[Continued from previous three posts.]
Some colleges did rolling admissions in those days. When I went back to Hunter to pick up my diploma the week after commencement, the excitement in the administrative office was palpable. Ann Mc D. of the cracked lips had been accepted at Radcliffe! The next day, my letter from Radcliffe came too. I’d been wait-listed. Back then we didn’t yet know about the unacknowledged quotas for Jewish students at most Ivy League schools. All I could think, bitterly, was that Ann Mc D. — with a grade point average only 1/100th of one percent higher than mine and no extra-curricular activities at all — had just been better at balancing teacups and crumpets than I was.
“It isn’t the end of the world,” said Perry. (Was it his favorite expression?) “Maybe someone won’t accept her offer and they’ll give her place to you.” Fat chance. He just didn’t understand. Who would turn down a place at Radcliffe? (Certainly not Ann Mc D.) “We wouldn’t have had the money, anyway,” said my mother. “Even if they’d taken you.” First she’d encouraged me to apply. Now she was throwing cold water on everything. “Why are you just sitting around?” she demanded. “If you’re not going to Hunter this semester, get yourself a job!”
In all fairness, I hadn’t been “sitting around” for long. We were only two weeks into February. And it’s not that I didn’t want to work while I waited. But John’s wife’s friend was still sitting on my old job at Where. My father came to the rescue again. In order to stay current with new Hit Parade songs, he sometimes bought sheet music from a Rockefeller Center music publisher. The publisher’s office manager volunteered to help me out. Several girls in her typing pool were getting married that spring and taking time off for honeymoons. She also needed extra help to cover the first part of the summer, when people were on vacation. Full time until the end of July, and more than minimum wage. Done.
It was so boring. They gave me an empty office to myself, in honor of my college aspirations. The other typists, who had come there straight from high school commercial courses, sat out in the open, off the corridor that led to the drawers full of addressograph plates in the back. I did meet them up close in the bathroom, where they congregated to smoke and to discuss saving for weddings and where to go for the glorious two weeks afterwards. They were only two and three years older than I was, but I had nothing to contribute to these bathroom conversations except a nod and a smile when shown photographs of bridesmaid dresses under consideration – all in what my mother would have contemptuously called “Italianische taste.” I was lonely, and hoped Vassar would want me, and again tried writing “Mrs. Nina L.” a few times on the back on envelopes I’d ruined and had to toss.
The one good thing about the job, other than the weekly paycheck, was that it put me just eight and a half blocks away from Where. I never did drop by to see Cris, but Perry and I often met for lunch at the 57th Street Automat, and that got me through the dreary weeks. Once or twice he was near Rockefeller Center at lunchtime and stopped by the office to collect me. Did that ever raise my status in the ladies room! He was so handsome! How long had we been going together? Were we engaged yet? “He thinks I’m still too young to make it official,” I told the others. Well, it was probably true. My mother had said he loved me. We just hadn’t talked about it.
At the beginning of April, Barnard wait-listed me. The next day Vassar accepted me. But no scholarship. The Vassar Admissions Office wrote to my father that if he could manage the first year’s tuition, which was $1200, and if I made good grades — they would “see what they could do” after that. Hardly a commitment. As usual with unpleasant tidings, my mother was the conveyor of this bad news. “Daddy has just enough in the bank,” she said. “But it will wipe out all his savings. And what will you do if they don’t give you a scholarship after that? You’ll be back at Hunter anyway!” The unspoken message: his sacrifice would have been in vain. This from my own mother, who had so encouraged my ambitions to move up and away in the fall!
On the Saturday following this maternal communique, I walked fast back and forth, back and forth, between Kew Gardens and Forest Hills muttering to myself it wasn’t fair. I was so good at school! (Sometimes I thought it was the only thing I was good at.) Why did I have to be poor? Why couldn’t I have had parents who could pay for four years at a really good college without thinking twice? I deserved it at least as much as Ann Mc D. or my friend Hellen, daughter of New York’s Pickle King, who was going to Wellesley. Not fair, not fair, not fair. I could hardly wait to hurl myself into Perry’s car that evening and tell him. He was my only real friend. He would make me feel better. He would understand how I felt.
He listened. He put his arm around me. He reminded me there was one more college not yet heard from. I could put off deciding whether or not to risk the year at Vassar until I’d heard from this fourth place. Then, after hugging me and telling me he’d feel the same about me no matter which college I went to, he announced he had wonderful news. He’d found another opportunity. One that offered a real future. He snapped on the overhead and pulled a loose-leaf binder from the back seat to show me.
The binder contained photographs in full color of plastic tableware: plates and cups and saucers and bowls and platters made of a new substance called melamine. They wouldn’t chip or break, and what’s more, you could give them any look the market demanded. The page he showed me with particular enthusiasm displayed a dinner plate of orange and yellow plaid cloth forever sealed from harm by melamine. And there was a whole set of this design horror the manufacturer assured Perry was going to sell like hotcakes! He hadn’t told me, but he’d spent three months looking and looking, until he unearthed this new manufacturing company. He was getting in on the ground floor, too. There was no telling how big melamine was going to be, and he was going with it! He’d handed in his two-week notice at Where. After that there’d be a one-week sales training period and he’d be off on his own.
I didn’t take it in all at once. We ate on plain white plates at home. It wasn’t real bone china, we couldn’t afford that, but the white looked good under food. I tried to picture a slice of roast beef and a baked potato with peas on Perry’s plaid plate. It would be like eating off a glazed tablecloth, except we didn’t have such ugly tablecloths. Was this what the market demanded? What market? Was he sure?
He became more excited at he explained. They were giving him a fairly short route at first, just New England, till he had some experience under his belt. He’d be selling to buying offices and restaurant supply firms and department store buyers now – a different kind of customer than the New York City nightclub and theater managers with whom he’d dealt before. So he needed to get the feel of it. But yes, he was sure he’d be good at it. They’d also promised that after New England, he could help open up all the rest of the country. And the commission structure was terrific!
He was going to stay a salesman. Just a salesman. And of this horrible stuff. Although I hadn’t ever stopped to think it through, I’d always assumed his job at Where was just a stepping stone towards some other future, a horsing-around period before he began his real life. Now I saw his other future was going to be peddling plates. He must have thought the disappointment on my face was because he’d be on the road. We were still going to see each other, he said. He’d be home through April, and after that he’d be back at least every other week. Maybe more often. I shouldn’t be upset.
Two days later Sarah Lawrence College declared itself happy to offer me a place in their September 1948 entering class. The tuition for the ’48-’49 year would be $1750. The college offered a scholarship of $1400. The week after that, the New York Times printed the hundreds of names of the state Regents scholarship winners. I came in tenth in Queens, the highest-ranking girl in the borough. That added $300 a year to the $1400 from the college. My father would have to pay only $50. It was news that changed everything.
Suddenly everyone was happy again. Menopause or no, my mother brightened up. His savings now safe in their bank, my father untypically brought home a bouquet of flowers just for me. Perry took me out to another checkered tablecloth dinner by candlelight and didn’t spoil it by singing the praises of melamine. Even the job at the music publisher became less dreary, because now I could begin planning a future life while my fingers automatically typed cover letters. I was going to lose ten pounds and teach myself to drink coffee so I could participate in the after-lunch coffee-drinking I had noticed in the Sarah Lawrence dining room when my mother and I had gone up to Bronxville two months earlier for my interview. Then I would invest some of my earnings, no longer needed for tuition, in a new college wardrobe. And I would keep my French skills intact by reading only in French until the summer was over; it would prevent evenings at home with my mother from being so dull. Besides, good French was bound to come in handy in that future life.
Before I realized it, Perry was on the road in New England. We saw each other less. Twice in May. Twice in June. At first I very much missed him. Despite the expense of long-distance telephoning, he did call several times from motel rooms. Business was great, he missed me too. He couldn’t wait to get back again. But it wasn’t the same as being with him. I had to pretend to be happy to hear his sales numbers when I’d been secretly hoping this on-the-road experience with melamine would disillusion him and the motes would fall from his eyes. And how could I tell him that although I didn’t know all the words in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, I could pretty much grasp what was going on? I knew he wasn’t paying long-distance rates to learn that. The four times he was home during those two months, our long deep kissing in the car began to make me uneasy, even though I still enjoyed doing it. Didn’t he sense his new job and my new future were pulling us apart?
Whatever he sensed, they transferred him out of New England and he went. In June and July he did month-long circuits of California and Arizona. He went by train, rented cars, and reported the driving was hot but the selling terrific. He sent roses from Phoenix for my seventeenth birthday. I missed him less the longer he was gone. After Le Rouge et le Noir I began the other Stendhal biggie: La Chartreuse de Parme. He didn’t get back until after my Rockefeller Center job was over. We went bowling. I was awful at it.
By the beginning of August, I had lost ten pounds and knew how to drink coffee. (With skim milk and saccharine.) It was time to go shopping for clothes. I didn’t even have to spend my own savings. After careful perusal of the 1948 college issue of Mademoiselle, my mother used the money she’d managed to hold back from her housekeeping allowance over several years to take me to Jay Thorpe, where we chose a tweed suit for football weekends, a violet wool off-the-shoulder dress for parties, a two-piece cocktail suit in dark blue-green taffeta and a brown lace dance dress. What football games, parties, cocktails or dances? Neither of us knew. But Mademoiselle strongly recommended acquiring these items for the year ahead. We then proceeded to Henri Bendel, where she also bought a forest green pinwale corduroy outfit with a full mid-calf skirt that showed off my twenty-eight inch waist, and a pretty paisley blouse to go with it. I’d never been in either store before. I’d never owned clothes like these before. I’d never looked so beautiful to myself before.
Perry had a couple of weeks off. It was his summer vacation, the first in two years. (He hadn’t been at Where long enough the year before to have earned one.) He was apologetic. He and three buddies from high school had been planning this fishing trip to Canada since last fall and he’d specially negotiated the time away before he signed up with the melamine company. What could I say? I knew he deserved a break. I knew we couldn’t go away anywhere together. I knew I couldn’t ask him to stay in the sweltering city and spend his two weeks with me. (And if he had, what would we do?) “I’ll save the biggest fish for you,” he promised. He had such an engaging smile.
Martha S. called me. She was a high-school friend who’d begun at Vassar last September and was now a rising sophomore. Did I want to go square-dancing in Central Park on Saturday? Pepsi-Cola was sponsoring it. She had three boys and one other girl rounded up; if I came along, they’d be six. I said yes without thinking twice. Then I remembered Perry and checked with my mother.
“Why not?” she said. “You’re not married to him. You’re not engaged. You haven’t made any promises. You had a good time. He had a good time. He’s off doing something else this summer. Time for you to go do something else too.” She didn’t actually use the word “practice.” But I knew what she meant. Perry had been just for practice. Now I was ready for the real thing.
One of the three boys was tall, dark and in his second year of the Great Books program at the University of Chicago. He was nine months older than I was. After the square-dancing, we all went off to the swings in the park, where he stood straddling my swing from behind as I sat and pumped us up very high. The back of my head touched his groin each time we swung forward. We both felt it, neither of us mentioned it. After the swinging, he taught me to Charleston under a park light. The other four watched. And at midnight, he walked me all the way down Fifth Avenue to my subway at 53rd Street. The following evening, we went to a play in the Village; two of the others came too. Then we went to the beach at Belle Harbor alone; no one else came because he hadn’t asked them. A week later, I shared with him the kissing skills I had acquired from Perry, which he seemed to appreciate. I also thrust my new college address on him when we parted for the beginning of the school year. Perry was still in Canada fishing.
[To be concluded in next post.]
5 thoughts on “THE PRACTICE BOYFRIEND: A MEMOIR (PART FOUR OF FIVE)”
So your own and Perry’s trajectories began to diverge as you realised his life-ambitions were so much smaller than your own. I understand this well. But I have to put in a word for melamine – my mother still uses the set of 6 multi-coloured melamine cereal bowls she purchased when I was a child in the early ’60’s, because they were child-proof, unbreakable. And…unbreakable, they still are!
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Absolutely unbreakable! (I never questioned that.) Actually, when my first son was born in 1967, I bought two baby dishes with raised lips in white; they each had a drawing in red and grey of the Little Engine That Could at the bottom and were almost certainly made of melamine, refined to a matte finish, although I didn’t realize it at the time. (That high gloss I saw on the orange plaid plate was awful.) I still have the two baby dishes — unbroken! Another point: Before I began to write this 12,000 word piece (broken up only for blog convenience), I did look up melamine. Perry had been right about its future: it went on to have a tremendous success throughout America in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Perhaps he did do well with it. It wouldn’t have changed anything. I was too bookish, and full of other dreams. But if you yearn for it, you can still buy some on E-Bay; nothing quite so ugly as that orange plaid plate, though!
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Successful or not – and I hope the former – the image of the travelling salesman will forever be tarnished by the poignant and tragic Willy Loman.
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Yes, and I saw that play on Broadway about a year or two after this memoir ends, in the company of that tall very smart young man from the University of Chicago!
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Just delightful! You bring back the innocence of that time.
I really enjoy your storytelling Nina. ❤