[Continued from previous four posts.]
My photograph in the 1948 face book for the entering class at Sarah Lawrence College looks not only very young and thin but also uncertain. The camera didn’t lie. I was finding it hard to strike up conversations. The members of my class who impressed me most, and whom I most wanted to know, all seemed golden girls. They were blonde and tan, smoked cigarettes with their coffee, and talked about parties at which they’d got really plastered.
They had also gone to private day schools or else to boarding schools with famous names, where they had learned to play not only tennis and golf, neither of which I’d had the opportunity to attempt, but also field hockey, of which I had never heard. They all seemed either to know each other or know each other’s friends, and already had invitations to football weekends at Harvard and Yale and Princeton. Some were talking about their coming-out parties. How could I ever have thought I would fit in?
I also found myself enrolled in classes where the skills which had worked so well for me in high school seemed inapplicable. Sarah Lawrence was not a place where one took copious notes, memorized them and then regurgitated on examinations what one had just ingested, at all of which I excelled. Instead, within a couple of days my professor of Exploratory Literature – who’d let me into his highly popular class because my reading Le Rouge et le Noir in the original had impressed him — asked us to write a paper explaining why the heroine of David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox had turned into a fox shortly after her marriage, a question never answered in so many words on any of its pages. In American History, the assignment was to write a critical review of a well respected standard text. In Creative Writing, I was supposed to describe something using only one of my senses. I wasn’t sure how well I would do with this odd kind of education. But if I didn’t live up to expectations, what about my scholarship?
I’d been struggling with these matters for about two weeks when Perry telephoned. My mother had given him the dormitory number. He was so sorry he hadn’t been able to get back before I left. He’d wanted to give me a proper send-off and help me move in. But he would be in the city for at least a while now — he was going to be involved in training new sales personnel — and how about if he drove up on Saturday? We could have dinner and take in a movie.
I’d already discovered the campus virtually emptied out on weekends and had been dreading being alone in a nearly deserted dorm. So I was briefly happy he called. He was familiar and warm. I could tell him everything that was happening, and he would sympathize, and maybe even know what to do about the snobby girls I couldn’t get to know and the peculiarly difficult homework I worried about. He was older and had more life experience and was good with people and cared about me.
But then I remembered the horrid plaid melamine plates that so excited him and had taken him away without apology on those long road trips. I also wondered if I was supposed to confess about all the kisses with the boy from the University of Chicago, who was now sending me increasingly heated letters for which I searched my mailbox every day. By the time the front desk called on Saturday evening to announce my guest had arrived, I felt nervous and duplicitous and also annoyed that I should have to feel this way, with the result that I began to wish the evening weren’t happening at all.
I couldn’t conceal my lack of enthusiasm at the news that his plastic dinnerware company was rapidly expanding and he might perhaps be made an assistant marketing manager by the end of the year. For his part, he must not have understood how I felt about the golden girls and Lady into Fox, because all he said was he was sure there were plenty of other nice girls at the college with whom I could be friends, and if I did the best I could with my schoolwork, he knew that would be just fine.
After dinner, we saw Arc of Triumph, with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. I couldn’t concentrate on the story. It seemed so long since we’d been together. He looked incongruous on campus, too. He didn’t belong there. Now in the movie theater it was as if a stranger were taking my hand in the dark. He must have sensed my discomfort, because he soon moved his own hand away to reach for his handkerchief and then never put it back on mine. I clasped my own two cold hands together in my lap and felt sorry for myself, but still worried all the way through the movie that I would have to really kiss him when he took me back to my dorm.
He was wiser than I gave him credit for. He touched me gently on the cheek and blew me an air kiss. He also told me to enjoy every minute of college. I watched him drive away and wanted to cry. But I was too young to realize, until several months went by without hearing from him again, that he had been saying goodbye.
Eighteen months later, there was another final goodbye. It was the late spring of 1950 and I was by then deeply enmeshed in major sturm und drang both by letter and in person with the boy from Chicago, who like any other normal nineteen-year-old boy was demanding I prove my love by “going all the way.” It was at this point a letter arrived from Perry. It had no return address, so I didn’t know who’d sent it until it was open. I had never seen his handwriting before. “My Nina,” he began. “I dreamed about you last night.” It was a very short letter. Nothing about where he was or what he was doing. He said he would always remember me, and hoped I was happy, and wished me a wonderful life.
That was nearly sixty-five years ago. The life I went on to live would probably not qualify as “wonderful.” Poor romantic choices, emotional tumult, dysfunctional marriages. But also much higher education, considerable professional accomplishment, two children to be proud of, and a reasonably safe and quiet harbor near the end. Along the way I’ve sometimes looked back to reflect. But never about Perry: For too long it was as if he’d never been. Until a few months ago, when the man I live with — who also looks back to reflect — asked if the boyfriend from Chicago was the first. “Not exactly,” I said. “There was a practice boyfriend before him.” A practice boyfriend? Someone about whom the man I live with had never heard? “Nothing happened,” I said. “There’s not much to tell.”
And this was true. I knew nothing, or remembered nothing, about his family, or boyhood, or politics (although there I could guess), not much about his friends, interests, hopes, dreams. I never heard more about Jeanie, or the girl who wrote the “Dear John” letter. I had no idea what he did in the evenings when he wasn’t with me, which was most evenings. Did he read, do crossword puzzles, listen to music, other than dance music? Did he ever play tennis or golf? Could he swim? I didn’t even know his phone number, although I suppose I could have got it from Information if necessary.
But there was one thing I did know, although I didn’t know I still knew it. The night the man I live with asked his question, I too had a dream. One of those dreams so real you think it is. I saw a mouth. Very near to mine. I woke with a start. Whose mouth, whose? I ransacked my small inventory of well-known mouths. (Husbands, lovers.) The one in the dream was none of those. It was Perry’s. Still warm and alive inside of me.
And then I was frantic to bring him back. Packrat that I am, I couldn’t find the letter to “My Nina.” Or the photo of us as a couple on fake snow. I’d given away the Swiss silk scarf to the Vietnam Viets. But I did still have the two photos taken in early December 1947 while I was in high school and he was at Where. And now I had Google, and Yahoo and Bing.
That’s how I learned he was born on May 2, 1922 (I’d forgotten the day) and died April 9, 2008, one month short of turning 86. According to “Radaris,” a search engine of scary thoroughness, his most recent address was 330 West 46 St., NY 10017. It’s between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. Not the greatest place in Manhattan to live. Google shows it as a brownstone converted to apartments above a street-level fruit and vegetable store. I’ll bet it’s a walk-up. My guess is he died a widower or divorced; I don’t think old married people live on West 46th. “Radaris” also reports his background as Austrian-German-Swiss (didn’t know that, either) and that he was a high-school grad. (He got no credit for the two years at NYU.) His profession? “Food preparation & serving-related occupations.” (Is that where melamine led?) I found his last telephone number too, but in the privacy interests of whoever has that number now, I’ll omit it from this report. He was related to an Amy Rose L.
The United States 1940 census is also now online. There I found the L. family living on Mosholu Parkway North, Bronx, NY. The Head of Household: Irving L., age 45. Wife: Beatrice L., age 41. Son: Perry L., age 17. Son: Warren L., age 13. (I never knew, or else forgot, that Perry had a kid brother just barely young enough to escape the draft, who was probably finishing college in ‘47 or ‘48.)
There’s a Warren L., age 87 or 88, now living in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Amy Rose L., age 63, lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, quite near the waterfront. It’s where Frank Sinatra came from.
What should I do with this free information? Contact Warren L., the 88 year-old kid brother in Deerfield Beach, and ask about Perry, now seven years dead? Get in touch with 63-year old Amy Rose L., who lives in New Jersey just like me and is probably his daughter? What good would it do to identify myself as her mother’s predecessor and ask nosy parker questions about her dad? Or should I dig up even more by paying “Radaris” $19.95 for a trial period background check, which will produce for me all the publicly available records in the United States concerning Perry L. Is learning the name of his wife worth $19.95?
Those are rhetorical questions. I already know the answers. I’ve also concluded that my dear departed mother who was wrong about so much, and maybe also wrong that Perry was sleeping with Jeanie, was right about one thing: that for a time he really did love me. If Amy Rose, age 63, is his daughter, he would have had to marry her mother in 1950. (Unless she were a shotgun baby, which I very much doubt.) If so, he dreamed about “his” Nina and wrote he would always remember me shortly before the wedding.
Little as I ever knew about him, I do know Perry was one of the kindest men in my life. He’d survived bloody carnage in Europe – and make no mistake: he was cannon fodder, nothing more – yet managed to keep his balance. He was steadfastly there for all the time I needed him, and on my foolish terms. (Which can’t have pleased him). He had fortitude. (“It’s not the end of the world.”) He also kept his own counsel. I sometimes wonder where he thought we were going, or whether he thought about it at all.
If I try to replay the cards in my mind, try to make it come out differently, I still can’t make it work. Suppose I did have to go to Hunter, living in my room at home and commuting to a college for women a block away from the high school I’d been attending when I met him. And suppose he was promoted to assistant marketing manager, and then marketing manager, so that he finally earned enough to think of marriage. Would I have been happy as the wife of a very nice beer-drinking man who earned his living selling tableware I wouldn’t put on my own table and liked bowling, the Giants and fishing vacations? I know the answer to that one too. We met while neither of us knew what lay ahead. But we were programmed to take off in different directions. And then we did.
I also ask why he was even bothering with a sixteen-year-old bookish schoolgirl nine years younger than he was, whose head was full of daydreams and who knew nothing of the world. My best guess: because of the war. He’d lost three years of his youth while trudging through foreign mud with a heavy pack under enemy fire, and for six or seven months he got it back with me.
And so when I think of him now, it’s not as my practice boyfriend. He’ll be always the young man with whom I threw snowballs – knowing that when we got too cold we’d go in to hot cocoa, and then supper, and then close dancing in the foyer to the sound of Glenn Miller and Harry James, our bodies entwined and mouths connected forever.
What could be better than that?