[Continued from previous two posts]
Perry was quite a feather in my cap in the Hunter High basement locker room where most of us consumed our brown bag lunches between twelve and one. Not many in that all-girl school had an official boyfriend, although one or two might go to dances and movies with a boy — usually the same boy — she had met at church or temple, or who was the friend of an older brother. Now here I was “French kissing” a man! “Aren’t you afraid he’ll want to go all the way?” asked Jeannette as we threw our debris in the basement trash can. “All the way” — that kiss of death to marriage prospects! Was there a middle-class mother in 1940’s New York who didn’t teach her daughters, “No man wants used goods?”
I wasn’t afraid. In fact, I hadn’t thought of it. I trusted Perry to do me no harm. What I was thinking was that despite the prestige of it, he wasn’t really my boyfriend, not in the sense of our now being able to go double-dating with Hellen and her brother’s buddy or Arlene and a freckled counselor she’d met at summer camp. Hellen and Arlene understood that, too. They never suggested it.
I was certainly “going out” with him, though. By the middle or end of October, it was every Saturday. But what did we actually do? There were no more ball games or meals in restaurants with tablecloths that I recall. My mother was then in the throes of early menopausal gloom but he must have charmed her, because she liked him. So we probably had supper at home a few times, at her insistence, events for which she put on makeup and smiled. There were many more movies, and much talking in drugstore booths before and after the movies. We may have gone to a Broadway play, sitting high in the second balcony where seats were $1.20, probably because I liked theater and he wanted to please me.
Once he took me to a dance somewhere and the next week brought over a portable victrola and some records, to which we did slow dancing in the foyer of the apartment while my mother made herself scarce in the bedroom. It was the year of “I’d like to get you/ On a slow boat to China/ All to myself/ Alone….” These were still the old 45 records, three minutes of music and then a break in togetherness while he lifted the needle from the center and set it back at the outside rim before turning to put his arms around me again. Sometimes we danced to music on the radio and would kiss during the commercials. He was usually gone by the time my father came home after playing the late dinner shift at the Biltmore, although once or twice they may have exchanged greetings at the door. My tired father never commented on the frequency of his presence. I was a high school girl.
We also sat in the front seat of his car a lot. It was a used prewar sedan. Not a Ford, Chevy or Plymouth: I would have recognized one of those. (When I was younger, my father and I had made a Sunday game of naming makes of autos by their noses.) Maybe a Studebaker or a Hudson? The dark upholstery was wool. The kissing was lengthy and intensive. And then one evening as our tongues explored the inside of each other’s mouths, his hand moved. That late in the year, I would have been wearing a jacket or coat, the top button of which he would have had to open to slide his hand over my sweater to my breast. Exactly how the hand made its way inside I cannot say. But what I will remember, probably forever, is that instead of yielding to the pleasure of his fingers on my covered nipple, an alarm went off in my head. I had read a lot of popular novels from the corner lending library by then. They were instructive: After a man has opened buttons or fondled a breast, the chapter ends and the next chapter begins with a deflowered and pregnant heroine. I was at the top of a slippery slope. A point of no return. If I didn’t stop us, we were headed “all the way.”
I removed the hand. Whatever I whispered apologetically — “I can’t do that, I just can’t” — he was upset. I could see it in his face. I felt so bad. But what could I do? Throw my life away? Then he pulled himself together, said he understood, and kissed me gently once more to show he wasn’t angry. Upstairs, he promised to think of what we should do next week, and never tried to unbutton buttons again.
The first snow fell early in December. After it had cleared, he came over in the afternoon with his camera slung around his neck. We threw snowballs at each other for a while, he took some pictures, and let me take a picture of him. Then we went inside to warm up. While my mother made hot cocoa, he sat on my bed — where I snapped one more on my own box camera, so I should have it in case he forgot to make extra prints of the ones on his. He looks pensive in my blurry picture. He didn’t usually look that way, and I wonder now what he was thinking as he sat in a sixteen-year-old’s room. I didn’t ask.
In fact, I didn’t ask many questions at all. By then I knew he still lived at home on Mosholu Parkway and had gone to NYU for two years before being drafted. He’d meant to major in history. I also knew he’d served much of his three years of war as an infantryman during the long hard Allied slog through Italy. I did want to know what it had been like for him to fight, half-afraid of what I’d hear. “Was it very bad?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. Then he added there was a book about it by a guy who’d been in Italy when he was. All Thy Conquests, by Alfred Hayes. He thought it was a good book; it pretty much told how it was. To me that meant he and Hayes had been in the same patrols together, so that he was friends with an author. He hadn’t said that, though. What he meant was that I could get the book out of the library if I were interested, but he didn’t want to talk about it, at least not with me. So I never did learn if he’d been at Salerno or Anzio or Monte Cassino, or if men he’d known and fought beside had died, and how he’d dealt with that. Towards the end of the war, they’d transferred him to the German front and made him a corporal. Not sergeant? “I wasn’t particularly brave,” he said.
The other question I asked was why he hadn’t gone back to college after the war. Everyone knew the government was paying tuition for veterans under the GI Bill. He could have done his last two years for free. He shook his head: He was too old. There was a time for college, he explained, and that was past for him; now he had to get on with his life. Genetically coded to value education, I felt instinctively, even then, he was making a mistake. But I kept this judgment to myself; sixteen didn’t tell twenty-five what to do.
Still, was selling space in Where getting on with his life? On the answer to that one we agreed. He’d been there only half a year before I came, and had learned very soon it was a job going nowhere, although he was picking up decent money and good sales experience. However, Christmas was a bad time to make a move. He’d wait for the New Year to see what else was out there.
So what did we talk about during all those hours together in the drugstore booth and in the car? I would have told him about the colleges I was applying to and about needing a full scholarship if I didn’t go to Hunter, and about sitting for the SAT, then so new he wouldn’t have heard of it. Later I would have reported on my interviews at the Radcliffe Club and the Vassar Club. These were teas given by alumnae rather than proper college interviews, held in a large room rented at the Barbizon Hotel for Ladies so that applicants living in New York City shouldn’t have to make special trips to Cambridge or Poughkeepsie.
I was inexperienced with standing gracefully in the middle of a floor on Cuban heels, pocketbook dangling from one arm, while balancing teacup, saucer, crumpet and napkin — and was sure the ladies with icy smiles who eventually reached me for a few moments of chat had sized me up at once as ill-bred and uncharismatic, irrespective of my grades. When Perry heard about my distress at these fiascos, he would have been reassuring, confident it would all work out. What he was really feeling as he heard of my strenuous efforts to leave home and the city next year he never said.
He must have mentioned me at work. Cris told him to say hello. “How is she?’ I asked. He shrugged. He’d never seen her room upstairs, so I described it. What kind of life was that? What would become of her? He said I shouldn’t worry about Cris. She was a big girl and knew what she was doing. She had a journalism degree from somewhere and New York experience, and if she looked she could find another job, one with more future. “But if she left Where, she’d lose that deep discount on the room,” I exclaimed.
“So she’d live in another borough and commute,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the end of the world. Or,” he added, “how about if she went home to Kansas and started over? She’s got family there, people who love her. If she’s still here, treading water and having dinner with Sidney once a month, that’s her choice.” It was the only time I ever heard him sound so hard.
On Christmas Eve, he took me to a small party at the Bronx apartment of an old friend, now married and with a baby coming soon. “So this is Nina!” exclaimed the host. “We’re so glad to meet you at last!” There was a Christmas tree with ornaments, and wrapped packages underneath, arranged on fake white snow. The pregnant hostess snapped our picture sitting side by side on the fake snow and grinning. I wore a short-sleeved white angora sweater; Perry had his arm around me. The new couple. Then we all had turkey and stuffing and opened presents.
Mine was a large white silk square, hand-rolled and decorated with scenes of ladies in pastel-colored nineteenth-century costumes. He’d bought it on leave in Switzerland during the war to save for someone special. Who was me. At least, that’s what he said in front of his friends. In the car, he admitted he’d actually bought it for a girl back home, but then she sent him a Dear John letter. “That must have hurt,” I said, feeling somewhat let down myself. “Well, yes,” he said. “But I’m glad how it turned out. Because now I can give it to you.”
All the same, we weren’t really a new couple for purposes of grown-up social life, just as he wasn’t quite a boyfriend with whom I could double-date. He went to a New Year’s Eve party without me. I hadn’t ever gone out on New Year’s Eve, didn’t expect to go out on this one, and didn’t even know about his party ahead of time. I was sitting in the living-room in a bathrobe with my mother, listening to Lawrence Welk ring in 1948 on the radio, when he called. There were loud festivities in the background; we both had to raise our voices to hear each other. He was laughing. “I’ve drunk too much,” he said. He was there with someone named Jeanie. He’d known her for years. She was his age. But he wished it had been me at the party, so he could kiss me when the clock struck midnight. Next best thing: he was kissing me now, over the telephone. He just knew we were both going to have a wonderful year. And I should go to bed quickly and have sweet dreams.
He’d never before mentioned this twenty-five-year-old Jeanie who’d known him for years. Should I be jealous? My mother, born at the cusp of the century and steeped in romantic notions of another time, smiled knowingly. “He’s just sleeping with her,” she observed. “He’s in love with you.” She looked pleased. I no longer believed her in all things, but here I did. Jeanie as “used goods.” Serviceable but not marriageable. I could go on having sweet dreams.
But was I in love with him? Did I ever write, “Mrs. Perry L.” or “Nina L.” on a spare page in one of my loose-leaf notebooks, as I had done at thirteen with Leonard Bernstein? Perhaps. But being Mrs. anybody was too far away. I had to finish school first. In January, there were tough final exams to study for: English, History, Chemistry (I’d blown up the laboratory during the first half of the year-long course while daydreaming) and Advanced French, where I was taking both semesters simultaneously because I had room in my schedule and an ongoing crush on Mlle. Rothschild, the French teacher, who sat on her desk with her legs crossed. She was another thirty-year-old bachelorette like Cris, but also very unlike in being bilingual, spending every summer in France, and getting herself engaged, just before our graduation, to the head of the Lycee Francaise in New York.
Commencement was a low-key affair, during the week. In a few days most of us were going on to Hunter College, just around the corner on 68th Street and Park. My mother pulled herself together to come. However, my father wasn’t there, and neither was Perry; he had offered but I told him not to. It was no big deal; we weren’t even getting our diplomas that day because they hadn’t come back from the engraver in time. We all stood and raised our voices in one of the most unmelodious school songs ever written: “Sing to Our School, Forever May She Stand, Sheh-eh-el-ter-ing Those Who Serve and Guide Her Well.” Then there was a short speech by the principal, followed by the announcement of awards.
Here my heart sank. The explosion in the Chemistry lab the previous spring had knocked me down to second: I was Salutatarian, nosed out for Valedictorian by a tall raw-boned girl named Ann Mc D. who had chosen German instead of French as her foreign language, thereby suggesting a certain sympathy for the now defunct Third Reich. (She also had badly cracked lips, a matter of interest to no one but me.) I did amass an impressive number of English and French Department prizes, though: books with shiny commemorative seals that my mother and I lugged home on the bus and subway after the ceremony was over.
[To be continued…]