THE PRACTICE BOYFRIEND: A MEMOIR (PART THREE OF FIVE)

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[Continued from previous two posts]

Perry was quite a feather in my cap in the Hunter High basement locker room where most of us consumed our brown bag lunches between twelve and one.  Not many in that all-girl school had an official boyfriend, although one or two might go to dances and movies with a boy — usually the same boy — she had met at church or temple, or who was the friend of an older brother. Now here I was “French kissing” a man!  “Aren’t you afraid he’ll want to go all the way?” asked Jeannette as we threw our debris in the basement trash can.  “All the way” — that kiss of death to marriage prospects!  Was there a middle-class mother in 1940’s New York who didn’t teach her daughters, “No man wants used goods?”

I wasn’t afraid. In fact, I hadn’t thought of it. I trusted Perry to do me no harm.  What I was thinking was that despite the prestige of it, he wasn’t really my boyfriend, not in the sense of our now being able to go double-dating with Hellen and her brother’s buddy or Arlene and a freckled counselor she’d met at summer camp. Hellen and Arlene understood that, too.  They never suggested it.

I was certainly “going out” with him, though.  By the middle or end of October, it was every Saturday. But what did we actually do?  There were no more ball games or meals in restaurants with tablecloths that I recall. My mother was then in the throes of early menopausal gloom but he must have charmed her, because she liked him.  So we probably had supper at home a few times, at her insistence, events for which she put on makeup and smiled.  There were many more movies, and much talking in drugstore booths before and after the movies. We may have gone to a Broadway play, sitting high in the second balcony where seats were $1.20, probably because I liked theater and he wanted to please me.

Once he took me to a dance somewhere and the next week brought over a portable victrola and some records, to which we did slow dancing in the foyer of the apartment while my mother made herself scarce in the bedroom. It was the year of “I’d like to get you/ On a slow boat to China/ All to myself/ Alone….” These were still the old 45 records, three minutes of music and then a break in togetherness while he lifted the needle from the center and set it back at the outside rim before turning to put his arms around me again. Sometimes we danced to music on the radio and would kiss during the commercials. He was usually gone by the time my father came home after playing the late dinner shift at the Biltmore, although once or twice they may have exchanged greetings at the door.  My tired father never commented on the frequency of his presence.  I was a high school girl.

We also sat in the front seat of his car a lot.  It was a used prewar sedan.  Not a Ford, Chevy or Plymouth: I would have recognized one of those. (When I was younger, my father and I had made a Sunday game of naming makes of autos by their noses.) Maybe a Studebaker or a Hudson? The dark upholstery was wool. The kissing was lengthy and intensive. And then one evening as our tongues explored the inside of each other’s mouths, his hand moved.  That late in the year, I would have been wearing a jacket or coat, the top button of which he would have had to open to slide his hand over my sweater to my breast. Exactly how the hand made its way inside I cannot say. But what I will remember, probably forever, is that instead of  yielding to the pleasure of his fingers on my covered nipple, an alarm went off in my head. I had read a lot of popular novels from the corner lending library by then. They were instructive: After a man has opened buttons or fondled a breast, the chapter ends and the next chapter begins with a deflowered and pregnant heroine.  I was at the top of a slippery slope. A point of no return. If I didn’t stop us, we were headed “all the way.”

I removed the hand. Whatever I whispered apologetically  — “I can’t do that, I just can’t” — he was upset. I could see it in his face. I felt so bad.  But what could I do? Throw my life away? Then he pulled himself together, said he understood, and kissed me gently once more to show he wasn’t angry. Upstairs, he promised to think of what we should do next week, and never tried to unbutton buttons again.

The first snow fell early in December. After it had cleared, he came over in the afternoon with his camera slung around his neck. We threw snowballs at each other for a while, he took some pictures, and let me take a picture of him.  Then we went inside to warm up. While my mother made hot cocoa, he sat on my bed — where I snapped one more on my own box camera, so I should have it in case he forgot to make extra prints of the ones on his.  He looks pensive in my blurry picture.  He didn’t usually look that way, and I wonder now what he was thinking as he sat in a sixteen-year-old’s room.  I didn’t ask.

In fact, I didn’t ask many questions at all.  By then I knew he still lived at home on Mosholu Parkway and had gone to NYU for two years before being drafted.  He’d meant to major in history.  I also knew he’d served much of his three years of war as an infantryman during the long hard Allied slog through Italy.  I did want to know what it had been like for him to fight, half-afraid of what I’d hear. “Was it very bad?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. Then he added there was a book about it by a guy who’d been in Italy when he was. All Thy Conquests, by Alfred Hayes.  He thought it was a good book; it pretty much told how it was.  To me that meant he and Hayes had been in the same patrols together, so that he was friends with an author.  He hadn’t said that, though. What he meant was that I could get the book out of the library if I were interested, but he didn’t want to talk about it, at least not with me. So I never did learn if he’d been at Salerno or Anzio or Monte Cassino, or if men he’d known and fought beside had died, and how he’d dealt with that. Towards the end of the war, they’d transferred him to the German front and made him a corporal. Not sergeant? “I wasn’t particularly brave,” he said.

The other question I asked was why he hadn’t gone back to college after the war.  Everyone knew the government was paying tuition for veterans under the GI Bill. He could have done his last two years for free.  He shook his head: He was too old.  There was a time for college, he explained, and that was past for him; now he had to get on with his life. Genetically coded to value education, I felt instinctively, even then, he was making a mistake.  But I kept this judgment to myself; sixteen didn’t tell twenty-five what to do.

Still, was selling space in Where getting on with his life?  On the answer to that one we agreed. He’d been there only half a year before I came, and had learned very soon it was a job going nowhere, although he was picking up decent money and good sales experience. However, Christmas was a bad time to make a move.  He’d wait for the New Year to see what else was out there.

So what did we talk about during all those hours together in the drugstore booth and in the car?  I would have told him about the colleges I was applying to and about needing a full scholarship if I didn’t go to Hunter, and about sitting for the SAT, then so new he wouldn’t have heard of it.  Later I would have reported on my interviews at the Radcliffe Club and the Vassar Club.  These were teas given by alumnae rather than proper college interviews, held in a large room rented at the Barbizon Hotel for  Ladies so that applicants living in New York City shouldn’t have to make special trips to Cambridge or Poughkeepsie.

I was inexperienced with standing gracefully in the middle of a floor on Cuban heels, pocketbook dangling from one arm, while balancing teacup, saucer, crumpet and napkin — and was sure the ladies with icy smiles who eventually reached me for a few moments of chat had sized me up at once as ill-bred and uncharismatic, irrespective of my grades. When Perry heard about my distress at these fiascos, he would have been reassuring, confident it would all work out. What he was really feeling as he heard of my strenuous efforts to leave home and the city next year he never said.

He must have mentioned me at work. Cris told him to say hello.  “How is she?’ I asked.  He shrugged. He’d never seen her room upstairs, so I described it. What kind of life was that? What would become of her?  He said I shouldn’t worry about Cris.  She was a big girl and knew what she was doing. She had a journalism degree from somewhere and New York experience, and if she looked she could find another job, one with more future. “But if she left Where, she’d lose that deep discount on the room,” I exclaimed.

“So she’d live in another borough and commute,” he said.  “It wouldn’t be the end of the world. Or,” he added, “how about if she went home to Kansas and started over? She’s got family there, people who love her. If she’s still here, treading water and having dinner with Sidney once a month, that’s her choice.”  It was the only time I ever heard him sound so hard.

On Christmas Eve, he took me to a small party at the Bronx apartment of an old friend, now married and with a baby coming soon.  “So this is Nina!” exclaimed the host.  “We’re so glad to meet you at last!”   There was a Christmas tree with ornaments, and wrapped packages underneath, arranged on fake white snow. The pregnant hostess snapped our picture sitting side by side on the fake snow and grinning.  I wore a short-sleeved white angora sweater; Perry had his arm around me. The new couple. Then we all had turkey and stuffing and opened presents.

Mine was a large white silk square, hand-rolled and decorated with scenes of ladies in pastel-colored nineteenth-century costumes. He’d bought it on leave in Switzerland during the war to save for someone special. Who was me.  At least, that’s what he said in front of his friends.  In the car, he admitted he’d actually bought it for a girl back home, but then she sent him a Dear John letter. “That must have hurt,” I said, feeling somewhat let down myself.  “Well, yes,” he said. “But I’m glad how it turned out. Because now I can give it to you.”

All the same, we weren’t really a new couple for purposes of grown-up social life, just as he wasn’t quite a boyfriend with whom I could double-date. He went to a New Year’s Eve party without me. I hadn’t ever gone out on New Year’s Eve, didn’t expect to go out on this one, and didn’t even know about his party ahead of time.   I was sitting in the living-room in a bathrobe with my mother, listening to Lawrence Welk ring in 1948 on the radio, when he called.  There were loud festivities in the background; we both had to raise our voices to hear each other. He was laughing. “I’ve drunk too much,” he said.  He was there with someone named Jeanie.  He’d known her for years. She was his age. But he wished it had been me at the party, so he could kiss me when the clock struck midnight. Next best thing: he was kissing me now, over the telephone. He just knew we were both going to have a wonderful year. And I should go to bed quickly and have sweet dreams.

He’d never before mentioned this twenty-five-year-old Jeanie who’d known him for years. Should I be jealous? My mother, born at the cusp of the century and steeped in romantic notions of another time, smiled knowingly.  “He’s just sleeping with her,” she observed. “He’s in love with you.” She looked pleased. I no longer believed her in all things, but here I did.  Jeanie as “used goods.”  Serviceable but not marriageable. I could go on having sweet dreams.

5.

But was I in love with him?  Did I ever write, “Mrs. Perry L.” or “Nina L.” on a spare page in one of my loose-leaf notebooks, as I had done at thirteen with Leonard Bernstein? Perhaps. But being Mrs. anybody was too far away. I had to finish school first. In January, there were tough final exams to study for: English, History, Chemistry (I’d blown up the laboratory during the first half of the year-long course while daydreaming) and Advanced French, where I was taking both semesters simultaneously because I had room in my schedule and an ongoing crush on Mlle. Rothschild, the French teacher, who sat on her desk with her legs crossed. She was another thirty-year-old bachelorette like Cris, but also very unlike in being bilingual, spending every summer in France, and getting herself engaged, just before our graduation, to the head of the Lycee Francaise in New York.

Commencement was a low-key affair, during the week. In a few days most of us were going on to Hunter College, just around the corner on 68th Street and Park. My mother pulled herself together to come. However, my father wasn’t there, and neither was Perry; he had offered but I told him not to. It was no big deal; we weren’t even getting our diplomas that day because they hadn’t come back from the engraver in time. We all stood and raised our voices in one of the most unmelodious school songs ever written: “Sing to Our School, Forever May She Stand, Sheh-eh-el-ter-ing Those Who Serve and Guide Her Well.” Then there was a short speech by the principal, followed by the announcement of awards.

Here my heart sank. The explosion in the Chemistry lab the previous spring had knocked me down to second: I was Salutatarian, nosed out for Valedictorian by a tall raw-boned girl named Ann Mc D. who had chosen German instead of French as her foreign language, thereby suggesting a certain sympathy for the now defunct Third Reich. (She also had badly cracked lips, a matter of interest to no one but me.)  I did amass an impressive number of English and French Department prizes, though: books with shiny commemorative seals that my mother and I lugged home on the bus and subway after the ceremony was over.

[To be continued…]

THE PRACTICE BOYFRIEND: A MEMOIR (PART TWO OF FIVE)

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[Continued from previous post]

3.

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.

4.

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.

But 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.

[To be continued….]