BEFORE FEMINISM

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[Author’s note: I’ve been writing this story for what seems like forever. As a factual matter , it hasn’t been forever. I probably began it in 2007 or 2008.  The first version was in the third person, as if it were fiction; the protagonist was named Sophie. It seemed easier to write it that way. Every time I revised it, I would make small changes, but left it Sophie’s story.  It even went into this blog in September 2014 as Sophie’s story, a fiction. (It was called “Sophie Before Feminism.”) Ten readers “liked” it then and four or five commented, favorably. It’s had only sporadic readership over the years since then.  But I’m a stubborn cuss and reluctant just to leave it like that, especially as Sophie is now the name of one of my cats. So I’ve put it into the first person, where it always belonged, to see if it reads better that way.  What’s in it all happened a very long time ago, but it really happened.  If any of you remember the first version, you can tell me if this is an improvement. Or not.]

 

BEFORE FEMINISM

[A true story. With one name changed.]

I was again living with my parents. This was customary back then, if you weren’t yet married. I did have a boyfriend. But Ed was divorced with four children, had alimony and child support obligations. His job as an instructor at USC paid nearly nothing. He was also thirty-one, nine years older than I was. He rented a furnished studio opposite the Paramount lot, drove a broken-down ’37 Plymouth coupe, spent his spare time writing unmarketable novels. The silent parental disapproval was palpable.

Initially, Ed’s tweed jacket and MFA from Yale had been considerable attractions in this cultural wasteland to which my parents had dragged me after college. He’d also taught me quite a lot in his pull-out Murphy bed about what men like.  Still, my parents were right. There was no future in it.  He worked the summer session to make ends meet and spent August in Texas, where his children lived with their mother. All he could provide were modest weekend suppers, which I cooked on his two-burner hotplate, and the diversions to be found in the Murphy, now becoming routine. He wasn’t even apologetic. “We’re made for each other,” he crowed. I could manage only a false smile. I hated scenes, fled from conflict, chose the easy way. Also, there was no one else on the horizon.

I had to admit he’d been useful in one important way. I was now a graduate student at no cost in the USC English Department, thanks to a teaching assistantship I probably owed to his recommendation. I was only a year or so older than some members of the English 101 section I taught; the front row consisted mainly of vets newly returned from Korea. But I made sure to wear elegant suits with narrow skirts, handkerchief linen blouses, nylons with seams marching smartly up the back of my calves, and neat low-heeled pumps from Bonwit Teller – so no one could mistake me for a coed. I also sometimes sat on the desk, legs crossed like Lauren Bacall on Harry Truman’s piano, to appear more sophisticated and at ease than I felt.

My own graduate studies included British History 340 (MWF 2:00-2:50), an unwelcome but necessary undergraduate survey course. No survey course, no graduate English degree. It was surprisingly hard. Moreover, the thirty other students fanned out towards the rear of the auditorium, although mostly male, seemed useless for horizon-broadening purposes. They almost all looked too young. A somewhat older fellow with bad skin, up front on the left, nodded hopefully in my direction each time I slid into my seat up front on the right. I always pretended not to see. Two other older ones, halfway back behind me, sat together on their spines. Returning GIs? Neither paid attention whenever I sailed past.

Last Friday in October: the professor slapped the graded blue books containing our five-week British History exam answers on the first seat in front of the podium. 25% of the final grade right there. Would a B jeopardize my assistantship? The class line snaked towards the diminishing pile. I took a deep breath, flipped through the top ones and recognized my name. On the cover, a large A-minus. New questions quickly trumped relief. Was grading on the curve? Had anyone done better?

A voice with a distinctive crack disputed a grade. The owner of the voice waved his blue book in the air. It was clearly marked with another large A minus. Indignation rose sour in my throat. A-minus wasn’t good enough? He was arguing? As I watched, the professor re-marked his booklet with an A and altered the record of the grade in his grade book. The owner of the new A turned to the room at large with a smile of triumph. I recognized him. The taller of the two who sat on their spines. His achievement clouded my weekend.

How fortunate he was expounding crap as I came down the aisle on Monday. “The Jansenists were right,” I heard. “The world is evil and damned. And I’m evil and damned too. There’s no hope for me. So what can I be but a Jansenist?”

Such an opportunity! Partially turning, the better to show a curved hip and the relative flatness of my girdled stomach, I sweetly inquired: “But why call yourself a Jansenist? This is the twentieth century! If you eliminate God from your Jansenism, you could say you’re an Existentialist. Haven’t you read Sartre?” Sometimes I impressed even myself with the nonsense that emerged from my mouth when needed. His dark eyes had a downward tilt at the outer corners. It gave him an amused look.  “Hm,” he said. “I’ll think about it. Since you say so.”

“Do.” I felt much better about my A minus.

He was lounging against the stairwell banister when I came out after class. As faculty, I had an elevator key. The preliminary repartee was predictable. It got him into the elevator with me. Our trip to the lobby was brief and silent. He looked at me. I looked at him. He was tall, a tough guy – but with a full mouth, pale skin, dark crew cut, and those amused eyes. He needed a shave. He wore a heavy navy blue sweater with a large white ND on it. Too soon the elevator door opened. “Well, thanks,” he said. “It was a pleasure. See you Wednesday.” I so much didn’t want to forget any part of this encounter that I wrote it all down as soon as I got home.

Wednesday: He had shaved. He was very polite. He gestured to the empty seats next to me: “Anyone sitting here?”   I smiled, shaking my head. He left one seat between us. The lecture began almost at once. We both took careful notes. I couldn’t have repeated a single thing I wrote.

We again rode the elevator in silence. Outside he asked if I’d like a cup of coffee. We walked on slabs of sidewalk between wide swaths of late autumn grass. The mid-afternoon sun was shining. It was like being in a movie. He offered to carry my books. No, no, I could manage. He insisted on taking them. No one had ever carried my books before. I knew we were talking about something, but the actual words didn’t count. Another something, very powerful, was pulsing between us. We reached Commons. The other teaching assistants from the English Department were sitting together at two tables and saw him holding my books as well as his own. I suggested we go sit with them but he said no, we should go downstairs. So the other teaching assistants also saw us go down to The Hole, where only undergraduates hung out. What did it matter? My real life was beginning at last.

We found an empty booth. He slid in opposite me. I ordered my coffee black, with saccharin. (I counted calories in those days, so as to look good naked.) He poured lots of cream and sugar in his and put away a big slice of blueberry pie while he told me about himself. I was so preoccupied with leaning my chin on my hand and hanging on every word I forgot to ask his name until he suddenly said he had to go. It was Yates. Like the poet’s, only spelled differently. And his first name was William, also like the poet’s. Will, he said. The middle name was Benedict, not Butler, but at least the initial was B. I loved it that someone who looked so tough had a poet’s name. Well, nearly a poet’s name.

When we went for our second coffee on Friday, a buddy of his caught up with us, so Will sat next to me. Maybe to show the buddy I was his. Although the buddy seemed to know about me already, whatever there was to know. He soon left for a date with a girl who was helping him with his German. After he was gone Will explained it wasn’t a date, exactly. The girl the buddy was meeting was a prostitute from Germany and he had to pay for the sex; only the help with German was free. The idea that I had just met someone who paid women to let him inside their bodies was so astonishing I couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so I just tried to look amused and knowing, and asked instead if he was a really good friend. Then Will hesitated a bit before saying they had only had a couple of classes together. But the buddy, casual acquaintance or no, brought us closer together. For our third and fourth coffees, on the following Monday and Wednesday, we went on sitting side by side. Although I did notice Will was still being very careful no part of him touched any part of me. I wasn’t sure why. Even though going slow was supposed to be a sign of respect, he must know, I thought, that I knew neither of us were playing games.

However, before the third coffee came a weekend. That Friday evening in the pull-out Murphy bed, Ed toiled between my thighs without success. His head conveniently out of sight, I could go on thinking about how Will had grown up in a place in Boston called Southie, which I understood to be a poor neighborhood or maybe even a slum because he’d said he used to hang out with street gangs. He’d enlisted at sixteen by lying about his age. (He was actually only two years older than I was. Perfect!) But the war in Europe was over by the time he’d finished basic training, so they’d shipped him to the Pacific. Fortunately, he missed the bad parts, like Iwo Jima, because MacArthur picked him to be in his Honor Guard instead. (The Honor Guard was all tall white guys, he explained.) After discharge he’d eventually gotten his high school diploma and gone to Notre Dame on the GI Bill. He’d also told me how once, during football practice, he scored the perfect touchdown. It didn’t count, he said, because he was only the third string quarterback, but he didn’t care, because he had done it and he knew he had done it.

Ed looked up at me over my stomach and asked how I was doing. I apologized for taking so long. Then I thought about how Will had finally walked out of Notre Dame one semester before graduation because he’d become disillusioned with the hypocrisy of the Church. (Which was the reason he was finishing up his last year out here; he’d started in February and now was nearly done.) That was so principled and brave of him there was no way I was going to be able to come, no matter how long poor Ed kept at it. It didn’t occur to me to fake it. (Expedient fakery would be an acquisition of my thirties.) I encouraged him to forget it and finish up for himself. “I must be catching something,” I explained. On Saturday night, I said my period had arrived unexpectedly. I put the diaphragm back in its case in his bathroom cabinet and we went to the movies instead. By then, I could hardly bear to hold his hand. I wondered if I ought to be feeling guilty, or at least selfish, but all I could feel was glorious anticipation.

Will was unhappy at our Monday coffee. He said he hated his life and especially hated having to work after class selling Hoover vacuum cleaners door-to-door to ladies who already had an okay vacuum cleaner and didn’t need a new one. He really wanted to stay longer in our booth in the Hole. He wished we could stay there forever. On Wednesday he even walked me from Commons to the faculty parking lot and seemed to have difficulty leaving. I considered this a promising development and wondered when he would ask me out. He was certainly taking his time. One thing I did know: absolutely no more weekends in the Murphy bed.

Ed had a late afternoon class on Wednesday. I drove to his studio immediately after leaving campus, let myself in with the key he’d given me, stealthily removed my diaphragm from his bathroom and tiptoed out, locking the door behind me. I’d have to keep the diaphragm case at the bottom of my purse because I couldn’t leave it at home, my mother looked everywhere. But it was a big purse, there was room.

On Friday Will was apologetic. He had to go right after class. He was sorry. So sorry. Coffee would have to wait until Monday. I telephoned Ed to say I was ill, had skipped history class and gone right home. Fever of 103. If I were better on Saturday, I’d let him know, but I felt awful and it didn’t look good. I was sorry. So sorry. I spent the weekend douching in the bathtub to clean every trace of him out of myself. My mother kept asking through the door if anything was wrong. Between baths, I studied British History. It reminded me of Will.

My first Freshman English section met at 9 a.m. on Monday. I was there five minutes early, in suit, pumps and makeup — looking pretty good, I thought. The students drifted in. Just as I was closing the classroom door to begin, Ed’s face, red-eyed and distraught, appeared through the glass panels. The students strained to see what was going on. “You’ve left me,” Ed sobbed, not quietly. I heard a suppressed giggle from somewhere behind me. “Ssh,” I hissed to Ed. “I’m teaching now.” Couldn’t he just slink away and lick his wounds by himself? “You took your diaphragm!” he exclaimed in strangled grief. A freshman football player trying to enter the room around him did a second take and smirked.  “You’ve left me for someone else!”

“And?” I closed the door on him, turned to my class and shrugged. They laughed. I knew I should have handled it better, and managed to not smile back. Then I took attendance, chewing the inside of my mouth to keep the corners from turning up. Everyone was unusually attentive. It was a rewarding class.

I was afraid Ed would reappear at any moment during the rest of the day, but he kept his distance. Now and then I thought how awful he must be feeling, but that made me feel awful myself. I tried to reason myself out of it. Didn’t he understand that we couldn’t have gone on endlessly, with me just providing the sex in his financially constricted life but getting nothing else out of it? Didn’t he have any remorse for his exploitation of my youthful optimism, my good nature? It had to stop. I was entitled to a life, too.

Then I was at last in the Hole again, sitting side by side with Will. His bare right forearm lay on the formica table parallel to and no more than a quarter inch away from my bare left forearm. I looked at the two arms, so close together. The skin on his was paler than the skin on mine, as if he hadn’t been in the sun at all, even last summer. And it had fewer hairs on it than Ed’s or my father’s. It was foreign flesh. Pale muscular foreign flesh, sparsely dark-haired. So different. So exciting.

“I want to go to bed with you,” he said.

I went on looking at our arms. Well of course. Wasn’t that what I wanted, too? How honest he was!  “You have to understand,” I said carefully. “I don’t just do that. With this person and then that person. When I go with someone, it has to mean that we’re together, really together.” I stopped short of mentioning love. I wanted him to say it first.

“I do understand,” he said solemnly.

Now I had to say yes or no. If I said no not yet, would that mean I wasn’t the sophisticated woman he took me for?   I didn’t think I could say no. “All right then,” I agreed. “If you really mean it.”

“ I really mean it. Let’s go.” He started out of the booth.

“Wait! Go where?” This was all happening very fast.

“I’ll find somewhere.” Up the stairs he went, to the public phones on the street level.

His car was a green ’51 Pontiac. He put our books in the trunk, next to some spare Hoover vacuum cleaner parts, and we screeched out of the student parking lot. I asked where we were going. He said he’d called friends in Covina who were willing to take in an early movie. Their key would be under the mat. Then he didn’t say anything else. He just drove, both hands on the wheel, eyes fixed straight ahead — with focus and speed appropriate to the driver of a getaway car. Maybe I was making a mistake.

“Considering what we’re about to do,” I said after a while, “you might be a little friendlier.” The car lurched to the curb, I heard him jerk the hand brake, he grabbed me like a starving man, his mouth opened on mine, my heart dropped, we kissed and kissed, I dissolved next to a hydrant on North Puente, and long afterwards I could still tremble when I remembered.

The rest of the ride was better. Will found a Thrifty Drug, where I bought spermicidal jelly and he bought fortified port wine. After we got back into the car, he took my hand while he drove with the other. “Tell me,” he asked, “do you always carry your diaphragm around with you?”

It was nearly dark when we arrived. There were two rooms. We tiptoed through the first, which had bookshelves, but that’s all I could see, because of course I had my glasses off. The second was the bedroom. He was clumsy at finding my buttons and hooks so I quickly undressed myself while he pulled off his sweater, shirt and pants and kicked off his shoes. Next I went to the bathroom. Sitting on someone else’s toilet squeezing jelly into the rubber cap, I reflected this wasn’t as romantic as I might have liked. But after I emerged protected and we’d drunk some of the port out of the bottle (I took only a few sips because of the calories), the passionate kissing started up again and reflection disappeared. Then his erection got in the way so we went to bed, he climbed on top and came very soon. “That’s okay,” he said, putting his arm around me. “There’s lots more where that came from. Once I came seven times in one night.”

I did like the arm around me.

The second time I managed to get a pillow underneath myself before he mounted; it didn’t help much. I wondered if it was because his penis was rather slender compared to Ed’s, but decided that was probably not it, since it was long enough and hard enough, and certainly energetic enough. More likely, it was just that he seemed not to know what to do with it except come as quickly as possible. He didn’t even seem very concerned that I hadn’t. I would have to give lessons. Very delicately. I forgave him. For now. How could he have learned about lovemaking, given his rough and difficult life? He might have been mostly with whores, like his buddy. Maybe I was his first real girl.

The third time I suggested I get on top – which was apparently such a novelty to him that again he came almost at once. Instead of apologizing, he beamed. Finally, out of desperation, I offered to go down on him, to empty him out a bit.  But just as he was about to come rapidly a fourth time, we heard a key in the lock. All I could remember after that is cowering naked and scared under the sheet while Will pulled on his pants and went to the front door for whispered negotiations. We had ten minutes to wipe up, make the bed and get out of there.

He was hungry. At a drive-in near the university he ordered a double cheeseburger, extra large fries and a malted. I held off, lit a cigarette and tenderly watched him put away his food. Men were really just little boys, weren’t they? But after he’d finished the last crumbs, he remarked only that we’d better be getting back to the faculty lot for my car. Was that all he had to say? I looked away through the side window, so he shouldn’t see my disappointment. He did ask for my phone number, though, and memorized it right there. He didn’t have a phone himself, he said, but he’d find a way to call. He nodded twice when he said it, for emphasis, and repeated the number out loud afterwards, to show that now he really knew it.   He also leaned over and gave me a little kiss on the lips, when we reached my car. The next morning I slipped Ed’s key into an addressed envelope and dropped it in a mailbox on the way to school.

The phone rang Wednesday evening as I was finishing dinner with my parents. It was Will. He had some free time. Could I come out with him in about ten minutes? We did some fooling around in the green Pontiac before he explained that he hadn’t been able to find a place for us to go. Would it be all right if we just had a bite and wandered around? Silly boy. Did he really think it wouldn’t be? He drove to a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard where I watched him put away half a large roast chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, a dish of cooked sliced carrots glazed with honey (he said he liked carrots very much) and two ice-cream-soda-sized glasses of chocolate milk. He spread a pat of butter on each of the two white rolls that came with the chicken and wolfed them both down for dessert. “How can you eat so much and not gain weight?” I asked. “I burn up a lot of energy,” he said. “Can’t you tell?” I guessed I was supposed to giggle at this, so I did.

We strolled out of the restaurant hand in hand and went to Pickwick’s, where we gazed at the shelves in the literature section and I talked about Proust, which I had read most of and he hadn’t, while my curled fingers slid up and down his thumb. His goodnight kiss at my front door seemed almost reverent. I felt we might be together forever.

On Thursday he sauntered into the English Department office and up to the open door of my cubicle unannounced while I was in conference with a Korean War vet from one of my sections who was seeking guidance (he said) with setting up his next semester’s courses. Will and the vet eyed each other suspiciously. It was wonderful. When the conference was over, Will and I went out into the late afternoon. I had a graduate seminar on Dryden and Pope in half-hour but didn’t mention it. We stopped to watch a football practice. The field was walled on the side near the sidewalk so that I couldn’t quite see over, even on tiptoe. Will noticed. He put down my books and lifted me so my head was level with his and we could look together. I had no idea what I was watching or what it meant, but for those few moments that his arms held me up with my feet off the ground, how could I not be happy?

He took me to a studio apartment much like Ed’s but closer to the university. “Whose place is this?” I asked. “Don’t worry,” he responded soothingly. “We can use it all afternoon.” That didn’t answer the question, but I didn’t press it. I had another problem. Now my period really was here. I told him as he was lowering the Murphy bed from the wall. He said it didn’t matter, he didn’t care.

He did care about not making a mess, though. With a thick layer of old newspaper crackling under my naked behind every time I moved, and toilet paper and my last unopened Tampax within reach on the floor next to my side of the bed, the afternoon began to seem more about keeping the bed clean than abandoning myself to the transports of love. Did I dare turn over? Was my ass covered with newsprint? Was now the time to pull the plug and let him in? I groped for the little white string with one hand; it was slippery and wet and impossible to yank. Then I wrapped a thick wad of toilet paper around it and gave mighty tugs with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands until finally out came the used and swollen tampon, hot from my body and soaked dark.

“Wait!” I cried, holding him off with elbow and knee while I wrapped the detritus of my innards in more and more toilet paper until I could see no more seepage. Predictably (and mercifully), he came fast, at which point I could push him off — lovingly, I hoped — in order to insert the last clean Tampax before there was damage to the sheets. That pretty much ended the promise of the afternoon. I wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off at the Pope and Dryden seminar.

His cleanup was thorough. Bed carefully remade and folded away. Roll of remaining toilet paper replaced in the bathroom. Stained newspaper, soiled toilet paper (with its contents), and my three cigarette butts into a garbage bag. Ashtray wiped down. And then out — holding the garbage bag, to dispose of elsewhere — after checking that nothing was left behind. As he locked the outside door, I peered at the name next to the bell. “Yates.”

“Then this is your apartment!”

“No, “ he replied. “But it used to be.” As if that were an answer. He hurried me into the car.

I thought I would see him the next day. But a teaching assistant meeting had been scheduled for two that afternoon, so I had to cut British History. Two cut classes in as many days; my life was going out of control. At the meeting, another teaching assistant who was my best friend in the Department whispered that Ed had called to ask for a date and she had said yes. As I’d broken up with him she thought it would be all right. They were going out Saturday night.

For sure he would try to get her into bed. Not because she was so gorgeous but to get even.  Would she yield? On the first date? She was still a virgin. (Unless she was lying.) But he was very skillful. Should I warn her? Maybe she wanted to be deflowered. Maybe she’d been secretly jealous of me this whole semester. We never know the real truth about anyone, do we? The Department Head was discussing the last composition unit of the fall Freshman English semester. Did he actually believe you could teach anyone to write? Afterwards I walked over to Commons with the best friend to show no hard feelings, and we had coffee with the others who’d been at the meeting and were jabbering about what the Department Head had said. I kept my eyes on the door but never saw Will come in looking for me.

I didn’t hear from him all weekend. I tried not to think about the apartment with his name next to the bell or what he might be doing when he wasn’t in school or selling Hoovers door to door, and thought instead about what Ed and the so-called best friend might be up to.

On Monday, I cornered her. “So? How was it?”

“Fine.”

“Going to see him again?”

“Don’t know yet.” She didn’t look particularly glowing or fulfilled, but maybe she was simply distracted; she had a class in five minutes. What did ‘fulfilled’ look like anyway?

Two o’clock finally arrived. There was no time to ask Will about his weekend. After the lecture, he carried my books again, though. And the sun — I would always remember the sun was still shining and we sat on a bench for a while to enjoy it. “Thank goodness next Thursday is Thanksgiving,” I began. “A four-day break. We’ll have some real time together.” He looked uncomfortable. “Well, no,” he said. “We won’t. I can’t see you then. My mother’s here.”

He’d never mentioned a mother before. Should I suggest he introduce us to each other? No, the thought should come from him.

“You won’t have to spend all that time with her, will you? Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, of course. But all four days?”

He nodded sadly.

“But Will, why? Doesn’t she understand you have a life? I mean, it’s not as if you were married!”

He took a deep breath. “Actually,” he said, “I am.”

His wife was seventeen. He’d knocked her up on the beach at Santa Monica the previous May. She’d been a virgin. Catholic, too. So how could he walk away? The wedding had been in August, before it really showed. Her family was helping them, until he got his degree. In fact he was living with them. I couldn’t process it fast enough. Seventeen? It was those cashmere sweaters, he said. All the coeds in their cashmere sweaters. After Notre Dame it drove him crazy. And she was pretty. Smart, too. She wanted to be an electrical engineer. So once he got her panties off.…

“But if you were married,” I cried, “what did you think you were doing with me?”

He looked down at the ground. After a while he said quietly, “I thought I could have a wife and mistress both.”

Mistress? What did he think this was? Some kind of Victorian novel?

“Can I still go on seeing you?” he asked.

I couldn’t give him up now, just like that. Temporize, I told myself. Play for time. Cry later.

He looked happier when I said yes.

We walked to Commons. His mother really had come for Thanksgiving. She was staying in the apartment with “Yates” on the doorbell; he’d kept it after the wedding as a place to escape to. She was also job-hunting, she might move out from the East, he was her only child. I nodded. And nodded. What could I say? He went on, suddenly a fountain of information. The new Mrs. Yates was called Mary, she’d had to give up school this year because of the baby, she was a good sport ….

Thigh by thigh we sat in the Hole. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute passed and waved. He must have known all along. I felt dirty.

“I wish we could run away to Alaska together,” Will said.

“I wish it had been you I met last May,” he said.

“I wish I were a better person,” he said.  That’s about as contrite as he got.

He called on Thanksgiving, around ten o’clock, from a phone booth on the corner near his in-laws. “I had to get out for some air,” he said. I was ready to meet him, but he had to go back.

We both got A on the History ten-week. I wondered how he’d managed, with so much going on in his life. I really had to study for mine. The week after Thanksgiving break he came to the house to pick me up. A theological student who was out of town had lent him a key to his room. It was a narrow sliver of space containing a single cot with black blanket, a metal desk piled high with religious texts, one folding chair, and a dark prie-dieu. On the disapproving walls were several crucifixes in various sizes. We sat on the austere black blanket and tried to kiss. Then we hung our clothing over the back of the single chair and did what we had come to do. It was all very sad, although Will seemed to be in good working order in spite of our situation.

Afterwards, we lay on top of the black blanket while he stroked my arm. I told him he would love the baby when it was born. It was going to be his baby, a part of him. I thought I ought to say these things to sound wise and warm, and to make him feel better, although I had no idea if they were true. He looked doubtful. “But I don’t want to be married,” he said. “The baby will make everything all right,” I murmured reassuringly, hating Little Miss Pure who couldn’t hang on to her underpants. I was dying for a cigarette. The theological student had no ashtray. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.

We went to Milani’s French Dip on Santa Monica near Highland. Plenty of ashtrays there. Our booth had a little box on it labeled “Swami Says.” For a penny, inserted in the appropriate slot, you could ask Swami any question answerable with yes or no.

“Do we have a future together?” I asked. Swami said no.

I fished another penny from my change purse. “Will we at least see each other until the baby comes?” Swami said no.

I counted out more pennies. “Will we go on being friends?” Swami said no.

“Is there anything we can do to change your mind?” Swami said no.

“All it can say is no!”

Will dropped my last penny into the slot. “Will the baby be a girl?” he asked. Swami said yes. Will smiled.

Then it unraveled. Will began to look for another job for when his classes would be over and had to hurry away after British History to go on interviews. The week before Christmas break, we went a last time to the Hole. He seemed resigned to what would be. I tried to memorize his face. “Time was out of joint for us from the beginning,” I began. “I guess,” he said. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute came by; Will invited him to sit with us. They talked about the baby coming, and the job market, and it was almost as if I weren’t there at all. At the end of the last History class, Will said he had to go. He was still wearing his navy blue sweater. I was getting fond of it, now that I would never see it again. He put his hand out half way, then took it back and gave a little wave goodbye. I nodded and turned quickly, before he did. I wasn’t going to stand there and watch him walk away from me.

He must have taken the final with a different proctor because I didn’t see him in the exam room to which I was assigned. I got an A in the course and assumed he did too. Although what difference did it make, now that he was out of school and about to become a father?

Ed soon re-insinuated himself in my life. The business with the best friend had never gotten off the ground. He forgave me my trespasses. (Although he didn’t forget them.) All was (almost) as before. Except I did hear from Will once more. He phoned from a booth in the hospital one evening in February. The baby was a girl. He was naming her Cordelia, after Lear’s third daughter, so she should always tell the truth. “I had to call,” he said, “to say you were right. As soon as I saw her, I loved her. I wanted you to know.”

The following Christmas he also sent a card without a return address, wishing me the joys of the season and enclosing a snapshot of a ten-month baby girl with dark curls clinging to the bars of a playpen. The line drawing on the front of the card showed a naked showgirl sitting in a giant champagne glass full of bubbly with her legs and arms in the air. I looked at it for a long time, trying to make it feel less hurtful. I couldn’t. At last I tucked it in a file folder discreetly marked WBY, together with my notes of our first meeting and the Thrifty Drug sales slip for spermicidal jelly and port wine from that time we’d driven to Covina.

Eventually Ed’s ex-wife found a new husband, the alimony payments slipped from his shoulders, and he proposed. He should have known better, but didn’t. I was by now nearly twenty-four, only a year from old-maidhood. Fate had already dealt me what I thought of as a tragic blow in the true love department. So it seemed best to put away lingering thoughts of William Benedict Yates and accept what was offered.

Maybe it would work out.

 

12 thoughts on “BEFORE FEMINISM

    • Thank you so much. And thank you for reading. Screenplay? Only if there’s an option first. Do you know anyone who options stories? (That’s not really a serious question. But — in the words of Fats Waller — “one never knows, do one?”)

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  1. Jean Rees

    Hi,

    I don’t remember when I first discovered your posts. I don’t even remember what that first one was about that got me hooked. But I know that ever since I signed up to receive your incredibly lovely writings, whenever I see one in my inbox, it is the first one I open, never mind if the other ones are important (news re politics, finance, bills, covid-19 guidelines etc.), I rush to the kitchen to get myself a fresh cup of coffee, so that I can sit comfortably to read what I know in advance will be an interesting, well written, usually funny, intelligent post.

    Thank you so much for the pleasure you give me.

    Jean

    PS Please forgive my not too good English, but I was brought to Greece in 1957 when I was 11 and I have lived here ever since 😊

    Like

    • Dear Jean,
      Yours is the most beautifully heart-warming comment I’ve ever received. The idea that someone in her kitchen in Greece is looking forward to reading whatever I post is more than enough to keep me writing. I looked you up. (WordPress keeps meticulous records.) You signed up to follow the blog in May 2018, not my most productive period for posting, and you therefore perhaps missed many of the good ones (meaning the posts I like best). That encourages me in a project I’ve been contemplating — collecting them (the good ones) in a book. Don’t hold your breath; I’m a slow worker. Just hope I live long enough.
      In the meanwhile, I’m the one who must thank you so much, for the pleasure your comment gave me.

      P.S. Please don’t apologize for your written English. It’s perfectly correct. (And I’m quite picky.) Did you go to an International School after you were brought to Greece at the age of 11?

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  2. Nina I thoroughly enjoy your beautifully, candid reminiscences. It takes a lot of courage to be so forth right. I now realize that I have a lot of stories of my own too, but I’m not sure I can come out with such honesty. You laid bare your soul.
    Leslie

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    • Dear Leslie,

      I’m glad you’re enjoying what I write. But, in one way, you give me too much credit. The “soul” laid bare in this story is that of a very young woman (still known as a “girl” in those days), sixty-seven years younger than I am. Those sixty-seven years have to count for something. Although I still remember (most of) what happened to her, her “soul” hasn’t been mine for a long time. So it doesn’t take much courage to write about her. She’s become my “material.”

      I hope you also perceived some of the dry humor in the writing. In my twenties, I would have seen this story as a romantic tragedy. I see it now as a quasi-romantic black comedy of societal error (on everyone’s part), leading to an almost certainly bad marriage. Probably all fiction writers pillage their own lives for what they write — as I did when I originally styled this piece “fiction” and wrote it about a “Sophie.” But it seems to me to read better as a story told by an “I.” Is that “I” still me in any way? Well, I do still enjoy reliving what happens to the teller of this tale, but I also wish I could shake her, especially as she’s so full of herself.

      Also, the title does mean something, you know.

      Do try to start writing your own stories. If you put them in the third person — about a Laura or a Lizzie or a Loretta — it won’t take as much courage as you think!

      And thank you, always, for your comments, including this one. I’m beginning to look forward to them. They’re always interesting, and sometimes not so easy to answer!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nina, what a compelling story. I went back and read the September 2014 version after I read this one. Even though I liked it written in the first person, I favored the third in the 2014 post. In the third-person point of view, you can be an outsider looking in, and you can see what’s going on in other character’s heads. Obviously, I write in the third-person omniscient viewpoint. I can let the readers know what’s in a characters head (his/her secrets) that no-one else knows. Which ever POV you write in works. Both the versions read so well, it’s a matter of choice, and a comfort zone. You have an engaging writing style– honest, humorous, and dead serious. Keep writing. I can see a short story book in the making. 📚 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christine, I’ve been writing short pieces of story/memoir since before I retired from the practice of law. Two have been published, but it was extremely difficult to place them, which is one of the reasons I began the blog — to have somewhere to park them. The long one that appeared — three years from submission! — in the Iowa Review (Spring 2014) was noticed by a New York agent, who wrote to ask if I had a novel or book he could see. I did then have about half of what could have been a full book, but although he praised the writing he thought the subject was for a niche audience, which wasn’t the market he could sell to. I then asked him about a short story collection. He replied that a book of short stories by an “unknown” author (meaning one without a prior commercial book publication) was extremely difficult to place. So now, six years after that, I am slowly putting together such a book for self publication. But very slowly. Don’t hold your breath.

      As for whether this particular story should be told in first or third person, my feeling is that in the third person it’s just chick lit, with what the protagonist believes is an unhappy ending but without any implication it’s a black comedy. In the first person, as seen from the teller’s viewpoint sixty-seven years later, it’s not the tragedy the protagonist thinks it is at the time, but more about the foolishness to which the young were led by societal expectations. Also the reader can see better, I think, how full of herself the protagonist is. The other reason I put it into the first person is because most of the pieces about my life that I would include in the self-published book are written in the first person. This one would stick out like a sore thumb if it remained about Sophie.

      But I do so much appreciate the time you put into this. Reading two versions of the same long thing. Wow!

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      • Nina, I suspected you have been writing for some time, and good to know more about your success. I thought about your comment, the story would be just chick lit in the third person. Hadn’t thought of the underlying, it’s a black comedy. From your vantage point, years later, that makes sense. Plus all your stories are in the first person. I’m glad you are thinking self-publishing. I’d buy it! I tried putting my story in the first person and changed it to the third. The protagonist is also the antagonist. She has other characters that she pays off that I needed to get into their heads for the interior monologue. What they really think of the protagonist and what she’s doing or said. The heavy historical fictions needed a balance.

        This was the first time I read a story rewritten in the third person. It was interesting to follow the I trend of thought versus the she. There were definitely sections the I tense won out, so good you changed it. Happy writing the future book. 📚Christine

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