FIRST HUSBAND (I of II)

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[A story.]

 Richard was thirty and Millie had just turned twenty-one when they met in an introductory television production class he was teaching nights at a large Southern California university. Millie was taking it to be ready when a better job opened up at the television station where she was currently typing stencils of soap opera scripts in the mimeograph department. Only two other women were in the class. One looked to be in her late forties; the other wore a head scarf and came from a Middle Eastern country.

At the end of the first session Richard came over to Millie, asked where she lived and if she had transportation. She said West Hollywood and that she was taking the bus. He offered to drive her home. By the time he pulled up at her front door in his 1937 Plymouth, she knew he was from New York, had been at Harvard, directed university little theater and wanted to write and direct plays on Broadway. He knew she’d come to California with her parents after graduating from Vassar a few months before, was not seeing anyone (“anymore,” she added), missed the East Coast and was unhappy with her job. They’d promised it would be a stepping-stone to editorial work, but she didn’t think she could stand the dreary typing much longer. “We’ll have to find you something more suitable,” he said. Then he asked her out.

She liked his height — important, since she was tall herself. Also his worn tweed jacket and his take-charge attitude about her wretched job. His hands on the steering wheel looked competent. His being the instructor of the class didn’t hurt, either. At college, she’d spent a whole year mooning fruitlessly over a Shakespeare professor who was sending signals he might be interested but never did anything about it. Of course, television production wasn’t Shakespeare, but still…. Richard’s hair and eyes were dark, which was good. Blond blue-eyed men made her think of Gestapo officers in movies. She said yes.

He picked her up after dinner on an evening when he had no class and took her, with apologies, to a prizefight. It was the only live thing on that night, he said, and he hated movies; they got made, went into a can and then you sat in a dark room, long after the actors had gone on to something else, watching dead film stored in a reel and projected on a screen. She herself loved movies, but when he explained that the fight tickets had been free, she allowed herself to be led to a seat, sliding past noisy blue-collar fight fans sloshing beer all over themselves. Unattractive and sweaty small men were slamming each other around in the ring. To her relief, they left before it was over. He parked a block from her house, turned smiling towards her and kissed her over the stick shift.

Oh, he was a wonderful kisser. And it had been so long. She felt herself slipping into bonelessness. His hand moved to her nipple, burning through her sweater. Moisture seeped into the crotch of her panty girdle. He whispered softly in her ear, “Do you mind the back seat?” She pushed him away and sat up straight, flushed and startled. Should she be insulted? “Um, yes, I do.” Did that need explanation? “I’m not as experienced as you think,” she added.

He seemed not to understand this. “Are you a lesbian?” he asked.

Why should he think that?  “I just haven’t had a lot of sexual experience.”

He looked at her in disbelief.  “Experience with intercourse,” she added.

“You’re not a virgin, are you?”

Ah, did she have to answer?   “It’ s complicated,” she offered. “I no longer have my –”  What should she call it? All the words seemed so Victorian. “But my college boyfriend and I, we never …. So I don’t know. How do you define virginity?”

He digested this attempted explanation in silence.

“He was being kind,” she went on. “After he, um, got in, he asked if it hurt when he moved and when I nodded, he said we could wait until next time. Then he, uh, withdrew without, you know….”

I shouldn’t need to tell him this, she thought. But she had already begun and couldn’t leave it there. “Afterwards we were together only one other time, in a hotel. He lost it there because I was nervous and laughed. That’s when we broke up. He said something was wrong with me. I think he was wrong about that, though.”  This was not entirely true. She was certain he would have had less trouble with another more spontaneous girl. “It was his first time, too. So he probably just didn’t know how.”

“All this was when?” asked Richard thoughtfully.

“About two years ago.”

“And after that?”

“Vassar’s just for girls.” She didn’t mention the Shakespeare professor.

“I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said, patting her hand. “We’d better forget about the back seat, though.”

She felt soiled by her disclosure. But the following week in class, he winked at her while she was sprinkling Ivory Snow in front of a photograph of an Alpine village being filmed by another student. And afterwards, he drove her home again to the same place a block from where she lived, where he again kissed her enthusiastically. She was so relieved they seemed to be back on track that she giggled and said flirtatiously, “Oh, Richard, here we are kissing madly away and I don’t know the first thing about you. Why, you could be married with three children!”

To which he responded gravely: “Actually, I am married. And I have four.

And all Millie could think when she heard that – she who had been described by the Shakespeare professor in his final report as having “a mind like a steel trap” — all she could think was, “Well, he’s done it at least four times. He will know how.”

He did know how. He demonstrated his knowledge in a studio apartment opposite Paramount Studios that rented for $50 a month. Millie dipped into her small savings account to give him the first month’s rent — but only because he explained that Winifred was going back to Texas for a divorce in a few weeks, as soon as the baby was old enough to travel. Then he could stop paying rent on the house they were all living in and take over the rent of the studio. Besides, she thought of the $50 as an investment in her own sexual education.

She brought new sheets and pillowcases to their assignation in the apartment. He brought a couple of bottles of Schlitz, a package of Trojans and a tube of K-Y jelly. He asked if she wanted a drink before they went to bed. To loosen up. She said, truthfully, she didn’t like beer. (It gave her gas. This information she kept to herself.) So they pulled the Murphy bed down from the wall, made it up with her new sheets and cases, took off their clothes and climbed in without the beer. Not exactly the “first time” she had dreamed of. But this was real life and she had to stop dreaming. Besides, once she had learned everything he had to teach, she was going to leave him for someone more suitable.

Afterwards, she had very little memory of what transpired their first evening in the studio other than that he accomplished what they both had wanted, it had hurt some but not too much, and there had been no blinding explosion of joy. But she did like the kissing, touching and finger work. And he assured her that in a week or so, it wouldn’t feel tight or sore.

He was good as his word about the soreness, and also the rent. After the Murphy bed had come down from the wall a few more times, it didn’t hurt at all. And Winifred soon packed up their children and belongings and drove away to San Antonio, whereupon he moved into the studio with his clothes, papers and typewriter, and took over the monthly $50.

Blinding joy, however, remained elusive. He propped her on pillows. He stroked, slavered, and pumped away — dripping perspiration all over her. She would have faked it, if only to bring his moist exertions to an end (she did not enjoy the drops of sweat), except she didn’t know what to fake. Then he said getting rid of the rubbers might help, and got her the name of a gynecologist who reputedly had no objection to supplying unmarried girls with diaphragms. It was an embarrassing visit; when actually face to face with the doctor she had colored the truth by claiming to be engaged. But she came away equipped with a rimmed rubber barrier to conception nestled in a pretty blue plastic case, instructions for insertion and removal while sitting on the toilet, and the doctor’s congratulations on her engagement. She kept the diaphragm, spermicidal jelly, and a container of baby powder to dust it off with afterwards in Richard’s bathroom medicine cabinet, lest her mother discover any of these objects at home.

Still nothing doing in the joy department.

He found her another job, writing advertising copy for misses’ fashions at The Broadway Department Store, which paid more than typing stencils and came with a 20% employee discount. Then he found another 1937 Plymouth in which she could drive to work. Priced at $125 it was a steal, he said.

“Who is this man?” asked her mother the first time she parked noisily at the curb. Millie tried to explain, leaving out the sex part, but Harvard did not help and Richard not being Jewish was the least of it. “How many children?” asked her father. She began driving to meet Richard instead of having him pick her up. Whenever she left the house in the evening, her mother looked stricken and sighed mournfully.

Millie sent a jolly birthday card to her old college boyfriend in New York, whom she had not seen since their hotel debacle — including an upbeat report on her new job, car and man. He wrote back with gratifying promptitude that it was great to hear from her and she should get her ass back to New York right away because he was sure Richard, age thirty, was not the man for her. He was jealous! But what was he proposing? On closer scrutiny of his letter, not much. So what would she do in New York? Where would she stay? With what would she buy a ticket (perhaps, to be safe, a round-trip ticket), now that her spare cash had gone towards her own sexual education and the Plymouth? While she was reflecting on these problematic matters, the old college boyfriend wrote again to announce he was marrying a certain Celia, also from Vassar but several years older than Millie (meaning more sexually with it, thought Millie) and — a final humiliation! — they would love to see Millie at the wedding.

She was defective. She was sure if her sexual organs had worked the way they were supposed to, so she and the college boyfriend could have climaxed together, as in her thumb-eared copy of Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage, he wouldn’t now be marrying this smirking older woman and leaving her to seek crumbs of comfort in a squeaky Murphy bed where she might never dissolve in ecstasy.

God helps those who help themselves, Millie told herself sternly. A few nights later, she bought a pint of cheap wine at Thrifty Drug on the way home from work, stuffed it into her capacious handbag and hid it under her pillow until it was time for bed.

It took forty-five minutes of rubbing herself with spit (she checked her bedside clock when she had finished) — growing so hot that whatever she was feeling could hardly be called pleasure — until she finally managed with the underside of her stiffened left index finger to trigger a small deep centered thrill beneath the heat, a delicious little thrill that mounted and mounted in intensity until she couldn’t hold it back, it came on in spite of her, like a huge wave rising, rising and o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h…. So that was how it was! What else could it be? She had done it! She had brought herself off! She was so elated she wanted to send a telegram: Stop the wedding!

She wasn’t that crazy, though. And once she knew what was supposed to happen, she did feel more confident when she visited Richard, even if she could never describe for him exactly the location of the spot where the small deep thrill lay waiting because it seemed to keep moving around. However, she eagerly stretched her legs apart, this way and that, to reach for it, that tiny marvelously quivering core of unbelievable pleasure, and began to enjoy herself in bed.

But did she love him? She asked her sometime journal that very question. She also tried calling him “my darling” within the privacy of its pages. It looked wrong when she read it back. He wasn’t her darling. Celia had her darling — well, her former darling. Richard was just her experienced married lover, who had hardly any money because he was sending almost all of it to Texas, and a rotten wardrobe except for the worn tweed jacket, and — as she was beginning to discover — a somewhat elastic conception of truth.

For instance: When he’d said he was from New York, he meant Syracuse, New York. When he’d said he was at Harvard, he meant after his marriage and only for one year, as a graduate student. Then he’d transferred out; his degree was from somewhere in the midwest. (And his undergraduate degree was from Clark, wherever that was.) He hadn’t written a play since graduate school. What he seemed to be working on now was a novel about his boyhood love of baseball that she, the literature major, thought so sloppy in its writing as to be hopeless. She offered to edit it for him, but after she had laboriously marked up the first chapter, he snapped at her that if she was going to take a schoolmarm approach to a work of genius he didn’t need her help thank you very much.

As for his looks, well, yes, he was considered handsome. (Her supervisor at The Broadway, a snippy unmarried woman who had to be at least thirty-five, actually cooed over his photograph.) However, stripped of his clothing…. Ah, that was another matter. His shoulders were narrow.  He had a large mole in the center of his back that she disliked. (She tried to keep her fingers away from it when she had to clasp his damp body to her.) Worst of all was the uncircumcised penis, which she hadn’t noticed as different in any way when it was ready for business but featured an excess of unpleasant foreskin when not, so that going down on him was like mouthing a quantity of crumpled rag.

At the end of the semester, Richard gave her an A plus in the television production course even though she’d stopped coming to class after leaving the television station job. Then he went away to attend the divorce hearing in San Antonio and help Winifred find a permanent place to live. (She and the children had been staying “here and there,” he said.) He’d be gone a month, until the spring term began. Millie was glad. When her mother noticed she wasn’t going out evenings, she announced she had given him up. Her mother told her father. With the advice and assistance of his mechanic, her father bought her a nice blue 1946 Chevrolet sedan previously owned by a little old lady in Pasadena who only drove it to church on Sundays. Then he helped sell her noisy Plymouth “as is” for $75. The Plymouth barely made it up a hill into the buyer’s driveway. She and her father made their getaway in his 1952 Pontiac before the buyer returned from work.

It’s not as if Millie didn’t know right from wrong, smart from stupid. But the month without Richard was so boring. She would come home from work in the Chevrolet for dinner with her parents and have to hear her father tell, between mouthfuls, what had been in the headlines that day. His jaws moved vigorously as he chewed; she could see the bones of his skull roll beneath the sides of his forehead. After he had finished his one scoop of coffee ice milk (her mother was trying to keep him on a diet), Millie would help put away the leftover pot roast or broiled chicken and dry the dishes. “Thank you, Ludmilochka,” her mother would say. “Now maybe I can relax a little with the paper myself.” Then Millie would go to her room to lie down on her bed and turn pages of public library books the contents of which she had trouble remembering even while she was still reading them. Saturdays she spent with April, the other junior copywriter, with whom she shared a small office. April was Millie’s age, a recent UCLA graduate who also lived at home, although with her mother and grandmother. You couldn’t discuss books with April — she spent her evenings ironing blouses — but she was someone to go to movies with. Once Millie made the mistake of staying at April’s house for dinner after driving her home; they had to watch The Arthur Godfrey Show with April’s mother and grandmother afterwards.

April didn’t see why Millie should give up seeing Richard before someone better came along. “Believe me, it’s no fun having no one in your life,” she said.

“Even though I told my mother it’s over?” Millie asked.

April shrugged. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, will it?”

[To be concluded in next post.]

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12 thoughts on “FIRST HUSBAND (I of II)

  1. This is marvelous writing, Nina. I am at a loss as to how to tell you how much I enjoyed it without gushing or resorting to hyperbole. I look forward to part II. Actually, I more look forward to hearing that it will be published. It deserves to be. Seriously.

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    • Thank you so much, Maggie, for your wonderful-to-read words. However, I suspect that if “First Husband” ever gets published, it will have to be by me, in a collection of stories from TGOB. It’s already bit the dust a couple of times after submissions to literary magazines — what else is there, these days? — and I got tired of submitting it. At least here perhaps it will find some appreciative readers. (Although as far as I can tell from the “likes” so far, they’re all women! Not a surprise, I guess. 🙂 )

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    • It’s coming right up, tonight. And I have to thank Maggie, too. She’s great at directing traffic — among other things she’s great at. And thank YOU for deciding to stick around and follow. Hope you won’t be disappointed…. 🙂

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  2. Thank you so much — especially for saying it resonates with your own experience. When writing about what you call “daring” aspects of personal life, which are often the most important at a certain age, one is never sure how what you write will be read by others. I’m glad you were caught up, and hope part 2 — although less “sensational” — didn’t disappoint. Short of a deus ex machina, the “ending” was inevitable….

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