frauke, Andre’s nineteen-year-old German secretary and showroom receptionist, who came to the penthouse door to greet us when we stepped out of the elevator. She was looking delectable in an emerald green taffeta cocktail dress and high heels; the dress swished as she clicked her way across the polished wood parquet floor. She apparently had gone home to change after work; in the showroom, she always wore a slim skirt and cashmere sweater, with a string of pearls.

As we entered the living room, I introduced her to Paul; she then introduced us to her escort, who was sitting in a yellow brocade wing chair. A polite, neatly combed man in a dark suit. His name was Matthew Holmes (as he reminded me when we met again sometime afterwards). I found out later Frauke had already been living with him for at least a couple of months, although they were not officially a couple and gave no indication that his accompanying her to Andre’s party was anything other than a social accommodation. I probably offered him a civil smile. Then Andre hurried over and swept us away.

Andre was a new client of Pagel & Cohen, the ad agency where I had recently been hired to write copy. He had come from Paris in August to introduce a French silver company to the American market. Why he had invited me and Stan Epstein, the art director who was designing his advertising program, to his housewarming was not clear. Stan thought it might be only an outburst of youthful good spirits. However, Norm Pagel and Herb Cohen, who ran their eponymous agency together, decided it made good business sense for us go.

So there I was in my one really good dress, a black cashmere knit bought at a small intimidating shop on Madison Avenue during the previous post-Christmas sale. When I was well girdled, as now, it was very becoming; I felt chic and ready for anything. Unfortunately, Paul and I spent the whole evening talking to Stan. The other guests were all French businessmen and two Frenchwomen who did something for Vogue, a seemingly self-contained francophone group I didn’t feel sufficiently secure in spoken French to approach.

We left early. Paul and I hadn’t been getting along for some time, and I ‘d been looking forward to this Friday evening housewarming as a way to delay the onset of the weekend’s bickering. But there was just so much Stan and I could say to each other that we hadn’t already said in the office, and Paul wasn’t helping. As we stepped into the elevator, Andre rushed over again, this time clutching a bottle of Pommard, which he thrust into my hand. He said he was tellement desole, so very sorry, that we were leaving before we’d had a chance to chat, and that he wanted us to have something to enjoy over the weekend. He may not have meant both of us; the word you is singular as well as plural in English. He gave me what could have been a deeply sorrowful look. Although French, he had Slavic eyes. I didn’t thrust the bottle back, a serious mistake. The invitation to the housewarming had already sent up Paul’s antenna. We argued about what the Pommard meant, or didn’t mean, all the way home on the crosstown bus.

The Pommard may have meant what Paul suspected. During a meeting with Herb, Norm and Stan the following week, Andre pulled me to one side of the conference room on the pretext of showing me some ideas he had roughed out for future ads. “We must have lunch,” he whispered urgently.

“Didn’t you forget something?” I whispered back. “I’m married.”

His eyes looked tragic. “You can’t even have lunch?”

I consulted the Hungarian about this whispered invitation during my next visit to his office on East 86th Street. I had been seeing him two evenings a week for over a year.   He did have a proper name, clotted with linked consonants and therefore difficult to pronounce, but I found myself unable to use it except when writing out checks in payment for treatment. Naming him might have turned him into a regular human being who used branded toothpaste and wore pajamas and maybe even yelled at his wife now and then. If compelled to bring him into a conversation, as when explaining to Paul why I might be late getting home after work, I always sidestepped the linked consonants by referencing his nationality. And when I was by myself, he needed no name. Where in the Old Testament do you find the name of God?

The Hungarian did not disapprove of lunch with Andre, if it stayed lunch. However, he did believe the patient should make no major familial changes during treatment. He may also have had some reservations about the veracity of my accounts of unhappy married life; after all, it was Paul who had initially obtained his name from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and insisted I go see him, to find out why I was evading my marital responsibilities by taking too many naps on weekend afternoons.

Ma, honeybunch,” he said to me now. The ma was not actually a Hungarian word. It had become part of his permanent vocabulary in Italy, after he climbed over an Alp to escape the Soviets when they invaded Hungary. (He had a romantic past.) “A little flirtation is not so terrible. It might cheer you up. Make your husband more attentive.”

My husband was attentive enough, actually. Although he refused to fritter away his creative years by earning a living (at thirty-eight he was still waiting to be discovered as a great playwright), I had no complaints about Paul’s horizontal skills. When we darkened the room so that I could pretend he was someone else, he brought me off regularly. Of course, I wished I didn’t have to pretend.

“More than lunch is not an issue,” I said, sidestepping further discussion of Paul’s amatory style with what I hoped was charm. “You think I’d risk losing my job by messing around with a client? Then I wouldn’t be able to pay you!”

My preparations for the approved lunch consisted of cashing a birthday check from my father and buying a fitted black wool boucle suit at Henri Bendel. Paul knew nothing about the check because it had been mailed to the office. He’d been without paid employment since we’d come to New York three years before, and my father was no dummy. I had never worn anything so expensive. Just buttoning the jacket cheered me up. Paul didn’t even notice the new suit.

Andre was double-parked in a bright red Alfa Romeo convertible in front of the building on Madison Avenue where Pagel & Cohen had its offices. There was a Longchamps in the lobby, but chain restaurants did not figure in Andre’s universe. Top down, we drove six blocks to The Brasserie, where he double-parked again.

“Won’t you get a ticket?” I asked.

With a delightful Gallic smile he opened the door on my side. “C’est la vie!” Then we dodged oncoming cars and circled the Alfa Romeo to the pavement. He took my arm to descend The Brasserie’s stairs. “Beautiful suit,” he said.

We had Beaujolais and steak tartare (a first for me), which the waiter prepared tableside with many flourishes.   Desultory chitchat about the silver campaign soon segued into more personal matters. He was twenty-seven (he said), divorced, a father; his little girl was in France with her mother. His English, underlaid with the merest soupcon of delicious French accent, was from England, where he had gone to school. He was delighted to learn my parents were Russian; he himself, though born in Paris, was the grandson of Polish aristocrats, ousted from their castles during some late nineteenth-century Polish brouhaha. We were therefore both of Slavic blood. I said my parents considered themselves Jewish. Aha! he exclaimed. We were more alike than I knew. He had a Jewish grandmother. He leaned towards me. “I find you fascinating,” he said softly. “Tell me who are you. I want to know everything.”

Tell me who are you. It had been such a long time since anyone wanted to know. I wasn’t used to wine at lunch. Whatever slid out of me, about myself and my ill-advised marriage, it must have been too much.

“You poor darling,” he murmured gently when our tiny espresso cups were empty. “You deserve so much better. I want to make it up to you.”

How does one respond to that?

He paid the bill. Outside in the bright fall sunshine, the Alfa Romeo sported a ticket on its jaunty windshield. I said I would walk back to the office. (I needed to cool my cheeks.) He nodded, deftly removed the offending ticket from view, and slid into the driver’s seat. “Be warned,” he said. “I am going to court you as no one has ever courted you.”

“Andre! Don’t be silly!”   I started to giggle.

He signaled and began to pull out into traffic. “Yes, and I will never know how many other men are courting you.” He looked back at me, we stared at each other for a moment and he added, “Of course, you will never know how many other women I am courting. It will be so-o-o exciting!”

I think he blew me a kiss, but it’s hard to be sure. My head was throbbing with wine and compliments and the noise of traffic. Then the little red Alfa Romeo was gone.

What nonsense, I thought as I wobbled the six blocks back to work. Who wants to be one of a gaggle of women being courted at once? Divorced or not divorced, I thought, he must not know anything about real life. All the same, it had certainly been fun. My life needed some fun. How I wished I were free to play!

Alas, I was not. Back at my desk and sober again, I did risk/benefit analysis. Andre was young — two and a half years younger than me — and probably undependable. He pleased; he diverted; he inspired no real desire. Then there was Paul’s temper. What if he found out? Would he hit me? Divorce me? Adultery was grounds in New York. Would I also lose the Hungarian if Norm and Herb found out and fired me? I didn’t have even emergency cash of my own. I was walking around with five dollars in my wallet for weekly subway money; all the rest of my pay went to Paul. Where would I be without a job and, worse, without the Hungarian?

The upshot of these ruminations was to table thoughts of Andre for now and do what I could safely do. The following Friday I used twenty-five dollars of the contents of my pay envelope to open a savings account in a bank near the office. I explained the shortfall in net salary to Paul as an increase in social security withholding. He didn’t like it, but since he didn’t get paid himself anymore he had no basis for questioning it. In the wrong things he trusted me. Although I no longer thought that marriage, especially a bad one, was necessarily forever, I wasn’t actually planning to leave him, especially given the Hungarian’s ground rules. On the other hand, how could it hurt to build myself a private little nest egg, just in case? After all I was the one who was doing the earning. I kept the bankbook deep in the zippered inner compartment of my handbag, below a thick wad of Kleenex.

It took what seemed a long time for my secret account to grow. In the meanwhile, I went on — more or less uncomplainingly — with my domestic weekend routine: cleaning our two-room apartment near Needle Park, dragging a shopping cart five blocks down Broadway to the A & P and then back again, cooking a week’s worth of the indigestible meals that Paul remembered from his mother’s kitchen and loved so well. (Kartoffelglossen was a particular favorite.) Paul did most of the talking when we were in the apartment together. If I ventured to disagree about something, his response was always, “I am King in this house!” That would have made me Queen, I guess. But if I had dared mention it, he would certainly have stalked, aggrieved, into the other room. On such occasions, I did fall back on pleasant reveries of Andre. He might not have been appropriate second husband material. But why not a sort of stepping stone to the next part of my permanent life? These were, of course, just reveries and could comfortably co-exist with making no major familial change. Understandably, I didn’t waste expensive therapeutic time discussing them with the Hungarian.

In any event Andre’s promised courtship was not really getting off the ground. His social recreation seemed for now to consist mainly of successful pursuit of the Four Hundred. You could read in Cholly Knickerbocker’s column about his many evenings out with young ladies bearing last names associated with banks, railroads and manufacturing empires owned by their fathers and uncles. Once he even showed up in Walter Winchell’s column as “that dashing young Frenchman who’s taking Café Society by storm.”

Nonetheless, it soon became apparent to Herb and Norm that he preferred dealing with them through me. When he didn’t pay his bill on time, which was more and more often, they began sending me over to the showroom to collect. “Hello, hello,” sunny blonde Frauke would sing out from under her impeccable beehive of hair as I stepped from the elevator. “How nice to see you!” She sat alone at a glass-topped reception desk, looking both friendly and gorgeous. Andre’s office was in the back. I never saw a customer at any time I was there, and sometimes wondered what the two of them might be up to by themselves all day long. I even chaffed Andre about it once, while he was writing out a long overdue check for three thousand dollars to Cohen & Nagel.

“With Frauke? That’s nonsense. She’s just a child.” He tore the signed check out of the ledger and handed it to me. “Besides,” he added, “she has a perfectly nice American boyfriend. Matthew I think his name is. He does law, doesn’t he? Why would I want to interfere with that?” Then he walked me to the door, his arm around my waist. “But how are you?” he asked. “Still with that awful husband, yes? You must come to a party anyway. Next week, without him.”

I knew from Frauke that Andre had begun to give many parties now that he had his penthouse tastefully decorated. So I didn’t take this invitation as a particularly personal gesture; he was simply being hospitable. But I decided to go anyway, if only to show I was still his friend despite his laissez faire attitude towards invoices. I told Paul that Herb and Norm wanted me there because it was good for client relations. Although Herb and Norm knew nothing about Andre’s invitation I was sure that if they had known, they would have wanted me to accept. Paul was not happy to dine alone on leftover sauerbraten, but if you’re going to set yourself up as King of the House, you deserve a certain amount of payback. Besides, it would be lovely to put on my good dress again and get out of the apartment for an evening.

There seemed fewer francophones in attendance at this party. Then I saw across the room, in the middle of the gold brocade sofa, a lady having her hand kissed by several gentlemen. I cornered Frauke, in some respects a fountain of information, and inquired. Frauke explained. The lady was a princesse de France. But France was a republic, wasn’t it?   “Oh, she lives in New York just like the rest of us,” added Frauke, who was in possession of the addresses and phone numbers of every guest. “It’s only her blood that’s royal. Two-hundred year old blood.” She was leaning against the mantelpiece, on which there were now two neat stacks of parking tickets. “Don’t laugh,” she cautioned. “Andre’s careful not to offend.”

Andre himself introduced me to the other guests: I was his lovely and brilliant copywriter, he said, and a very good friend.   I met a stout balding Zenith executive who told me, in slightly German-accented English, that I was extremely charming and he would like to do something for me if I would let him. I met the quite attractive personnel director of Equitable Life who put both his hands on my upper arms while confessing that his third marriage, to a French countess, was on the rocks but as he couldn’t afford to do anything about it they were chained together for eternity. I met an editor of Modern Bride, fortyish and redheaded, who said she was over the moon for Andre and wanted to know all about him; she seemed to think I was an authority. I went to an empty space near the drinks cart for a breather.

“Hello again,” said Matthew Holmes, who was standing there.

I must have looked blank.   “The housewarming? Frauke’s friend? I see I made a great impression.”

Ah, the polite male escort. “Yes of course! Please do forgive me.”

“Forgiven.” We exchanged names a second time. His gaze turned towards Frauke’s blonde beehive as it made its way from one group of Andre’s guests to another. Then he asked where Paul was. My own eyes were following slender graceful Andre as he glided here and there, bestowing and receiving cheek kisses; I wished he would glide in our direction. “Paul hates these things,” I said, finally. Matthew Holmes glanced back at me. “So do I.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Looking out for my interests.”

“Your interest looks as if she can take care of herself.”

“I’m sure she can. That’s what worries me.”

“Oh?”

He changed the subject. “Why are you?”

“Why am I what?”

“Here.”

“Work.” (The easiest answer.)

“This is work?”

“Norman Pagel thinks so.”

“Then I guess you could call it that.” He had a pleasantly normal sort of voice. I thought he was probably a native New Yorker. Like me.

“Tell me,” I asked suddenly. “Do some of these people strike you as weird? As if they’re living in some other world?”

“Ah, you’ve noticed.” Now he turned back in my direction.

“I don’t understand what Andre sees in them.”

“If Andre’s your client, I can’t tell you.”

“Andre’s Norm’s client.”

He shrugged. “Same difference.” After a moment’s thought he relented somewhat. “You see that?” He pointed to a small gold-framed photo of a young woman taken outdoors against a cloudless blue sky; it was on the end of the mantelpiece closest to us, away from the parking tickets.

“You mean his sister?” I said.

“Is that what Andre told you? He told Frauke she was his cousin, who died several years ago. Half an hour ago I heard him tell that redhead” — he lifted his chin in the direction of the editor of Modern Bride — “that she’s a married woman in France with whom he’s hopelessly in love.”

I didn’t like this information. Or that Andre was not coming over to the drinks cart. Didn’t he realize I couldn’t wait till the end of the party for him to have some time for me? My watch said 10:00. “I have to go,” I said. “There’s work tomorrow. Nice talking to you.”

“My pleasure.” He made no move to walk me to the door, and I didn’t expect him to. By the time the elevator reached the building lobby, I had stopped thinking about him. The woman in the gold-framed photo was another matter.

The next time I was sent to the showroom with an unpaid invoice, I tackled the question head on.

“Andre, do you really have a sister?”

He was having trouble finding the company checkbook ledger among all the papers on his desk. “A sister? Yes, of course. Why?”

“And a pretty cousin, who died?”

This question seemed to surprise him. “People talk too much.” Was he annoyed? He began pulling out drawers and rummaging in them briskly. Then he slammed them all shut without replying yes or no. “Listen, darling,” he said. “This is a bad time. How about you come back tomorrow and we take care of the tiresome money then?” He rose to walk me out without waiting for an answer — depriving me of an opening to inquire, coquettishly of course, if he were by any chance hopelessly in love. No great loss. I already suspected what I would hear: “Only with you, darling, only with you.”

The agency was going easy on Andre’s increasingly delinquent payment history. They had just nabbed a big new account which was occupying all their attention: a German beer about to invade the United States and Canada with a huge advertising budget. I wondered why two New Jersey guys named Cohen and Nagel who had been at least in their thirties during the height of the Third Reich and by now were certainly aware of what had gone on there, were so eager to do business with citizens of the German Republic who were once probably Nazi officers. But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. Providentially, Herb decided he would do all the beer copy himself; he said he wanted to keep me free for “soft” products, of interest to women.

Then the Hungarian bought a house for his family (they had been renting in the Bronx) and moved his practice to an office with a separate entrance at the back of the house. The house and office, he said, were bullet-proof; they had been built by the Mafia. I never did understand his pride in this feature of the purchase, unless it had to do with his early days in Hungary during the war. All the same, I followed him without hesitation to his new fortress in Forest Hills. It meant riding the E or F train there and back, and not getting home again until well after 9 p.m. That was okay with me — it meant less time with Paul, more time to daydream on the long return ride two evenings a week.

It was not okay with Paul. He declared I had had enough therapy and raised a rolled newspaper at me. As if I were a bad dog, I thought. The following week, his frustration with my reluctance to give up the Hungarian took the form of shaking me very hard as I stood with my back to a kitchen wall. A can opener was mounted directly behind my head. He narrowly missed slamming me against it. What would come next? Slaps? Blows? That’s all I needed, I thought. This was real and it was happening to me. Whatever the Hungarian’s views on familial life changes during treatment, if I was ever going to get out and start over, I had better do it while I was still unbattered and had all my teeth.

I confided in Stan, the art director. He called his lawyer. I was soon in possession of the name of another lawyer, who specialized in divorce and was cheap. I.M. Reddy, Esq. Was the odd name of this person an omen? Heart in mouth, I telephoned for a lunch hour appointment. The address turned out to be a questionable-looking office up a tall flight of narrow musty stairs on West 42nd Street.

Attorney Reddy, by contrast, turned out to be astonishingly short. “Call me Irma,” she said reassuringly, extending her hand slightly upward to reach mine as I gasped for breath at her door. Despite her unimpressive appearance, Irma Reddy was masterful. After I had given her a hundred dollar retainer, prudently withdrawn in advance from my secret account, and then explained the facts of my domestic situation, she knew exactly how to proceed.

**************

You want to know what happened next, don’t you? Of course you do. Let me be brief: Seven months later, I was a genuine divorcee, thanks to a decree from Tijuana, Mexico, typed in two languages and embossed with two red wax seals, from which dangled two glossy red ribbons. Irma was subsequently reluctant to let me go; she proposed dinner and who knew what else afterwards, but I demurred, so what could she do?

Paul, my now former husband, borrowed some money from his mother in Rochester, New York, to pay Columbia University for accrediting him as a New York City high school teacher, after which he vanished into gainful employment in the bowels of Queens.

Andre was let go by his silver company before his promised courtship of me came to fruition but somehow talked himself into a much more exciting job for Philip Graham as a Washington Post correspondent covering events in French Indo-China (not yet Vietnam), perhaps because he was bilingual. He came back to New York briefly a year later. He had become deaf in one ear. (From gunfire?) He pronounced me a “pure” woman and proposed marriage in the subjunctive, conditional on my understanding he could never be faithful. This did not seem like a good idea. He agreed it was probably not in my best interests, and thereupon disappeared from my life forever, although he is apparently still alive as I write this, and can be found on Wikipedia, with photograph. He appears to have kept most of his hair but has lost two and a half years since we knew each other. He is now five years younger than I am.

It may come as no surprise that as soon as Frauke found herself a deeper pocket and moved out of Matthew’s apartment, he called me up. I’d like to tell you we had a happy ending together, but there were only about three dates before it went south.

Actually, we were all pretty much nuts, when you think about it. Except maybe the Hungarian. But he took early retirement about fifteen years later and moved to Clearwater Beach, Florida. His widow still lives there.

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13 thoughts on “THOSE WERE THE DAYS

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Linda. Don’t be fooled by all the “fancy” people, though. It sounds “interesting” in a story but living through parts of it wasn’t so fun. Also I haven’t been writing about the truly yucky aspects of my so-called “interesting” life. At least, not in the blog, where I’ve got a mostly upbeat reputation to maintain!

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    • Happy for the thorough enjoyment. (That’s what I was intending readers to have. It’s fun for me to re-read, too!) But actually, divorce was almost impossible in New York State, for a very long time after mine, unless you had a lot of money. (Which I didn’t.) Adultery was the ONLY grounds. With money, people agreeing to divorce each other could stage an adulterous incident in a hotel room with a hired actor or actress, and a “detective.” Alternatively one of them could take up residence in Nevada (usually Reno) for six weeks, after which divorce was possible under Nevada law for almost any reason. (See Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women,” from the 1930’s.) Or one of the parties could go get a divorce in the West Indies or Mexico.

      This last was the path “Irma” counseled. First I had to withdraw all our joint savings before leaving my husband, thereby forcing him to agree to a legal separation as a condition to getting half of it back. Six months later he met another woman he wanted to marry and became agreeable to going to Mexico, if I paid for it, to get our bilingual divorce. I was advised to let him be the plaintiff, irrespective of the merits of his case versus mine, because then he could never contest it in the States. So. You paid for what you got. Then as now. Nothing’s really free.

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  1. “Tell me who are you. I want to know everything.” For me this sentence is more appealing than the one from Jerry Maguire ” You had me at hello.” After years of mental abuse it must have felt wonderful to have someone interested in you rather than as a meal ticket. I can only imagine how hard it was to take the first step to leaving him. Knowing how you feel , without me actually knowing you, I think ,leaving would seem like conceding failure but it was brave. You can always think that it has made you the strong woman you are today.

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    • Ah, Margaret, what a sweet and trusting heart you have! (Or else you’ve been watching too many love stories on the telly.) And here I thought I was writing a French farce set in New York! Although exceptionally charming, “Andre” was a lady-killer and at first only interested in getting into my panties. He was also a pathological liar (which I hinted at). “Paul,” on the other hand — tall, initially handsome, and a Momma’s boy — was certainly not just interested in me as a meal ticket. If this were the “real” story, and not just the farcical aspects of it, the concession of failure was in marrying him, not leaving him. Perhaps you have forgotten, but he, as my first husband, was the “Clark” of “Sophie Before Feminism” and the “Z” of “When X Led to Y Led to Z.” So it was kind of a farcical marriage from the start. Leaving was hard because he had become so controlling (and I had so small an opinion of myself). But I had the Hungarian! And no young woman could not be brave with a Hungarian in her camp! I never think about “Paul” any more, except as material for short stories and blog posts. Mercifully, he has passed on to a better place, so I don’t have to feel guilty in writing about him. 😀

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