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

Standard

 [Continued from previous four posts.]

7.

My photograph in the 1948 face book for the entering class at Sarah Lawrence College looks not only very young and thin but also uncertain. The camera didn’t lie. I was finding it hard to strike up conversations. The members of my class who impressed me most, and whom I most wanted to know, all seemed golden girls. They were blonde and tan, smoked cigarettes with their coffee, and talked about parties at which they’d got really plastered.

They had also gone to private day schools or else to boarding schools with famous names, where they had learned to play not only tennis and golf, neither of which I’d had the opportunity to attempt, but also field hockey, of which I had never heard. They all seemed either to know each other or know each other’s friends, and already had invitations to football weekends at Harvard and Yale and Princeton. Some were talking about their coming-out parties. How could I ever have thought I would fit in?

I also found myself enrolled in classes where the skills which had worked so well for me in high school seemed inapplicable. Sarah Lawrence was not a place where one took copious notes, memorized them and then regurgitated on examinations what one had just ingested, at all of which I excelled. Instead, within a couple of days my professor of Exploratory Literature – who’d let me into his highly popular class because my reading Le Rouge et le Noir in the original had impressed him — asked us to write a paper explaining why the heroine of David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox had turned into a fox shortly after her marriage, a question never answered in so many words on any of its pages. In American History, the assignment was to write a critical review of a well respected standard text. In Creative Writing, I was supposed to describe something using only one of my senses. I wasn’t sure how well I would do with this odd kind of education. But if I didn’t live up to expectations, what about my scholarship?

I’d been struggling with these matters for about two weeks when Perry telephoned. My mother had given him the dormitory number. He was so sorry he hadn’t been able to get back before I left. He’d wanted to give me a proper send-off and help me move in. But he would be in the city for at least a while now — he was going to be involved in training new sales personnel — and how about if he drove up on Saturday?  We could have dinner and take in a movie.

I’d already discovered the campus virtually emptied out on weekends and had been dreading being alone in a nearly deserted dorm.  So I was briefly happy he called.  He was familiar and warm.  I could tell him everything that was happening, and he would sympathize, and maybe even know what to do about the snobby girls I couldn’t get to know and the peculiarly difficult homework I worried about. He was older and had more life experience and was good with people and cared about me.

But then I remembered the horrid plaid melamine plates that so excited him and had taken him away without apology on those long road trips. I also wondered if I was supposed to confess about all the kisses with the boy from the University of Chicago, who was now sending me increasingly heated letters for which I searched my mailbox every day.  By the time the front desk called on Saturday evening to announce my guest had arrived, I felt nervous and duplicitous and also annoyed that I should have to feel this way, with the result that I began to wish the evening weren’t happening at all.

I couldn’t conceal my lack of enthusiasm at the news that his plastic dinnerware company was rapidly expanding and he might perhaps be made an assistant marketing manager by the end of the year. For his part, he must not have understood how I felt about the golden girls and Lady into Fox, because all he said was he was sure there were plenty of other nice girls at the college with whom I could be friends, and if I did the best I could with my schoolwork, he knew that would be just fine.

After dinner, we saw Arc of Triumph, with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. I couldn’t concentrate on the story. It seemed so long since we’d been together. He looked incongruous on campus, too. He didn’t belong there. Now in the movie theater it was as if a stranger were taking my hand in the dark.  He must have sensed my discomfort, because he soon moved his own hand away to reach for his handkerchief and then never put it back on mine. I clasped my own two cold hands together in my lap and felt sorry for myself, but still worried all the way through the movie that I would have to really kiss him when he took me back to my dorm.

He was wiser than I gave him credit for. He touched me gently on the cheek and blew me an air kiss. He also told me to enjoy every minute of college. I watched him drive away and wanted to cry.  But I was too young to realize, until several months went by without hearing from him again, that he had been saying goodbye.

Eighteen months later, there was another final goodbye. It was the late spring of 1950 and I was by then deeply enmeshed in major sturm und drang both by letter and in person with the boy from Chicago, who like any other normal nineteen-year-old boy was demanding I prove my love by “going all the way.”  It was at this point a letter arrived from Perry.  It had no return address, so I didn’t know who’d sent it until it was open.  I had never seen his handwriting before.  “My Nina,” he began. “I dreamed about you last night.”  It was a very short letter. Nothing about where he was or what he was doing. He said he would always remember me, and hoped I was happy, and wished me a wonderful life.

8.

That was nearly sixty-five years ago. The life I went on to live would probably not qualify as “wonderful.” Poor romantic choices, emotional tumult, dysfunctional marriages. But also much higher education, considerable professional accomplishment, two children to be proud of, and a reasonably safe and quiet harbor near the end.  Along the way I’ve sometimes looked back to reflect.  But never about Perry: For too long it was as if he’d never been. Until a few months ago, when the man I live with — who also looks back to reflect — asked if the boyfriend from Chicago was the first. “Not exactly,” I said. “There was a practice boyfriend before him.”  A practice boyfriend? Someone about whom the man I live with had never heard? “Nothing happened,” I said. “There’s not much to tell.”

And this was true. I knew nothing, or remembered nothing, about his family, or boyhood, or politics (although there I could guess), not much about his friends, interests, hopes, dreams. I never heard more about Jeanie, or the girl who wrote the “Dear John” letter. I had no idea what he did in the evenings when he wasn’t with me, which was most evenings. Did he read, do crossword puzzles, listen to music, other than dance music? Did he ever play tennis or golf? Could he swim? I didn’t even know his phone number, although I suppose I could have got it from Information if necessary.

But there was one thing I did know, although I didn’t know I still knew it. The night the man I live with asked his question, I too had a dream. One of those dreams so real you think it is.  I saw a mouth. Very near to mine.  I woke with a start. Whose mouth, whose? I ransacked my small inventory of well-known mouths. (Husbands, lovers.) The one in the dream was none of those. It was Perry’s. Still warm and alive inside of me.

And then I was frantic to bring him back. Packrat that I am, I couldn’t find the letter to “My Nina.” Or the photo of us as a couple on fake snow. I’d given away the Swiss silk scarf to the Vietnam Viets.  But I did still have the two photos taken in early December 1947 while I was in high school and he was at Where. And now I had Google, and Yahoo and Bing.

That’s how I learned he was born on May 2, 1922 (I’d forgotten the day) and died April 9, 2008, one month short of turning 86. According to “Radaris,” a search engine of scary thoroughness, his most recent address was 330 West 46 St., NY 10017. It’s between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. Not the greatest place in Manhattan to live. Google shows it as a brownstone converted to apartments above a street-level fruit and vegetable store. I’ll bet it’s a walk-up. My guess is he died a widower or divorced; I don’t think old married people live on West 46th. “Radaris” also reports his background as Austrian-German-Swiss (didn’t know that, either) and that he was a high-school grad. (He got no credit for the two years at NYU.) His profession? “Food preparation & serving-related occupations.” (Is that where melamine led?) I found his last telephone number too, but in the privacy interests of whoever has that number now, I’ll omit it from this report. He was related to an Amy Rose L.

The United States 1940 census is also now online. There I found the L. family living on Mosholu Parkway North, Bronx, NY. The Head of Household: Irving L., age 45. Wife: Beatrice L., age 41. Son: Perry L., age 17. Son: Warren L., age 13. (I never knew, or else forgot, that Perry had a kid brother just barely young enough to escape the draft, who was probably finishing college in ‘47 or ‘48.)

There’s a Warren L., age 87 or 88, now living in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Amy Rose L., age 63, lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, quite near the waterfront. It’s where Frank Sinatra came from.

What should I do with this free information? Contact Warren L., the 88 year-old kid brother in Deerfield Beach, and ask about Perry, now seven years dead? Get in touch with 63-year old Amy Rose L., who lives in New Jersey just like me and is probably his daughter? What good would it do to identify myself as her mother’s predecessor and ask nosy parker questions about her dad? Or should I dig up even more by paying “Radaris” $19.95 for a trial period background check, which will produce for me all the publicly available records in the United States concerning Perry L.  Is learning the name of his wife worth $19.95?

Those are rhetorical questions. I already know the answers. I’ve also concluded that my dear departed mother who was wrong about so much, and maybe also wrong that Perry was sleeping with Jeanie, was right about one thing: that for a time he really did love me. If Amy Rose, age 63, is his daughter, he would have had to marry her mother in 1950. (Unless she were a shotgun baby, which I very much doubt.) If so, he dreamed about “his” Nina and wrote he would always remember me shortly before the wedding.

Little as I ever knew about him, I do know Perry was one of the kindest men in my life. He’d survived bloody carnage in Europe – and make no mistake: he was cannon fodder, nothing more – yet managed to keep his balance. He was steadfastly there for all the time I needed him, and on my foolish terms. (Which can’t have pleased him). He had fortitude. (“It’s not the end of the world.”) He also kept his own counsel. I sometimes wonder where he thought we were going, or whether he thought about it at all.

If I try to replay the cards in my mind, try to make it come out differently, I still can’t make it work.  Suppose I did have to go to Hunter, living in my room at home and commuting to a college for women a block away from the high school I’d been attending when I met him. And suppose he was promoted to assistant marketing manager, and then marketing manager, so that he finally earned enough to think of marriage. Would I have been happy as the wife of a very nice beer-drinking man who earned his living selling tableware I wouldn’t put on my own table and liked bowling, the Giants and fishing vacations? I know the answer to that one too. We met while neither of us knew what lay ahead. But we were programmed to take off in different directions. And then we did.

I also ask why he was even bothering with a sixteen-year-old bookish schoolgirl nine years younger than he was, whose head was full of daydreams and who knew nothing of the world. My best guess: because of the war. He’d lost three years of his youth while trudging through foreign mud with a heavy pack under enemy fire, and for six or seven months he got it back with me.

And so when I think of him now, it’s not as my practice boyfriend. He’ll be always the young man with whom I threw snowballs – knowing that when we got too cold we’d go in to hot cocoa, and then supper, and then close dancing in the foyer to the sound of Glenn Miller and Harry James, our bodies entwined and mouths connected forever.

What could be better than that?

IMG_1235

Advertisements

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

Standard

[Continued from previous three posts.]

Some colleges did rolling admissions in those days. When I went back to Hunter to pick up my diploma the week after commencement, the excitement in the administrative office was palpable. Ann Mc D. of the cracked lips had been accepted at Radcliffe! The next day, my letter from Radcliffe came too. I’d been wait-listed. Back then we didn’t yet know about the unacknowledged quotas for Jewish students at most Ivy League schools. All I could think, bitterly, was that Ann Mc D. — with a grade point average only 1/100th of one percent higher than mine and no extra-curricular activities at all — had just been better at balancing teacups and crumpets than I was.

“It isn’t the end of the world,” said Perry. (Was it his favorite expression?) “Maybe someone won’t accept her offer and they’ll give her place to you.” Fat chance. He just didn’t understand. Who would turn down a place at Radcliffe? (Certainly not Ann Mc D.)  “We wouldn’t have had the money, anyway,” said my mother. “Even if they’d taken you.” First she’d encouraged me to apply. Now she was throwing cold water on everything. “Why are you just sitting around?” she demanded. “If you’re not going to Hunter this semester, get yourself a job!”

In all fairness, I hadn’t been “sitting around” for long. We were only two weeks into February. And it’s not that I didn’t want to work while I waited. But John’s wife’s friend was still sitting on my old job at Where. My father came to the rescue again. In order to stay current with new Hit Parade songs, he sometimes bought sheet music from a Rockefeller Center music publisher. The publisher’s office manager volunteered to help me out. Several girls in her typing pool were getting married that spring and taking time off for honeymoons. She also needed extra help to cover the first part of the summer, when people were on vacation. Full time until the end of July, and more than minimum wage. Done.

It was so boring. They gave me an empty office to myself, in honor of my college aspirations. The other typists, who had come there straight from high school commercial courses, sat out in the open, off the corridor that led to the drawers full of addressograph plates in the back. I did meet them up close in the bathroom, where they congregated to smoke and to discuss saving for weddings and where to go for the glorious two weeks afterwards. They were only two and three years older than I was, but I had nothing to contribute to these bathroom conversations except a nod and a smile when shown photographs of bridesmaid dresses under consideration – all in what my mother would have contemptuously called “Italianische taste.”  I was lonely, and hoped Vassar would want me, and again tried writing “Mrs. Nina L.” a few times on the back on envelopes I’d ruined and had to toss.

The one good thing about the job, other than the weekly paycheck, was that it put me just eight and a half blocks away from Where. I never did drop by to see Cris, but Perry and I often met for lunch at the 57th Street Automat, and that got me through the dreary weeks. Once or twice he was near Rockefeller Center at lunchtime and stopped by the office to collect me. Did that ever raise my status in the ladies room! He was so handsome! How long had we been going together? Were we engaged yet?  “He thinks I’m still too young to make it official,” I told the others.  Well, it was probably true. My mother had said he loved me. We just hadn’t talked about it.

At the beginning of April, Barnard wait-listed me. The next day Vassar accepted me. But no scholarship. The Vassar Admissions Office wrote to my father that if he could manage the first year’s tuition, which was $1200, and if I made good grades — they would “see what they could do” after that.  Hardly a commitment. As usual with unpleasant tidings, my mother was the conveyor of this bad news. “Daddy has just enough in the bank,” she said. “But it will wipe out all his savings. And what will you do if they don’t give you a scholarship after that? You’ll be back at Hunter anyway!” The unspoken message: his sacrifice would have been in vain. This from my own mother, who had so encouraged my ambitions to move up and away in the fall!

On the Saturday following this maternal communique, I walked fast back and forth, back and forth, between Kew Gardens and Forest Hills muttering to myself it wasn’t fair. I was so good at school! (Sometimes I thought it was the only thing I was good at.) Why did I have to be poor? Why couldn’t I have had parents who could pay for four years at a really good college without thinking twice? I deserved it at least as much as Ann Mc D. or my friend Hellen, daughter of New York’s Pickle King, who was going to Wellesley. Not fair, not fair, not fair. I could hardly wait to hurl myself into Perry’s car that evening and tell him. He was my only real friend. He would make me feel better. He would understand how I felt.

He listened. He put his arm around me. He reminded me there was one more college not yet heard from. I could put off deciding whether or not to risk the year at Vassar until I’d heard from this fourth place. Then, after hugging me and telling me he’d feel the same about me no matter which college I went to, he announced he had wonderful news. He’d found another opportunity. One that offered a real future. He snapped on the overhead and pulled a loose-leaf binder from the back seat to show me.

The binder contained photographs in full color of plastic tableware: plates and cups and saucers and bowls and platters made of a new substance called melamine. They wouldn’t chip or break, and what’s more, you could give them any look the market demanded. The page he showed me with particular enthusiasm displayed a dinner plate of orange and yellow plaid cloth forever sealed from harm by melamine. And there was a whole set of this design horror the manufacturer assured Perry was going to sell like hotcakes! He hadn’t told me, but he’d spent three months looking and looking, until he unearthed this new manufacturing company. He was getting in on the ground floor, too. There was no telling how big melamine was going to be, and he was going with it! He’d handed in his two-week notice at Where. After that there’d be a one-week sales training period and he’d be off on his own.

I didn’t take it in all at once. We ate on plain white plates at home. It wasn’t real bone china, we couldn’t afford that, but the white looked good under food. I tried to picture a slice of roast beef and a baked potato with peas on Perry’s plaid plate. It would be like eating off a glazed tablecloth, except we didn’t have such ugly tablecloths. Was this what the market demanded? What market? Was he sure?

He became more excited at he explained. They were giving him a fairly short route at first, just New England, till he had some experience under his belt. He’d be selling to buying offices and restaurant supply firms and department store buyers now – a different kind of customer than the New York City nightclub and theater managers with whom he’d dealt before. So he needed to get the feel of it. But yes, he was sure he’d be good at it. They’d also promised that after New England, he could help open up all the rest of the country. And the commission structure was terrific!

He was going to stay a salesman. Just a salesman. And of this horrible stuff. Although I hadn’t ever stopped to think it through, I’d always assumed his job at Where was just a stepping stone towards some other future, a horsing-around period before he began his real life. Now I saw his other future was going to be peddling plates. He must have thought the disappointment on my face was because he’d be on the road. We were still going to see each other, he said. He’d be home through April, and after that he’d be back at least every other week. Maybe more often. I shouldn’t be upset.

Two days later Sarah Lawrence College declared itself happy to offer me a place in their September 1948 entering class. The tuition for the ’48-’49 year would be $1750. The college offered a scholarship of $1400. The week after that, the New York Times printed the hundreds of names of the state Regents scholarship winners. I came in tenth in Queens, the highest-ranking girl in the borough. That added $300 a year to the $1400 from the college. My father would have to pay only $50. It was news that changed everything.

6.

Suddenly everyone was happy again. Menopause or no, my mother brightened up. His savings now safe in their bank, my father untypically brought home a bouquet of flowers just for me. Perry took me out to another checkered tablecloth dinner by candlelight and didn’t spoil it by singing the praises of melamine. Even the job at the music publisher became less dreary, because now I could begin planning a future life while my fingers automatically typed cover letters. I was going to lose ten pounds and teach myself to drink coffee so I could participate in the after-lunch coffee-drinking I had noticed in the Sarah Lawrence dining room when my mother and I had gone up to Bronxville two months earlier for my interview. Then I would invest some of my earnings, no longer needed for tuition, in a new college wardrobe. And I would keep my French skills intact by reading only in French until the summer was over; it would prevent evenings at home with my mother from being so dull. Besides, good French was bound to come in handy in that future life.

Before I realized it, Perry was on the road in New England. We saw each other less. Twice in May. Twice in June. At first I very much missed him. Despite the expense of long-distance telephoning, he did call several times from motel rooms. Business was great, he missed me too. He couldn’t wait to get back again. But it wasn’t the same as being with him. I had to pretend to be happy to hear his sales numbers when I’d been secretly hoping this on-the-road experience with melamine would disillusion him and the motes would fall from his eyes. And how could I tell him that although I didn’t know all the words in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, I could pretty much grasp what was going on?  I knew he wasn’t paying long-distance rates to learn that. The four times he was home during those two months, our long deep kissing in the car began to make me uneasy, even though I still enjoyed doing it. Didn’t he sense his new job and my new future were pulling us apart?

Whatever he sensed, they transferred him out of New England and he went. In June and July he did month-long circuits of California and Arizona. He went by train, rented cars, and reported the driving was hot but the selling terrific. He sent roses from Phoenix for my seventeenth birthday. I missed him less the longer he was gone. After Le Rouge et le Noir  I began the other Stendhal biggie: La Chartreuse de Parme. He didn’t get back until after my Rockefeller Center job was over. We went bowling. I was awful at it.

By the beginning of August, I had lost ten pounds and knew how to drink coffee. (With skim milk and saccharine.) It was time to go shopping for clothes. I didn’t even have to spend my own savings. After careful perusal of the 1948 college issue of Mademoiselle, my mother used the money she’d managed to hold back from her housekeeping allowance over several years to take me to Jay Thorpe, where we chose a tweed suit for football weekends, a violet wool off-the-shoulder dress for parties, a two-piece cocktail suit in dark blue-green taffeta and a brown lace dance dress. What football games, parties, cocktails or dances? Neither of us knew. But Mademoiselle strongly recommended acquiring these items for the year ahead. We then proceeded to Henri Bendel, where she also bought a forest green pinwale corduroy outfit with a full mid-calf skirt that showed off my twenty-eight inch waist, and a pretty paisley blouse to go with it. I’d never been in either store before. I’d never owned clothes like these before. I’d never looked so beautiful to myself before.

Perry had a couple of weeks off. It was his summer vacation, the first in two years. (He hadn’t been at Where long enough the year before to have earned one.) He was apologetic. He and three buddies from high school had been planning this fishing trip to Canada since last fall and he’d specially negotiated the time away before he signed up with the melamine company. What could I say? I knew he deserved a break. I knew we couldn’t go away anywhere together. I knew I couldn’t ask him to stay in the sweltering city and spend his two weeks with me. (And if he had, what would we do?) “I’ll save the biggest fish for you,” he promised. He had such an engaging smile.

Martha S. called me. She was a high-school friend who’d  begun at Vassar last September and was now a rising sophomore. Did I want to go square-dancing in Central Park on Saturday? Pepsi-Cola was sponsoring it.  She had three boys and one other girl rounded up; if I came along, they’d be six. I said yes without thinking twice. Then I remembered Perry and checked with my mother.

“Why not?” she said. “You’re not married to him. You’re not engaged. You haven’t made any promises. You had a good time. He had a good time. He’s off doing something else this summer. Time for you to go do something else too.” She didn’t actually use the word “practice.” But I knew what she meant. Perry had been just for practice. Now I was ready for the real thing.

One of the three boys was tall, dark and in his second year of the Great Books program at the University of Chicago. He was nine months older than I was. After the square-dancing, we all went off to the swings in the park, where he stood straddling my swing from behind as I sat and pumped us up very high. The back of my head touched his groin each time we swung forward. We both felt it, neither of us mentioned it. After the swinging, he taught me to Charleston under a park light. The other four watched. And at midnight, he walked me all the way down Fifth Avenue to my subway at 53rd Street. The following evening, we went to a play in the Village; two of the others came too. Then we went to the beach at Belle Harbor alone; no one else came because he hadn’t asked them. A week later, I shared with him the kissing skills I had acquired from Perry, which he seemed to appreciate. I also thrust my new college address on him when we parted for the beginning of the school year. Perry was still in Canada fishing.

[To be concluded in next post.]

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

Standard

[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…]

THOSE WERE THE DAYS

Standard
[A story.]

 I’m quite certain Paul came with me to Andre de Renski’s housewarming party in October 1960 because back then I never went anywhere, except to work, without Paul. Although I have no specific recollection of whether or not he gave me a hard time about putting on his grey flannel suit (which I had bought for him back in our honeymoon days) in order to attend this event, he would have eventually agreed to come – preliminary objections or no — so as not to jeopardize my paycheck, which was, in a manner of speaking, our paycheck.

I do remember that it was Frauke, Andre’s nineteen-year-old German secretary and showroom receptionist, who came to the penthouse door to greet us when we stepped out of the elevator. She was looking delectable in an emerald green taffeta cocktail dress and high heels; the dress swished as she clicked her way across the polished wood parquet floor. She apparently had gone home to change after work; in the showroom, she always wore a slim skirt and cashmere sweater, with a string of pearls.

As we entered the living room, I introduced her to Paul; she then introduced us to her escort, who was sitting in a yellow brocade wing chair. A polite, neatly combed man in a dark suit. His name was Matthew Holmes (as he reminded me when we met again sometime afterwards). I found out later Frauke had already been living with him for at least a couple of months, although they were not officially a couple and gave no indication that his accompanying her to Andre’s party was anything other than a social accommodation. I probably offered him a civil smile. Then Andre hurried over and swept us away.

Andre was a new client of Pagel & Cohen, the ad agency where I had recently been hired to write copy. He had come from Paris in August to introduce a French silver company to the American market. Why he had invited me and Stan Epstein, the art director who was designing his advertising program, to his housewarming was not clear. Stan thought it might be only an outburst of youthful good spirits. However, Norm Pagel and Herb Cohen, who ran their eponymous agency together, decided it made good business sense for us go.

So there I was in my one really good dress, a black cashmere knit bought at a small intimidating shop on Madison Avenue during the previous post-Christmas sale. When I was well girdled, as now, it was very becoming; I felt chic and ready for anything. Unfortunately, Paul and I spent the whole evening talking to Stan. The other guests were all French businessmen and two Frenchwomen who did something for Vogue, a seemingly self-contained francophone group I didn’t feel sufficiently secure in spoken French to approach.

We left early. Paul and I hadn’t been getting along for some time, and I ‘d been looking forward to this Friday evening housewarming as a way to delay the onset of the weekend’s bickering. But there was just so much Stan and I could say to each other that we hadn’t already said in the office, and Paul wasn’t helping. As we stepped into the elevator, Andre rushed over again, this time clutching a bottle of Pommard, which he thrust into my hand. He said he was tellement desole, so very sorry, that we were leaving before we’d had a chance to chat, and that he wanted us to have something to enjoy over the weekend. He may not have meant both of us; the word you is singular as well as plural in English. He gave me what could have been a deeply sorrowful look. Although French, he had Slavic eyes. I didn’t thrust the bottle back, a serious mistake. The invitation to the housewarming had already sent up Paul’s antenna. We argued about what the Pommard meant, or didn’t mean, all the way home on the crosstown bus.

The Pommard may have meant what Paul suspected. During a meeting with Herb, Norm and Stan the following week, Andre pulled me to one side of the conference room on the pretext of showing me some ideas he had roughed out for future ads. “We must have lunch,” he whispered urgently.

“Didn’t you forget something?” I whispered back. “I’m married.”

His eyes looked tragic. “You can’t even have lunch?”

I consulted the Hungarian about this whispered invitation during my next visit to his office on East 86th Street. I had been seeing him two evenings a week for over a year.   He did have a proper name, clotted with linked consonants and therefore difficult to pronounce, but I found myself unable to use it except when writing out checks in payment for treatment. Naming him might have turned him into a regular human being who used branded toothpaste and wore pajamas and maybe even yelled at his wife now and then. If compelled to bring him into a conversation, as when explaining to Paul why I might be late getting home after work, I always sidestepped the linked consonants by referencing his nationality. And when I was by myself, he needed no name. Where in the Old Testament do you find the name of God?

The Hungarian did not disapprove of lunch with Andre, if it stayed lunch. However, he did believe the patient should make no major familial changes during treatment. He may also have had some reservations about the veracity of my accounts of unhappy married life; after all, it was Paul who had initially obtained his name from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and insisted I go see him, to find out why I was evading my marital responsibilities by taking too many naps on weekend afternoons.

Ma, honeybunch,” he said to me now. The ma was not actually a Hungarian word. It had become part of his permanent vocabulary in Italy, after he climbed over an Alp to escape the Soviets when they invaded Hungary. (He had a romantic past.) “A little flirtation is not so terrible. It might cheer you up. Make your husband more attentive.”

My husband was attentive enough, actually. Although he refused to fritter away his creative years by earning a living (at thirty-eight he was still waiting to be discovered as a great playwright), I had no complaints about Paul’s horizontal skills. When we darkened the room so that I could pretend he was someone else, he brought me off regularly. Of course, I wished I didn’t have to pretend.

“More than lunch is not an issue,” I said, sidestepping further discussion of Paul’s amatory style with what I hoped was charm. “You think I’d risk losing my job by messing around with a client? Then I wouldn’t be able to pay you!”

My preparations for the approved lunch consisted of cashing a birthday check from my father and buying a fitted black wool boucle suit at Henri Bendel. Paul knew nothing about the check because it had been mailed to the office. He’d been without paid employment since we’d come to New York three years before, and my father was no dummy. I had never worn anything so expensive. Just buttoning the jacket cheered me up. Paul didn’t even notice the new suit.

Andre was double-parked in a bright red Alfa Romeo convertible in front of the building on Madison Avenue where Pagel & Cohen had its offices. There was a Longchamps in the lobby, but chain restaurants did not figure in Andre’s universe. Top down, we drove six blocks to The Brasserie, where he double-parked again.

“Won’t you get a ticket?” I asked.

With a delightful Gallic smile he opened the door on my side. “C’est la vie!” Then we dodged oncoming cars and circled the Alfa Romeo to the pavement. He took my arm to descend The Brasserie’s stairs. “Beautiful suit,” he said.

We had Beaujolais and steak tartare (a first for me), which the waiter prepared tableside with many flourishes.   Desultory chitchat about the silver campaign soon segued into more personal matters. He was twenty-seven (he said), divorced, a father; his little girl was in France with her mother. His English, underlaid with the merest soupcon of delicious French accent, was from England, where he had gone to school. He was delighted to learn my parents were Russian; he himself, though born in Paris, was the grandson of Polish aristocrats, ousted from their castles during some late nineteenth-century Polish brouhaha. We were therefore both of Slavic blood. I said my parents considered themselves Jewish. Aha! he exclaimed. We were more alike than I knew. He had a Jewish grandmother. He leaned towards me. “I find you fascinating,” he said softly. “Tell me who are you. I want to know everything.”

Tell me who are you. It had been such a long time since anyone wanted to know. I wasn’t used to wine at lunch. Whatever slid out of me, about myself and my ill-advised marriage, it must have been too much.

“You poor darling,” he murmured gently when our tiny espresso cups were empty. “You deserve so much better. I want to make it up to you.”

How does one respond to that?

He paid the bill. Outside in the bright fall sunshine, the Alfa Romeo sported a ticket on its jaunty windshield. I said I would walk back to the office. (I needed to cool my cheeks.) He nodded, deftly removed the offending ticket from view, and slid into the driver’s seat. “Be warned,” he said. “I am going to court you as no one has ever courted you.”

“Andre! Don’t be silly!”   I started to giggle.

He signaled and began to pull out into traffic. “Yes, and I will never know how many other men are courting you.” He looked back at me, we stared at each other for a moment and he added, “Of course, you will never know how many other women I am courting. It will be so-o-o exciting!”

I think he blew me a kiss, but it’s hard to be sure. My head was throbbing with wine and compliments and the noise of traffic. Then the little red Alfa Romeo was gone.

What nonsense, I thought as I wobbled the six blocks back to work. Who wants to be one of a gaggle of women being courted at once? Divorced or not divorced, I thought, he must not know anything about real life. All the same, it had certainly been fun. My life needed some fun. How I wished I were free to play!

Alas, I was not. Back at my desk and sober again, I did risk/benefit analysis. Andre was young — two and a half years younger than me — and probably undependable. He pleased; he diverted; he inspired no real desire. Then there was Paul’s temper. What if he found out? Would he hit me? Divorce me? Adultery was grounds in New York. Would I also lose the Hungarian if Norm and Herb found out and fired me? I didn’t have even emergency cash of my own. I was walking around with five dollars in my wallet for weekly subway money; all the rest of my pay went to Paul. Where would I be without a job and, worse, without the Hungarian?

The upshot of these ruminations was to table thoughts of Andre for now and do what I could safely do. The following Friday I used twenty-five dollars of the contents of my pay envelope to open a savings account in a bank near the office. I explained the shortfall in net salary to Paul as an increase in social security withholding. He didn’t like it, but since he didn’t get paid himself anymore he had no basis for questioning it. In the wrong things he trusted me. Although I no longer thought that marriage, especially a bad one, was necessarily forever, I wasn’t actually planning to leave him, especially given the Hungarian’s ground rules. On the other hand, how could it hurt to build myself a private little nest egg, just in case? After all I was the one who was doing the earning. I kept the bankbook deep in the zippered inner compartment of my handbag, below a thick wad of Kleenex.

It took what seemed a long time for my secret account to grow. In the meanwhile, I went on — more or less uncomplainingly — with my domestic weekend routine: cleaning our two-room apartment near Needle Park, dragging a shopping cart five blocks down Broadway to the A & P and then back again, cooking a week’s worth of the indigestible meals that Paul remembered from his mother’s kitchen and loved so well. (Kartoffelglossen was a particular favorite.) Paul did most of the talking when we were in the apartment together. If I ventured to disagree about something, his response was always, “I am King in this house!” That would have made me Queen, I guess. But if I had dared mention it, he would certainly have stalked, aggrieved, into the other room. On such occasions, I did fall back on pleasant reveries of Andre. He might not have been appropriate second husband material. But why not a sort of stepping stone to the next part of my permanent life? These were, of course, just reveries and could comfortably co-exist with making no major familial change. Understandably, I didn’t waste expensive therapeutic time discussing them with the Hungarian.

In any event Andre’s promised courtship was not really getting off the ground. His social recreation seemed for now to consist mainly of successful pursuit of the Four Hundred. You could read in Cholly Knickerbocker’s column about his many evenings out with young ladies bearing last names associated with banks, railroads and manufacturing empires owned by their fathers and uncles. Once he even showed up in Walter Winchell’s column as “that dashing young Frenchman who’s taking Café Society by storm.”

Nonetheless, it soon became apparent to Herb and Norm that he preferred dealing with them through me. When he didn’t pay his bill on time, which was more and more often, they began sending me over to the showroom to collect. “Hello, hello,” sunny blonde Frauke would sing out from under her impeccable beehive of hair as I stepped from the elevator. “How nice to see you!” She sat alone at a glass-topped reception desk, looking both friendly and gorgeous. Andre’s office was in the back. I never saw a customer at any time I was there, and sometimes wondered what the two of them might be up to by themselves all day long. I even chaffed Andre about it once, while he was writing out a long overdue check for three thousand dollars to Cohen & Nagel.

“With Frauke? That’s nonsense. She’s just a child.” He tore the signed check out of the ledger and handed it to me. “Besides,” he added, “she has a perfectly nice American boyfriend. Matthew I think his name is. He does law, doesn’t he? Why would I want to interfere with that?” Then he walked me to the door, his arm around my waist. “But how are you?” he asked. “Still with that awful husband, yes? You must come to a party anyway. Next week, without him.”

I knew from Frauke that Andre had begun to give many parties now that he had his penthouse tastefully decorated. So I didn’t take this invitation as a particularly personal gesture; he was simply being hospitable. But I decided to go anyway, if only to show I was still his friend despite his laissez faire attitude towards invoices. I told Paul that Herb and Norm wanted me there because it was good for client relations. Although Herb and Norm knew nothing about Andre’s invitation I was sure that if they had known, they would have wanted me to accept. Paul was not happy to dine alone on leftover sauerbraten, but if you’re going to set yourself up as King of the House, you deserve a certain amount of payback. Besides, it would be lovely to put on my good dress again and get out of the apartment for an evening.

There seemed fewer francophones in attendance at this party. Then I saw across the room, in the middle of the gold brocade sofa, a lady having her hand kissed by several gentlemen. I cornered Frauke, in some respects a fountain of information, and inquired. Frauke explained. The lady was a princesse de France. But France was a republic, wasn’t it?   “Oh, she lives in New York just like the rest of us,” added Frauke, who was in possession of the addresses and phone numbers of every guest. “It’s only her blood that’s royal. Two-hundred year old blood.” She was leaning against the mantelpiece, on which there were now two neat stacks of parking tickets. “Don’t laugh,” she cautioned. “Andre’s careful not to offend.”

Andre himself introduced me to the other guests: I was his lovely and brilliant copywriter, he said, and a very good friend.   I met a stout balding Zenith executive who told me, in slightly German-accented English, that I was extremely charming and he would like to do something for me if I would let him. I met the quite attractive personnel director of Equitable Life who put both his hands on my upper arms while confessing that his third marriage, to a French countess, was on the rocks but as he couldn’t afford to do anything about it they were chained together for eternity. I met an editor of Modern Bride, fortyish and redheaded, who said she was over the moon for Andre and wanted to know all about him; she seemed to think I was an authority. I went to an empty space near the drinks cart for a breather.

“Hello again,” said Matthew Holmes, who was standing there.

I must have looked blank.   “The housewarming? Frauke’s friend? I see I made a great impression.”

Ah, the polite male escort. “Yes of course! Please do forgive me.”

“Forgiven.” We exchanged names a second time. His gaze turned towards Frauke’s blonde beehive as it made its way from one group of Andre’s guests to another. Then he asked where Paul was. My own eyes were following slender graceful Andre as he glided here and there, bestowing and receiving cheek kisses; I wished he would glide in our direction. “Paul hates these things,” I said, finally. Matthew Holmes glanced back at me. “So do I.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Looking out for my interests.”

“Your interest looks as if she can take care of herself.”

“I’m sure she can. That’s what worries me.”

“Oh?”

He changed the subject. “Why are you?”

“Why am I what?”

“Here.”

“Work.” (The easiest answer.)

“This is work?”

“Norman Pagel thinks so.”

“Then I guess you could call it that.” He had a pleasantly normal sort of voice. I thought he was probably a native New Yorker. Like me.

“Tell me,” I asked suddenly. “Do some of these people strike you as weird? As if they’re living in some other world?”

“Ah, you’ve noticed.” Now he turned back in my direction.

“I don’t understand what Andre sees in them.”

“If Andre’s your client, I can’t tell you.”

“Andre’s Norm’s client.”

He shrugged. “Same difference.” After a moment’s thought he relented somewhat. “You see that?” He pointed to a small gold-framed photo of a young woman taken outdoors against a cloudless blue sky; it was on the end of the mantelpiece closest to us, away from the parking tickets.

“You mean his sister?” I said.

“Is that what Andre told you? He told Frauke she was his cousin, who died several years ago. Half an hour ago I heard him tell that redhead” — he lifted his chin in the direction of the editor of Modern Bride — “that she’s a married woman in France with whom he’s hopelessly in love.”

I didn’t like this information. Or that Andre was not coming over to the drinks cart. Didn’t he realize I couldn’t wait till the end of the party for him to have some time for me? My watch said 10:00. “I have to go,” I said. “There’s work tomorrow. Nice talking to you.”

“My pleasure.” He made no move to walk me to the door, and I didn’t expect him to. By the time the elevator reached the building lobby, I had stopped thinking about him. The woman in the gold-framed photo was another matter.

The next time I was sent to the showroom with an unpaid invoice, I tackled the question head on.

“Andre, do you really have a sister?”

He was having trouble finding the company checkbook ledger among all the papers on his desk. “A sister? Yes, of course. Why?”

“And a pretty cousin, who died?”

This question seemed to surprise him. “People talk too much.” Was he annoyed? He began pulling out drawers and rummaging in them briskly. Then he slammed them all shut without replying yes or no. “Listen, darling,” he said. “This is a bad time. How about you come back tomorrow and we take care of the tiresome money then?” He rose to walk me out without waiting for an answer — depriving me of an opening to inquire, coquettishly of course, if he were by any chance hopelessly in love. No great loss. I already suspected what I would hear: “Only with you, darling, only with you.”

The agency was going easy on Andre’s increasingly delinquent payment history. They had just nabbed a big new account which was occupying all their attention: a German beer about to invade the United States and Canada with a huge advertising budget. I wondered why two New Jersey guys named Cohen and Nagel who had been at least in their thirties during the height of the Third Reich and by now were certainly aware of what had gone on there, were so eager to do business with citizens of the German Republic who were once probably Nazi officers. But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. Providentially, Herb decided he would do all the beer copy himself; he said he wanted to keep me free for “soft” products, of interest to women.

Then the Hungarian bought a house for his family (they had been renting in the Bronx) and moved his practice to an office with a separate entrance at the back of the house. The house and office, he said, were bullet-proof; they had been built by the Mafia. I never did understand his pride in this feature of the purchase, unless it had to do with his early days in Hungary during the war. All the same, I followed him without hesitation to his new fortress in Forest Hills. It meant riding the E or F train there and back, and not getting home again until well after 9 p.m. That was okay with me — it meant less time with Paul, more time to daydream on the long return ride two evenings a week.

It was not okay with Paul. He declared I had had enough therapy and raised a rolled newspaper at me. As if I were a bad dog, I thought. The following week, his frustration with my reluctance to give up the Hungarian took the form of shaking me very hard as I stood with my back to a kitchen wall. A can opener was mounted directly behind my head. He narrowly missed slamming me against it. What would come next? Slaps? Blows? That’s all I needed, I thought. This was real and it was happening to me. Whatever the Hungarian’s views on familial life changes during treatment, if I was ever going to get out and start over, I had better do it while I was still unbattered and had all my teeth.

I confided in Stan, the art director. He called his lawyer. I was soon in possession of the name of another lawyer, who specialized in divorce and was cheap. I.M. Reddy, Esq. Was the odd name of this person an omen? Heart in mouth, I telephoned for a lunch hour appointment. The address turned out to be a questionable-looking office up a tall flight of narrow musty stairs on West 42nd Street.

Attorney Reddy, by contrast, turned out to be astonishingly short. “Call me Irma,” she said reassuringly, extending her hand slightly upward to reach mine as I gasped for breath at her door. Despite her unimpressive appearance, Irma Reddy was masterful. After I had given her a hundred dollar retainer, prudently withdrawn in advance from my secret account, and then explained the facts of my domestic situation, she knew exactly how to proceed.

**************

You want to know what happened next, don’t you? Of course you do. Let me be brief: Seven months later, I was a genuine divorcee, thanks to a decree from Tijuana, Mexico, typed in two languages and embossed with two red wax seals, from which dangled two glossy red ribbons. Irma was subsequently reluctant to let me go; she proposed dinner and who knew what else afterwards, but I demurred, so what could she do?

Paul, my now former husband, borrowed some money from his mother in Rochester, New York, to pay Columbia University for accrediting him as a New York City high school teacher, after which he vanished into gainful employment in the bowels of Queens.

Andre was let go by his silver company before his promised courtship of me came to fruition but somehow talked himself into a much more exciting job for Philip Graham as a Washington Post correspondent covering events in French Indo-China (not yet Vietnam), perhaps because he was bilingual. He came back to New York briefly a year later. He had become deaf in one ear. (From gunfire?) He pronounced me a “pure” woman and proposed marriage in the subjunctive, conditional on my understanding he could never be faithful. This did not seem like a good idea. He agreed it was probably not in my best interests, and thereupon disappeared from my life forever, although he is apparently still alive as I write this, and can be found on Wikipedia, with photograph. He appears to have kept most of his hair but has lost two and a half years since we knew each other. He is now five years younger than I am.

It may come as no surprise that as soon as Frauke found herself a deeper pocket and moved out of Matthew’s apartment, he called me up. I’d like to tell you we had a happy ending together, but there were only about three dates before it went south.

Actually, we were all pretty much nuts, when you think about it. Except maybe the Hungarian. But he took early retirement about fifteen years later and moved to Clearwater Beach, Florida. His widow still lives there.

WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND

Standard

That’s what your friends tell you when someone’s treated you badly.  You think they’re only saying it to make you feel better? That it’s not true?  I’m here to tell you it is true.  What goes around, does come around.  You just have to be patient.

Remember that wonderful black wool dress with the white pique collar and cuffs I was writing about yesterday?  That the saleslady at Saks said Mamie Eisenhower had bought, too?  No?  (So much for posts about clothes.)  Okay, let me start again.

The summer between my first and second years at college, I worked in the office of a music publishing company. There I put color-coded tabs on metal plates that fed into a mimeograph machine that addressed envelopes to potential customers of band, orchestral and/or choral music. (This was in 1949 and is something you really don’t want or need to learn more about.)  There was a whole wall of drawers full of those metal plates. After tabbing them, I then alphabetized the plates by last name of potential customer, and cut up my fingers, and ruminated about how far I dared go with my first serious boyfriend evenings and weekends without losing that shred of maidenhood allegedly so essential to getting married. I also managed to save almost all my minimum-wage earnings (then 60 cents an hour) because I lived at home, and at the end of summer I had more than enough money to go crazy at Saks.  I mean c-r-a-z-y.  I spent $150 for that wonderful black wool dress you forgot about, which (believe me) was a lot of money in those days!

What was so wonderful about it?   Not that Mamie Eisenhower had also bought it.  It was the miraculous construction; the dress had rows and rows of tiny almost invisible tucks running diagonally around its black midriff above its slightly dropped black waist which emphasized an hourglass figure if you had one, and created sort of an hourglass figure if you didn’t.  This, please remember, was the era of Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner and the early days of all those rounded Ginas, Sophias and Monicas in Italian movies who wiggled when they walked.  Well worth $150!

Fast forward back to school and a “mixer!”  Mixers were events at which a busload of college men, then called “boys,” would arrive — under the aegis of both college administrations — at the campus of a college for women, then called “girls.”  There were bowls of non-alcoholic fruit-juice punch, a phonograph and records you could dance to, a dance floor (usually the floor of the gym), and — it goes without saying — chaperones, to make sure everyone was behaving properly.  The purpose, of course, was to meet suitable members of the opposite sex.  The result, quite often, at least in the fall, was an invitation to a football weekend.

It could be argued that I should not have been there at all.  I was still attached, in all the ways that mattered then, to my first serious boyfriend.  But that dark and saturnine youth was, unfortunately, twenty-five hours away by train until Christmas vacation, reading Great Books (or not reading them and playing pool instead) at the University of Chicago.  Out of sight, somewhat out of mind, at least until a letter might arrive in my campus mailbox.  Certainly out of mind on that Friday night, when the alternative to the mixer — with boys from Yale! — was a solitary evening in the library or my lonely dorm room.

I went, I was seen, I conquered.  A graduate student!  Quel coup!  Plus an invitation to a weekend at Yale!

Was I attracted to my host-to-be?  Did I really want to see more of him when I said I’d love to come?  In all candor, I felt mainly triumph. The fellow himself was secondary.  Acceptable, meaning in no way obnoxious or misshapen or less tall than I was.  (Which in those days was 5’7″ barefoot.)  He was also well spoken, always an important point with yours truly.  (Muscular but inarticulate was only for my nighttime fantasy life.)  And he came from New York City, like I did.  That seemed enough to go on.  I mean it was just a football weekend.  We weren’t getting engaged or anything like that.  It goes without saying I mentioned nothing about this in any letter addressed to Chicago.

The big weekend arrived, sunny and promising. New York Central was the train, New Haven was the destination, the law student was on the platform, chrysanthemum for me in hand. He paid for lunch, he paid my ticket for the game, he paid my room for the night (with some elderly lady who rented out spare bedrooms to young ladies like me for extra cash in the fall), he paid for a nice dinner in town, and paid our way into the post-game dance.  Reader, he did everything right.  Reader, he was boring.

He was suitably dismissive of the football game.  (Just a pretext for getting me to come, he admitted engagingly.) But he talked about the cases in his casebooks. He discussed theories of product liability.  He discoursed at length about something that had happened just the other day in something called Moot Court which involved some issue of civil procedure.  He debated aloud the merits of possibly picking up an M.B.A. to go with his J.D.  He had never read D.H. Lawrence, or James Joyce, or Jane Austen.  He didn’t particularly want to go to France. He didn’t go to movies much, either; he said he had no time.

I simulated interest.  I really did.  I asked meaningful questions.  I smiled in the right places.  I did my best to earn my weekend at Yale.  But then — going beyond boring — came the after-dinner dancing, very close dancing, and I discovered he had body odor, or his suit jacket did.  Faint, but perceptible.  I made this undesirable discovery as the wonderful black dress was doing its work, bringing my odorous host closer and closer, until his excitable lower regions were even more perceptible through the black wool of my dress than his body odor. 

[“Excitable” perhaps doesn’t do justice to the law student’s condition on that dance floor, but you know what I mean. Or maybe you don’t.  Young people today just can’t appreciate how difficult it was to fox-trot and waltz with your rear end sticking way out to avoid unwanted contact with the groin of your partner.]

At last I could take no more and providentially developed a headache. He urged resting up in his off-campus apartment.  No, I said as sweetly as I could, I really did not want to go to his off-campus apartment even though the guy he shared it with was away for the weekend. I really really did not want to go there even though it was much more comfortable than the room where my suitcase was waiting for me. Even if he was absolutely sure he could make me feel much better once we got there.  Mamie Eisenhower could not possibly have had these problems with the future President when she wore our dress.

I’ll give him this.  He was taciturn thereafter, but behaved correctly.  He took me to my room.  Picked me up next morning and took me to the train. There had been talk the afternoon before of strolling around campus Sunday morning, brunch at Morey’s.   No more such talk.  He had a lot of work to catch up on, he said.  Thanks for coming, he said without meaning it.  Thanks for having me, I said without meaning it.  He was gone from the platform before the train left the station.

Thanks for nothing, I thought on the brief ride back.  Why did there have to be a quid pro quo for buying me lunch and dinner and a ticket to a game?  Why did I have to put out for the price of a room I wasn’t supposed to occupy anyway?  Why did he even ask me up for the weekend if that’s all he wanted?

Because that’s all he did want, dummy — was the answer.  I know: my hands weren’t so clean in this matter, either. But the shame of it:  back from a football weekend in time for Sunday lunch!  I skipped the lunch, and explanations.  Had crackers and an old apple in my room instead.  I was so lucky to have a nice serious boyfriend, albeit in Chicago!  No more mixers for me.

But there is payback.  God is not going to sit idly by while a young man expects a girl to put out in exchange for a couple of meals and then hurries her back on the train too early without a kind word of farewell when she politely refuses to do what he wants her to do.

About twelve years later, newly divorced from my first husband and living in a studio apartment far east on 72nd Street,  I used to take the downtown Second Avenue bus to work.  I got on early enough in the route to have a seat, but by 65th Street or so, new riders had to stand.  One morning, a man in an overcoat came to stand in front of me. He had a leather briefcase on the floor between his feet, so he could read hisTimes and also hold on to the overhead bar.  There was something familiar about his face.  Where had I seen it before? The gold initials on the briefcase jogged my memory. Of course! It was the horny law student grown up, and with glasses.  I was then thirty-two, so he couldn’t have been more than thirty-six.  And you know what?  He had lost his hair! He was almost completely bald!  Like an egg on top! Just a little bristle left around the ears!

How’s that for retribution?  It made me feel good all day.

FOUR MEN I NEVER WENT OUT WITH

Standard

It has been pointed out (by a male reader who lives with me) that yesterday’s piece on playing the personals contained nary a word of advice for men.

Although it often seems to women getting a bit long in the tooth that there are absolutely no available aging men, that appears to be wrong. It seems there are lonely and mostly unattached men in an appropriate age bracket who sometimes wonder if answering an ad might be the way to go.

I say “mostly” unattached, because avowed cheaters also play.  (And the unavowed?  Well, as Fats Waller used to say — one never knows, do one?)  As to what is an “appropriate” age bracket, I leave that to the ladies.  Do you really want a toy boy? How much are you willing to pay?  I also hope I have already made it perfectly clear in my last post on this subject that I have absolutely no advice for the young.  As if they’d take it if I had it.

With those caveats out of the way, let us try to level the playing field by proceeding as far as we can.  Which is not very far.  However, I do know some things:

  •   Men don’t really know what they want.  Besides hot sex.  Which they can’t ask for in a respectable publication, the only kind we will be considering today.  And which they might not be able to maintain in a long-term relationship. (Hereinafter “LTR.” If there is a “‘hereinafter” to the first date. Often there isn’t.)  Come on, guys.  Get real.  How much Viagra can you afford?
  •  Men of any age get many more responses to their ads than women do.  It therefore makes more sense, for both LTR-seekers and the other kind, that a man place an ad than answer one.  On the other hand, placement has its costs, how large depending on how many words you need to make yourself appealing.  Whereas answering is free!  No matter how many you answer! So you decide.
  • Men may not care about spelling, but most women do.  They also care about punctuation, and paragraphing, and vocabulary.  Answering an ad by e-mail is like sending in your CV for a job.  Women may be eager to give you a chance, but usually not if what you write looks as if you need to repeat third grade.  Unless you’re the reincarnation of Marlon Brando in Streetcar, and still have the torn white T-shirt, take care what you write.  Or use spell-check. Or only answer ads where you can telephone.
  • Men should not ever send out an e-mail like one of the following.  These were among the responses to an ad much like the one which ended my “Playing the Personals” post, but in which I described myself as possessing, among other desirable qualities, “warmth” and “a kind heart.”  Big mistake. (As you will see).  But did I really deserve what came back to me?  I have changed all the names, e-addresses and geographical locations, so that no public embarrassment or shame should ensue. Private embarrassment is between the authors and their maker.  I have not changed anything else.  I kid you not.

1.  From:  “devbanerjee” <booridev@frontier.net>

Dear Kind.

Although your message was for a 60+ man, I thought I might be apologized if I tried to reach you out with something that has to do with the basics of the values you carry, especially warmth and kindness.  Based on my own progression through life, I do hope that the experiences you have had in line with maturity and love will make you accept my offer of friendship based on understanding , honesty, integrity, understanding and mutuality.

I am a male, 26, currently a MBA student here in Washington, from Pakistan.  I value a friendship with someone on a higher scale of maturity and wisdom and am envisioning of our friendship building up to a height exceeding that of Mt. Everest and of our breathing in the beauty and spirituality around the unsurpassed grandeur of the natural beauty in the “hanging” valleys, “flowing” meadows, and “static” rivers and waterfalls there.

I recognize your hectic professional life; yet, something in the depth of my mind and values guide me to the waiting point until you show up at least briefly with your message.  I will more than appreciate that and will tell a lot more of myself soon afterward.

Sincerely, Dev Banerjee

At first I thought all that about Mt. Everest and the natural beauty of valleys and rivers and waterfalls — “hanging” and “flowing” and “static” — was code.  (I know, I have a dirty mind.)  But then I decided he was just lonely and got carried away.  After all, he was only 26, younger than my younger child.  Or maybe that’s the way they begin courtships in Pakistan.

2. From:  amvetserv@mindspring.com

Hi Boston.  A strange thing happened to me today I was reading The NY Review I saw your note and thought how perfect, is it possible what are the odds no way? maybe so. I had to respond so hear I am what next?  I must be the person you are looking for because you are exactly the type person I am looking for.  It is like I wrote the same add for someone like you.  It is crazy does any one really find someone like this.  I am an eternal opponents, so hear goes. I am a 48 yr. Old Ret. Major from the US Army.  I am working for a PUBLICATION as investigate reporter and travel all over.  But here is my secrete my true passion is writing, I think I may have a book or two in me. When I am not on the rode, my base is in Houston. I also like the good life and I am looking for A kind WARM leading Lady in my life to share it with.  If there is a interest drop me a note. I am looking forward to hearing from you.  Best Regards, George

You may be surprised to learn I told myself not to be a snob and answered George.  (It’s true about the kind heart.  Not a good thing to mention in an ad, though.)  George never wrote back.  Maybe his work as investigate reporter for a PUBLICATION kept him too busy. But I think it was my spelling and punctuation and paragraphing that put him off.

3.  From:  <Migueldr00@hotmail.com

A long “HELLO!”  Great-looking, kind-hearted Bostonian, Is your meaning of a “long hurrah” an exclamation of deep joy or a hint at commotion?  Is it the second tender movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth or the turbulent first of Mahler’s Sixth?  What a pleasant exciting surprise to find you!  I have to close my eyes…and believe…from what you write…that you are not only charming but smart, clever, playful and…passionate (in a controlled, witty way).  The good, passionate kind, the one with the smooth layer of chocolate mousse covering the volcanic rush of fantasy.  I want to steal your attention with inquiring looks and searching words.  Knowing a woman, for the first time, is to pin the eyes on her face and savor the honey of her smile, as she averts her face in a feminine gesture of divine shyness.  Hurrah to you, my kind-hearted darling…a long Hurrah that is a cry of joy, longer than a sigh, deeper than a tear, prettier than a kiss, as when a man meets a woman and feels the flesh quiver with the anticipated thrill of dreaming he is touching her tenderly…on her lips.

With friendly tenderness…and all the comparable qualities…and more.  Miguel in Delaware

See?  Hot sex.

 4. From: Calvin P. Kimberly <CPK4445556@isd.net

Dear Nina, my name is Cal Kimberly, I live on Gardiner’s Island and have a son in Boston named Dirk who has a son of his own.  I’m 82, though friends tell me I can pass for someone of 60.  I am married to Dirk’s mother, Penny.  She is totally quadriplegic after surviving a car crash eight years ago.  An excellent practical nurse and i provide care for her. Her condition can only be described as “complete invalidism.”  To be honest, I have written to several females who placed “personals” in TNYROB and sounded kind-hearted enough to listen to my angst.  Most were in New York, but if you know Long Island you will realize that I could easily take the ferry to Greenport on the North Fork, and then another ferry to Connecticut and come to Boston to see you.  I might also put my wife in a constant care facility and then locate in Providence which is cheaper than where you live but still only a quick journey to the larger city to the north.  I will see if I can arrange a visit to my son for some time later this month, which will give us a chance to meet and see how our chemistries mix at that point.  Cheers, Cal

****************

Men, think twice before clicking “send.”

Ladies, remember it’s a long long road.  Yes, there might be a Bill at the other end of it.

But I do have something to confess. He didn’t write.  He telephoned.  And he had such a nice voice.  I only found out later he can’t spell for beans.

PLAYING THE PERSONALS

Standard

[Caution: The advice dispensed below is not meant for persons in the full bloom of youth.  If you’re part of the hook-up generation, other rules will apply, of which I am entirely ignorant.  Persons of an age between hooking up and giving up should proceed only when no better option presents itself.  Persons who’ve already given up should change their minds.  Where there’s life, there’s hope.  Also a few laughs.]

I once had a plumpish friend who wanted to meet another Bill.  Whether another Bill would have wanted to meet another her is another question entirely. One I cannot answer.

She meant, of course, that I should give her some tips on the use of personals ads to produce a dear companion of her very own.  [It is true that Bill and I found each other in the back pages of Boston Magazine.]

This was four years ago, when she was sixty-nine — my very age when I ran that fateful Boston Magazine ad.  She may have felt I would have some expertise in this area because she knew I had been advertising, and answering personal ads, on and off, for nearly thirteen years before the lightning bolt from the heavens that put an end to all that.  (Although I do admit to sometimes still taking a peek at the back of The New York Review of Books — the gold standard for this kind of thing — where you can find ads from some really weird guys over which to chortle in the bathroom.)

I promised to consult my files in the basement and get back to her with sample ads, and the responses.  In the meanwhile, I urged warming up copywriting skills and adopting a proper frame of mind. I even wrote it all out for her, at considerable length:

“You must be clear about the demographic to which you are marketing yourself.  It is exactly like advertising.  Forget  truth as you know it.   The ad can’t lie, but it doesn’t have to lay everything out, either.  And it must seem to offer what the customer may be hoping for, without use of words like “luscious” and “lovely,” which nobody believes anyway.

“Actually, I’m pretty sure by now that men who do personals have no idea of what they’re looking for.  The ones under seventy usually say they want “thin” or “fit” — and “sweet” or “understanding.” But what they’re really hoping for is someone they can talk to (meaning someone who will listen, not argue), who is presentable and  — please God! — exciting.

“Maybe the ones over seventy are hoping for the same thing, and keeping their fingers crossed that everything will work the way it used to if “exciting” does come along.  But I have less experience with this age group, other than Bill.

“Be that as it may, I will in due time send what I can find.  In the meanwhile, you might study the personals run by women in The New York Review of Books.  Not the long, fulsome ones that sound as if they’ve been drafted by professional matchmakers, but the three-liners from older women who don’t sound needy.  I don’t know how successful these ads are, but some of them strike me as the right approach.

“Be warned that once you embark on this project, it will be hard work, and often discouraging  You have to keep up appearances.  Which means staying away from strudel and chocolate and investing in a full-length mirror and hand mirror, so you can see what your butt looks like and do something about it if necessary. You might even consider  acquiring a few new outfits somewhat less reminiscent of Woodstock than what you wear whenever I see you.  (Think Mrs. Exeter, if you ever looked at Vogue in the old days.)

“You also have to be tough, while staying not tough — meaning you have to not care too much or get too discouraged or hurt too soon.  Remember:  it’s a numbers game, you never can tell, and even if it comes to nothing for a long time it can be more interesting than staying home and waiting for Mr. Wonderful to wander in off the street, get past your doorman, and make his way up to your apartment to discover you hanging out in front of the screen in a scruffy bathrobe — clutching a fork and a whole Sara Lee cheesecake.

“You will not get many answers.  Not if you are specifying a man aged 65-75.  (Some who reply may even be older.)  Don’t be too quick to send them packing, even if they sound grumpy or whiny or full of braggadocio.  Let each one have a chance — at least a little chance.  You will learn something from each one, about yourself as well as about the man.

“Don’t give your last name or address when you answer.  Pesterers can be persistent.  Meet for the first time at a cafe or other public place, carrying a red rose between your teeth for identification purposes if you must.

“You invite e-mails from me at your peril.

“P.S.  I used to be very shy.  But one does what one must.  First baby steps.  Then cautious jogging.  Then tall mountains in a single leap!  Pace.”

As for the rest of you, that should be enough for starters.  However —  not to leave you cliff-hanging — I just happen to have with me right here the last ad I ever ran.  I was 69 3/4 years old.  It appeared in the special “Valentines” section of (you guessed it) The New York Review of Books.  I also ran it in Boston Magazine, where twenty-four words or less were free:

“BOSTON/CAMBRIDGE.  Great-looking professional woman with intelligence, class, culture, charm, pizazz seeks 60+ man of comparable qualities as partner in long hurrah!”

I must have finally figured it out.  I never had to run another.