[This long piece first appeared in five parts on The Getting Old Blog as “The Practice Boyfriend.” It ran between February 7 and February 11, 2015. 11,907 words.]
It’s a blurry photograph. It was taken with a box camera (no flash) in the late afternoon — November or early December 1947 is my best guess — probably on a Saturday, because I was still in high school then and he had a job. He’s sitting on a white cotton chenille bedspread in the small half-room that was my bedroom. It has a single window nearly covered with white criss-cross curtains to block the view of the dingy rear. Not much light at the best of times. A late winter afternoon was not one of those times. What I can tell you about him will be equally blurry. I wasn’t yet sixteen when I met him, just past seventeen the last time I saw him, and voracious for my future life to get going. I didn’t stop to ask, to remember, to value. Well, we do our best with what we’ve got.
At the end of June 1947, my father found me a part-time job at Where Magazine. The summer before, I had taken two courses at a pay-as-you-go business school in the city to learn typing and shorthand — skills then considered essential as “the way in” for young women hoping for a post-high school or college career in anything but teaching or nursing. The shorthand I never did master. My heart wasn’t in it. But I became a quite proficient typist — bringing up my speed with feverish poems by Beaudelaire, the rhythms of which made my head reel and my panties damp as I copied them, and writing passionate letters to an imaginary nineteenth-century lover in high-school French. I was fifteen and the high school where I was learning to write French so well was just for girls. I knew no boys at all.
But now, a year later, when I had only one more term of school to complete in the fall, it was time to start putting away money to help pay for college. My parents and I hadn’t yet had a discussion as to the finances involved in going anywhere other than Hunter College, where tuition was free because it was a city school and where I would be an automatic admit as a graduate of its associated high school. If I continued to live at home and commute to the city, I would also be saving money on room and board.
This option didn’t appeal to me at all. What I wanted was to leave my small room with the criss-cross curtains for a dormitory and to lead a beautifully dressed college life on a velvety green campus at Vassar, or Radcliffe, or Wellesley or Bryn Mawr — one of those elite and very expensive Seven Sister schools featured in the September issue of Mademoiselle — on which boys from Harvard, Yale and Princeton allegedly descended every weekend. What else I might be doing in this halcyon future other than parading a new wardrobe over velvety lawns I couldn’t have said, but it didn’t matter. Away-from-home was the important thing. My mother encouraged me in this; she thought I might meet a “better class” of boy on one of those lawns. Her hopes for me were always upwardly mobile. My father came up with the job at Where.
How did he find it? He probably picked up the telephone and asked whoever answered about summer jobs. He was a hotel musician, and Where Magazine was distributed free of charge in every hotel lobby in New York as “the Hotel-Greeters-Endorsed Where-To-Go Guide for Out-of-Towners in New York.” Work at a weekly magazine must have seemed to him much better suited to what he perceived as my marketable skills than the job I had already located all by myself in the Times Sunday Classifieds.
I was going to be a youthful “saleslady” in Misses’ Budget Dresses at a Fifth Avenue department store north of Altman’s and south of Saks that doesn’t exist anymore. (Russeks? Wanamakers? Ah, let it go; it doesn’t matter.) Just for the summer, of course — although I do recall letting it be understood in Personnel that I was a permanent hire. (An unspoken lie. I had no intention of quitting school at sixteen, much less for a sales career in Budget Dresses.)
My summer sales career didn’t last long. Nothing was air-conditioned in those days, except a few glittering movie palaces showing first-run films, so Misses’ Budget Dresses, which occupied an interior section of a floor and therefore had no windows, was a very hot place to work, especially under the overhead lights. Wearing stockings (rayon, with seams) was a requirement of the job, which meant also wearing a girdle, panty-girdle or garter belt — all equally uncomfortable — to hold them up. Over whichever undergarment you chose came a slip, either in cotton or new-fangled nylon, both of which stuck to sweaty thighs. (Teen-age girls didn’t wear silk slips, unless they were Gloria Vanderbilt.) And then over everything the freshly ironed dress, which looked less fresh and less ironed as the day wore on. Selling budget dresses might be a blue-collar job; we were supposed to look like ladies while doing it.
But the thing that broke me after only three days was the no-sitting rule. Eight hours on your feet, with only two five-minute bathroom breaks and a thirty-minute break for lunch in the employee coffee room! Even if all the tacky rayon dresses in ugly prints were immaculately arranged on hangers, even if there were no customer in sight, and no one was occupying either of the two chairs placed on the floor for shoppers, even if I had a blister on my heel — even then, no sitting! I came home on the hot crowded subway, sat down on a kitchen chair, kicked off my ballet slippers and cried.
Then my father came home on the hot crowded subway, listened to my tearful story, said I owed no loyalty at all to Misses Budget Dresses and it was absolutely okay to quit. Two days later, I was interviewing at Where. Noon to five (which left me mornings to practice piano). Nice neighborhood, near Carnegie Hall. No stockings, no panty-girdle. (We didn’t actually discuss this, but I could see that Cris, the friendly woman who interviewed me, was bare-legged.) No dissimulation about having to leave at the end of August. An airy office where two standing fans blew breezy relief from the heat. What more could a nearly sixteen-year-old ask of a summer job?
The federal minimum wage in 1947 was forty cents an hour. But the sealed white pay envelope Cris would hand me before I left on Fridays held more. (I seem to recall being paid for twenty-five hours a week at sixty cents an hour.) Whether this was because New York State had enacted more generous labor legislation or because my father had negotiated some sort of special summer deal for me I can’t say. My allowance during the school year — for transportation, school supplies, movies, standing-room tickets to the opera on Saturday afternoons — was five dollars a week. My weekly pay from Where, less minuscule withholding for income tax and a contribution towards my old age under the new federal Social Security program, seemed munificent in comparison. My father helped me open my own savings account the following Monday morning. I was on my way!
I more or less recall the office, a large single room off the lobby of a residential hotel between Seventh and Eighth Avenues on West 57th Street. It had its own glass door opening on 57th, and another door into the interior of the hotel. (The restrooms were in the lobby.) There were only three desks. The front one, to the left as you came in from the street, was where Cris worked. She was the managing editor. Behind her, but to the right, was the desk where she put me. And further behind her, again on the left, was the third desk — shared by a part-time typist who was only there in the morning, and two space salesmen, who were usually out selling the pages and pages of ads for plays, concerts, restaurants, shops and nightclubs which kept Where running. The last quadrant of the room, behind me, was occupied by filing cabinets. We also had a water cooler. A bare bones operation.
But that’s all I remember of the job part of the job! Where was a weekly. Much of the work, such as layouts, accounts receivable, accounts payable, messenger service, must have been contracted out. But as I didn’t then understand what it took to put out any kind of publication, even one as thin on editorial content as Where, I asked no questions and never really grasped the gestalt of it. All I recall now, apart from Cris and the two space salesmen, is an elderly bookkeeper coming in several afternoons a week to do the books. He was forty-five or fifty and all business. I remember him only because when he was there he used the third desk — which meant the two salesmen, if in the office, had to pull up a chair and use my phone for their calls.
I must have done something for eight or nine weeks. Answered the telephone. Typed addresses on envelopes for the invoices prepared by the morning typist. Folded the invoices and put them in the envelopes. Affixed three-cent stamps to the envelopes, using a wet sponge in a glass cup. Filed copies of this and that in one of the filing cabinets. I certainly did all of those things in subsequent office jobs. But I have no specific memory of any of that at Where.
What I do remember was occasionally looking up to gaze at the rear side view of Cris. She was often on the phone herself, negotiating with suppliers and gathering information for the short editorial columns of puff she wrote about Where‘s advertisers every week. Since the phone rang and the front door opened and closed so often for the postman, delivery men, and people wandering in off the street to ask directions — she must have done most of her actual writing and reading proofs after the rest of us had gone home. She lived in the building, so in a sense she was always home. And always working.
This was precisely what fascinated me. A thirty-year-old unmarried woman from the midwest, living alone in the city, working long hours at a responsible job. And not even glamorous looking, as “career girls” like Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn were in movies. She had dark blonde, very curly hair styled in that ubiquitous short “feather cut” seen everywhere on New York’s hot humid summer streets before the advent of hair relaxers and straighteners, was a trifle plump, and wore clothes only slightly more attractive than the misses’ budget dresses with which I was now so familiar. And yet here she was, a “woman in business,” as my mother would have said a trifle scornfully — surviving all alone, with aplomb and a pleasant smile. And, as far as one could tell, without a man.
Perhaps she was someone’s mistress? Twice during the time I was there, Cris’s boss Sidney, a fattish, balding man of indeterminate age and apparently considerable power and wealth (he distributed local variations of Where in the hotels of every major city in America) came to New York from Chicago to check on operations. On those two occasions, Cris left early because he was taking her out to drinks and dinner and she had to go upstairs to her hotel room to shower and change. John, one of the two salesmen, was in the office using my phone the second time this happened. I leaned over the desk towards him and whispered, “Do you think something’s going on there?” “Nah!” he said. “Not with him!”
So with whom? The other salesman? She did once observe he was cute. But he was five years younger than she was, which to my fifteen-year-old mind was an insuperable obstacle to romance. She was right, though: He was cute. Unlike John, he could even have been in a Van Johnson kind of movie, with someone like June Allyson as the love interest. Cris didn’t look like June Allyson. On the other hand, he did sometimes perch on her desk.
Although not often. During the first weeks I was there, he didn’t even show up until near the end of the workday, when he would sort out leads for the next day at the third desk. Then the summer became hotter and stickier. He began making earlier office pit stops — to eat lunch purchased from the drugstore around the corner and then to do some of his work on the phone near one of the standing fans. Which on bookkeeper afternoons brought him to my phone. He winked at me and perched on my desk.
Cute or no, he was nine years older than I was. A grownup. I was pleased to be treated as a colleague, but I knew perching on my desk instead of pulling up a chair had nothing to do with me personally. He was just a friendly person. I would go to the bathroom in the hotel lobby, which took some time, and then find some filing to do till he was done.
His name was Perry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My photograph in the 1948 facebook 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 (I 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?