[A story continued from previous post.]
Inertia won out. It was easier, and at least marginally more interesting, for Millie to resume her thrice-weekly meetings with Richard when he returned a divorced man than not to. Another thing: she had begun to miss the sex. While he was gone, she found herself leaning forward with spread-apart thighs and rubbing herself back and forth on the Chevrolet seat at red lights.
It was less easy to fool her mother.
“Where are you going?”
“What friends? April?”
“So what time will you be back?”
“Late. Don’t wait up.”
At least she always made sure to drag herself out of the Murphy bed by one o’clock or so, pull on her clothes and drive home, so that she should be in her own bed when her mother got up to bring in the morning paper. Which was something. (And not easy.) But not enough of a something to warm up the chill that was enveloping the parental breakfast table and the many dinners a week she still ate at home.
For his part, Richard objected to her not spending the night. He thought she should rent a furnished studio apartment of her own. She could afford it now that she was a copywriter, he said. It would also solve her mother problem. Why was a grown woman — was that what she was, a “grown woman?” — still living with her parents? Dutifully, she found a vacancy in a decent-looking building and put down a $55 payment for March. The apartment was just like his, Murphy bed and all. But whenever she thought of living by herself in that gloomy, ill-lit and transient accommodation, soon to be hers, she felt only fear.
February inched along. She made no preparations for the move or for explaining her imminent departure to the two people who cared about her so much. Just before the end of the month, she summoned up courage to confess. Her hitherto gentle and forbearing mother spoke sternly. Millie was on the verge of an irrevocably awful act. There were only two reasons an unmarried girl left her parents’ home: Either she was going to do something very bad she had to hide from her family — here her mother paused meaningfully — or else she was such an unpleasant and difficult person even her own flesh and blood could no longer bear to live with her!
Head pounding with tension and guilt, Millie knew this was both nonsense and true. Did she really want to move out? Of course not. She just wanted everything to be all right. She began to cry. Her mother soothed her. In the end, she told Richard she couldn’t bring herself to hurt her mother, which was a kind of lie but not entirely.
“So there goes $55,” said Richard.
Why should he care? She was the one who had lost it. What a failure she was! One day when she knew he had morning classes, she let herself into his studio with the key he had given her and called in sick at work. Then she sobbed aloud, hugging herself on the shabby green sofa against the grimy window. There was very little comfort in the apartment when Richard wasn’t in it. After a while, she got up, locked the door, and drove to a doughnut shop, where she bought six jumbo doughnuts with yellow custard filling and chocolate icing, plus a quart carton of milk. Parked in a neighborhood several miles away where no one could possibly recognize her, she methodically munched her way through all six doughnuts, washing them down at intervals with gulps of milk from the waxy triangular opening in the carton.
When she was done, she felt very full and slightly nauseous, but not enough to throw up. She unbuttoned the waistband of her skirt, stuffed the debris back into the empty bag, which she left under her car before pulling away from the curb, and drove home. She told her mother she had felt ill at work and needed to lie down. Drugged with starch, she fell asleep at once. Next morning she had a terrible taste in her mouth, but it passed.
“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” said April.
“Oh, April,” Millie exclaimed. “You’re my only friend. What would I do without you?” Actually, Millie didn’t have a very high opinion of April. No gumption, no ambition. Ironing her cotton blouses night after night. What did she know about life?
But it soon began to look as if April might be right.
Millie’s mother decided to look for a job herself. She made it known at the breakfast table. Now that Millie’s father had a broker’s license and was selling real estate days, evenings, weekends, and Millie was working and (she added darkly) doing who knew what else — what was there for her at home all alone? Back in New York, she had once sold gloves at Lord & Taylor during the Christmas season. Maybe she could find something like that downtown.
“Good, that’s good, Bubi,” said Millie’s father, turning a page of the newspaper and getting butter on it. “It doesn’t hurt to look.”
Her Russian accent and good taste in dress put Millie’s mother on the floor of the Arts and Gifts Department of Robinson’s within a week. She reported back proudly to Millie and Millie’s father that Mr. Wonderly, the buyer, had told her she was charming and that customers were going to love her. After that, she rose before dawn every morning to take the curlers out of her hair, carefully apply makeup, and leave breakfast on the table for Millie’s father before she ran for the downtown bus. (She wanted to get in early to help Mr. Wonderly arrange the floor and make sure her sales book was in order before the store opened.) At night, she was tired. Millie could count on an announcement to that effect as soon as she walked in the door, always later than Millie herself. (Well of course, thought Millie; what did she expect, standing on her feet all day?) Then she would hurry to change out of her good clothes into a housedress and get some food on the table — sometimes a warmed-up casserole she had prepared the previous Sunday but more and more often something she had recently discovered in Ralph’s called a “TV dinner,” which you could defrost in the oven and eat right out of its own aluminum tray and which meant very little washing up.
Millie’s father was not entirely pleased with these developments. There was occasionally some parental bickering about Millie’s mother’s new life. But the mournful looks and sighs Millie’s mother had previously lavished upon Millie disappeared. Her head was now full of Mr. Wonderly and the sometimes famous clients who sought her assistance in selecting exclusive gifts for friends and dear ones. One afternoon she helped Rita Hayworth choose a vase. She was so gracious, said Millie’s mother. Millie knew she should be relieved, but she sometimes missed the days, not so long ago, when her mother was always worrying about her. It often seemed as if no one cared what she was doing anymore. Except Richard.
Richard definitely cared. He thought she shouldn’t be wasting her talents writing about navy rayon crepe dresses. (“Navy’s in town!”) Or little fur capelets. (“Take a stole to heart!”) He told her about teaching assistantships. She hadn’t even known they existed. Why, if she got one it would pay enough for her to go to graduate school, maybe even go far away. He also generously offered to write a letter of recommendation. As her instructor, of course. So it was really lucky she hadn’t been able to give him up. And wouldn’t her going back East for a doctorate be the perfect bittersweet ending for what they had had together!
Beach weather arrived. Every weekend, they drove out to Santa Monica, or sometimes Venice, and spent whole glorious days walking up and down in the surf and splashing in the sparkling water. She tanned easily and smoothly; her hair bleached in the sun and salt until she was almost a California blonde. Richard taught her how to get far enough out to turn her back and jump up just as a big wave was about to break so that she could ride it almost back to shore. The other thing she loved was to stand with Richard where the water came up to his chest, put her arms around his neck and wrap her legs around him. The water helped him support her bottom, so they could kiss like that for a long time, their bodies rubbing wet against each other, their mouths salty and their eyes laughing at each other. Sometimes other people in the water looked at them, even though they couldn’t really see what was going on beneath the surface. Millie liked that, too.
After the beach, they would come back to the studio apartment and shower. Then she would make supper on his two-burner hotplate. She had it down to a science. A skirt steak in the frying pan on one burner, frozen vegetables (usually string beans) in the sauce pan on the other burner. And for dessert, farmer cheese mashed with diet grape jelly (so that it tasted like cheese cake without crust) and then patted into little custard cups. He thought she was a wonderful cook. When they had finished eating, she would wash up in the bathroom sink, because the alcove holding the hotplate and mini-refrigerator had no running water. That was kind of a pain but wasn’t forever, she kept reminding herself. And in bed, after they had finished with the sex part, he would tell her stories about his more unusual erotic adventures before he had met her. Rather like Scheherezade in reverse, she thought.
“And you liked that?” she would ask, incredulous but feeling at the same time quite worldly as she heard about these secret, somewhat slimy practices. (Although she certainly would have refused to do such things herself. Thank goodness he never suggested it.)
“Well, yes,” admitted Richard. He curled around her, nestling her back against his chest. We’re like spoons, she thought. That must be why they used to call it ‘spooning.’ She pressed her naked rear more firmly against his naked crotch. This was the coziest thing about being with Richard. She would miss it a lot when she went away to graduate school.
For his birthday in August, Millie bought him a charcoal grey flannel Ivy League-style suit at Bullocks. Being out of season, it was on sale. She might be going away to school soon — by now she was almost sure of it — but he deserved something better than the two terrible polyester suits he had. (They were his entire wardrobe if you didn’t count the worn tweed jacket.) Even on sale, the suit was $75. Millie was making $50 a week, paying a one-third share of the expenses at home, and trying to save at least a little bit, to build up her bank account again. So she knew she shouldn’t have spent this much money on Richard. But she did want him to look nice. And his eyes became wet when he saw what was in the gift-wrapped box. Millie had never seen a man cry. She hugged him. Richard said no one had ever been so kind to him before. After Millie dragged him back to the Bullocks’ tailor to get the cuffs to hang just right — alterations were free — he looked so wonderful in his new suit she also bought him two button-down cotton oxford shirts and a silk rep tie to go with it.
Fat envelopes came in the mail for Millie. She’d been accepted into the English Department doctoral programs at Radcliffe, Columbia, Cornell and the southern California university where Richard taught, to which she’d applied as a back-up. But there was only one offer of a teaching assistantship. From the back-up, where Richard’s recommendation had counted for something. Richard was very pleased for her. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” he said.
“I’ll miss you,” said April.
“I’ll be right here, in L.A.,” said Millie. “We can still go to movies.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” said April. “Enjoy your life.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, April!” exclaimed Millie. “You’d think we’re never going to see each other!”
But April was right again. There were no more movies. Although they exchanged a few phone calls over the course of the next year, they never managed to get together. It wasn’t until much later when Millie was back in New York with Richard that she realized it. Afterwards, whenever she saw someone wearing a freshly ironed cotton blouse she thought of April, and wondered what had become of her, and if April was wondering the same about her. But by then, there was too much that Millie couldn’t talk about. So she never made a transcontinental call, or wrote.
For a while Patsy and Elena filled April’s place in Millie’s life. Both were also teaching assistants in the university’s English Department. Patsy lived in Pasadena with her parents, the last child in the nest; her two older brothers were married and living elsewhere in California. She had a low sexy voice; it was too bad she still dressed like a high school girl in socks, loafers, pleated skirts and white peter pan dickeys under her slightly pilled lambswool sweaters. Elena was one of two daughters of a Greek magnate with a chain of movie theatres all over Mexico; she spoke Greek, Spanish and fluent English with a very slight lisp. She also wore beautiful slender suits from I. Magnin with handkerchief linen blouses and David Evins pumps. Elena was at first reticent about where she lived but eventually let it be known she was staying with an older sister in a one-bedroom apartment her father had rented for them in a new luxury high-rise. “He wants us to be safe. It’s very secure there,” she explained.
Elena’s family lived in Guadalajara. “Will you go back there, afterwards?” asked Millie.
“Quien sabe?” Elena said. “Anything can happen.”
“Like what?” asked Millie, fascinated.
Elena clarified. “My father really wants us to return to Greece. The King and Queen are back, but he is very cautious. He says he will wait and see.” Millie didn’t know that Greece still had a king and queen. She was too busy to follow everything in the world. She just nodded wisely. Patsy nodded, too.
During her first year at the university Millie was also too busy even to think where she might be headed with Richard, or whether she should be headed anywhere at all with a man who had four children. He was just part of her life every Friday and Saturday night. (They had dropped Wednesdays, because of her teaching load. She was also taking five graduate courses for her degree.)
“Do you ever think abut getting married?” she asked the other two near the end of the second year.
“Of course,” said Patsy.
“Not really,” said Elena.
“I don’t have to think about it,” said Elena. “If I don’t find a good husband on my own by the time I’m twenty-five, my father will find someone.”
“And that’s okay with you?” asked Millie.
“She comes from another culture,” said Patsy.
“It’s not like in India,” explained Elena. “Where you never see the man before the wedding. My father would introduce me to a number of suitable Greek men who had already indicated interest. Perhaps he would host a series of parties. Then they would each take me out. Once or more often, depending. Afterwards my father and I would discuss my preferences. All very civilized. What’s wrong with that?”
Nothing, thought Millie, if the men were young and attractive and rich. It might be nice to have a powerful father like that. To take care of everything.
“And if I didn’t like any of them,” added Elena, “my father would introduce me to more men. My father knows a lot of people.”
Millie was already almost twenty-four. Her father wasn’t going to introduce her to anyone. And there was no one on the horizon even remotely possible. At twenty-five, she would be an old maid.
Richard’s former wife suddenly remarried and moved to Canada with her new husband. She had said nothing about these developments until after the fact. No more alimony! Richard at once produced an ugly little ring with a tiny ruby that had been his mother’s. What could she do but let him put it on her finger? If it doesn’t work out, she wrote in her journal the evening before their marriage, we can always divorce in two years.
She finished her course work, took the written and oral exams for the doctoral degree and they moved to New York — where she wrote advertising instead of a dissertation, thereby earning their living, while he wrote unpublishable novels. In the end, it took six years to disentangle herself. Nine years of Richard all together. By then, her twenties were over.
“What a mistake he was,” exclaimed her third husband more than half a century later.
“I was just a baby,” she said. “Didn’t have a clue. You didn’t make mistakes?” Besides, she thought, that was then. And now is now. And everything is different than it used to be.
It always is.