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

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 [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?

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

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[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.]