[Continued from previous post]
My sixteenth birthday fell on a weekday. In the morning, my parents gave me a new Royal portable typewriter (the better to fill out college applications and requests for financial aid, my father joked), my mother promised my favorite chocolate cake for dinner, and I daydreamed my way through a couple of hours of piano practice during which a dark handsome young orchestra conductor fell passionately in love with me as I played. Then I put on a freshly ironed cotton dress and went off to my job at Where.
“Sixteen!” exclaimed Cris. “How wonderful! Are you having a party tonight?”
“Congratulations,” said John, heading out to drum up business.
“We’ll have to buy you a drink after work,” said Perry. “To celebrate.”
At five o’clock, John was still out. Cris was on hold on the phone. “Go without me,” she said, blowing a kiss. “Happy birthday!”
“Come,” said Perry.
“I’ve never had a real drink,” I said shyly.
“Then this will be the first one.”
He took me to the bar of another hotel nearer my subway stop. Inside it looked as you’d expect from every detective movie about the 1940’s you’ve ever seen. Dimly lit, a fan slowly revolving back and forth, rows of glass bottles on the mirrored back wall, a bartender in a white apron with a gleaming cocktail shaker. It was still almost empty at five in the afternoon. “What’ll it be?” asked the bartender. In those days of mixed drinks — Manhattans, Martinis, Old Fashioneds, Whiskey Sours — Perry made the kindest choice. An Orange Blossom.
“I think you’ll like it,” he said. “It tastes like orange juice.” He had a beer.
An Orange Blossom is mainly orange juice, shaken with a dollop of gin and cracked ice and then strained into a small martini glass with a slice of orange speared on the side. Not quite like juice, though. It gave a lovely quiver. I don’t remember what we talked about as I sipped. What I did on weekends? (Not much.) That he was going to a game that night? (Dodgers probably.) Then there was no more in my glass, he paid and helped me off the barstool.
I wobbled. He noticed, and put out a hand to steady me. At the mouth of the subway on Sixth and 50th, he asked if I was going to be all right. I nodded and clutched the stairway railing. He stood there watching until I reached the bottom, where I managed to turn and wave. Then he turned away too. I made it to the turnstile, put in my nickel and fell into an empty seat on the F train to Queens.
I didn’t expect anything to be different in the office after that, and it wasn’t really. He did seem to take more frequent work breaks for small talk. When he went out for lunch he’d sometimes ask if anyone wanted anything and Cris always took him up on it, so once I did too. I slipped the cheese sandwich from home into the wastebasket and asked for tuna salad on white instead. He wouldn’t let me pay for it. And the few days he was late coming in were dull until he arrived.
Cris noticed and was amused. “Oh, here’s your boyfriend,” she’d say when she saw him finally walk through the glass front door. Then I would blush, because yes, I did enjoy it when this very nice-looking young man smiled in my direction, asked how things were going, perched on my desk, and laughed if I had a funny story to tell about someone who’d called that day to ask if one had to wear tails to the Stork or if it were safe for her husband to visit New York alone. (Where actually fielded calls like that.)
Near the end of August, I worked up courage to ask if I could see where Cris lived. She must have been flattered. At five o’clock she took me up the hotel elevator with her. Because of Where’s position off the lobby they had given her a deep discount on the rate, she said. Nonetheless, I must have had some idea, inspired by movies, of how a bachelor girl would live, even at a discounted rate — something to aspire to in my future life, until I got married of course. Perhaps with deep plush rugs and a glass cocktail table in the living-room? A sophisticated satin bedspread on the double bed?
It was a narrow dark sliver of a room, unfit to offer a full-paying hotel guest and probably once a deep double utility closet, now converted into a place to sleep for a woman not earning enough to rent a real apartment in the city. We both sat down on the single bed, no wider than mine at home. It had a dark plain cover to make it look more like a sofa. The matching window shade was drawn. “It’s only an interior courtyard,” she explained. “Nothing to see.” There was also a small wooden desk with a black telephone on it, a desk chair, bedside lamp, modest three-drawer bureau with a couple of books, a fake flower and a table radio on top, and also a closet. Another closet space with open foldaway door held an efficiency kitchen: hotplate and tiny square of counter with under-the-counter mini-fridge. There must also have been a bathroom, but I didn’t see it. A small fan on the floor in a corner feebly stirred the warm air around.
“Voila.” She knew I’d been expecting more. What was I supposed to say? “But where do you have meals?” I finally managed.
She pointed at the small desk. “I usually have supper out, though. Unless I’ve had a big lunch. Then I just bring something in.”
I tried to imagine living there. Coming up from Where to this cramped and joyless shoebox of space. Washing dishes in the bathroom sink. Nothing but an interior courtyard to look at. Listening to the radio until it was time to go to bed. No wonder she often worked late downstairs.
She cut short my visit as tactfully as possible. “Won’t your mother start to worry if you don’t get on home?”
She was my boss, so I tried not to feel sorry for her. Maybe she did have a secret lover who would rescue her from the unhappiness of her living situation. (Was thirty too late for real love? Was she condemned to that room forever?) But I didn’t have to worry for long. August was winding down, she began interviewing job applicants to replace me, and then it was my last day. John was away on vacation. Perry had an appointment with a possible advertiser and left early. He wished me the best of luck at school although he was sure I wouldn’t need it — and then he was gone. Cris said I should come back and say hello when I was in the neighborhood — even though she must have known my school was several neighborhoods distant from Where. “She meant they all liked you,” my mother explained.
Eighth term at Hunter High: On top of the heap at last! I wrote a humorous little piece for the school literary magazine about mastering the confounding three phone lines at Where and then embarked on a whirlwind of high-school senior activity that put Where out of my mind. I met with the part-time college counselor to register for the state-wide New York Regents exam administered at the end of September to high-school seniors seeking a $1200 state scholarship for four years of attendance at a college in the state. She advised that as I was reasonably certain to place on the scholarship list, I should limit my applications to in-state colleges. She also helped me arrange deferment of automatic February enrollment at Hunter College until the following September. I studied college brochures in her office after classes, regretfully abandoning thoughts of Wellesley (in Massachusetts) and Bryn Mawr (in Pennsylvania). Why hadn’t I been born rich? Instead, I wrote away for applications to Vassar and Barnard (both in New York State) — but also to Radcliffe, although it too was in Massachusetts, because wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to Harvard’s sister school!
I needed one more college, just to be safe. “What about this one?” suggested the counselor. She held out a small pale blue book with beautifully thick and creamy-feeling soft covers that looked like a poetry chapbook. Sarah Lawence College. I’d never heard of it. Founded in 1928, an offshoot of Vassar. Just nineteen years old. And experimental. But in Bronxville, which was in New York. Why not? Feeling unconventional and daring, I wrote away for an application there, too.
One evening during the third week of September the phone rang at home. We had only one phone. It sat on my father’s imposing English-style desk in the dropped living-room and almost never rang in the evening when he was away in the city. (He was the leader of a string trio that played cocktail and dinner music at Manhattan’s “better” hotels.) My mother answered cautiously, then with raised eyebrows motioned me over so she could hand me the receiver.
It was Perry. They all missed me. The office just wasn’t the same. My replacement was the wife of a friend of John’s. She and Cris were trading recipes for apple kuchen. So would I like to come with him to a football game next Saturday? The Giants, at the Polo Grounds? And maybe an early dinner afterwards?
He had a car, and came out to Kew Gardens to pick me up. He also brought a chrysanthemum, which he carefully pinned on the lapel of my jacket before we left, and took a fringed blanket into the open-air stadium with us, which he tucked around my lap after we’d found our seats. In case I was cold.
I didn’t have a clue about football, pro or otherwise. The only team games I’d ever played, and not by choice, were grade-school kickball (a baseball variant with no bat and a larger ball) and volleyball in the high-school gym, where the two team leaders, even if otherwise friends, generally picked me last or next to last.
He patiently explained the game before it started. But once the players were down on the field for the first quarter, the feints always fooled me and I could never make out who had the ball. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure which were our guys. But I jumped up with him and tried to simulate excitement whenever the crowd rose roaring to its feet. Sooner or later it would be over. When girls began dating, this was just something they had to sit through before the good part of the date began.
The “good part” was very good. After the game, he took me to a small Italian restaurant in the Village. Except for liver and onions at neighborhood establishments with my mother on the rare evenings she declared herself too tired to cook, I had never been to a real restaurant for dinner, much less had my chair pulled out for me, eaten in a semi-darkened room by candlelight, or looked over a red-checked tablecloth at a man who despite my evident deficiencies as a football fan seemed to enjoy being with me. My cheeks must have been flushed with pleasure, my eyes shining.
But he returned me to Kew Gardens before my mother could worry. And he didn’t touch me, except to take my hand at the door and tell me what a great time he’d had. Two weeks later, he telephoned again. This time we went to the movies nearby, at the small theater on Austin Street. Now he would have put his arm on the back of my seat. Maybe his hand touched my shoulder in the dark. I wouldn’t have pulled away.
I should remember those things. Instead, I’m reconstructing them as they must have happened, all that easy progress towards what I had begun to hope was coming. It seemed so comfortable, so normal, I didn’t think to keep it in my memory for later.
It must have been at the end of our third evening together that he didn’t get out of the car and circle around to open the door on my side. Instead, he turned and leaned slightly forward over the stick shift. I saw his face and lips come close. At last, I thought. I felt his mouth on mine. It was so gentle. And then it was suddenly something else which I embraced with arms around his neck and pounding heart. He was the one who pulled away first. Taking a deep breath, he turned off the ignition and at the apartment door upstairs gave me just one more quick kiss goodbye. But I knew something was now settled, so that I could finally talk about him at school.
[To be continued….]