HOUSEKEEPING

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Having spent an inordinate amount of my life in connection with school — going to endless amounts of school myself, preparing children for school, teaching school — it’s hard for me not to think of September as the real beginning of the year. (That stuff on January 1 is calendar business; you enter a new grade/class/year in September.) I even live in a university town!

So now that it’s really and truly September — yes, I can feel it in the air, and all the undergraduates are back — I decided to tidy up the blog again, in preparation for whatever may be coming out of me in the months ahead.  Apart from the fifty “Writing Short” pieces I did this summer, there were two long pieces of memoir, each presented in parts, that were written in 2015 and are now rapidly receding into the WordPress archives.

I’ve therefore pulled them back up and made them into Pages, in the event you’d ever like to see either of them again all in one piece, as originally intended, or know someone who might be interested in reading memoir.  The earlier-written one, “The Practice Boyfriend,” which first appeared in February, is now a Page called “Perry: A Memoir.”  It runs nearly 12,000 words, so don’t tackle it unless you’re prepared for a (somewhat romantic) lengthy read.  The more recent, “Losing Fifteen Pounds,” is now a nearly 7,000-word Page called “Getting to 128: A Memoir.”  In case you’re wondering: I changed the titles so that WordPress doesn’t confuse posts with pages in doing its tabulations.

Now, what shall I do next?  Any suggestions?

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WRITING SHORT: 9/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Shortly after leaving my first husband, I became involved with a man I met on New Year’s Eve at a masked costume ball. I was twenty-nine, he was thirty-six, and we were together from Friday evening until late Sunday afternoon all the following year, except for two summer weeks he spent with his parents in Illinois. There was never a question of marriage. I was not divorced until halfway through that year and certainly unready to contemplate remarrying. He had already been married twice, had three children by his first wife and barely enough salary left after monthly alimony and child support payments to scrape by in a single room at a residential hotel off Fifth Avenue. Yet I never regretted that year. He put me back on my feet and gave me a better opinion of myself.

One evening as we were about to make love in his single room, he said something that disappointed me.  I was hoping for the conventional language of romance. Only later, when we’d drifted apart, did I realize what he had said was better than that: “I’d like to fill you up with babies.”

The last time I saw him was two years ago, when we had lunch. He was nearly ninety; I recognized him only by his height. I had looked him up because of those words. He no longer remembers them. It doesn’t matter. He gave them to me, and now they’re mine forever.

GRAN HOTEL: YOU’LL NEVER LEAVE!

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I didn’t watch daytime soap operas during the very few years I was a stay-at-home housewife with two small babies.  After I went back to paid work, I did sometimes collapse exhausted at night  to watch with comatose brain some mindless episode of a (non-violent) television series. Retired, I confess to also having been for a short time beguiled by The Good Wife (another woman done wrong but fighting back), but only until what’s-his-name, her office love interest, left the show. However, those were all discontinuous in plot — episodes featuring the same characters but with stories that began and ended in a single sitting.

Then came Downton Abbey, five years running, with a sixth and last season yet to come. This somewhat turgid and often long-drawn-out drama [forgive me, fans], beginning before World War I and now somewhere in the mid 1920’s, has always been at least minimally watchable (if you have nothing else to do on a Sunday night) because of the sumptuous settings, gorgeous and always historically accurate costumes and accoutrements, elaborate meals, Maggie Smith as a tart-tongued dowager and my ongoing curiosity as to whether reed-slim Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) will ever bring herself to eat something. [There was also the mystery of upright, stalwart and fiftyish Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), hitherto devoted to his wife, Lady Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), suddenly opening his bedroom door one night, pulling in a passing maid, and kissing her passionately. That was about three seasons ago and we haven’t heard anything more about it since. Perhaps the writers decided to abandon this particular plot line as unpromising, but they should know I’m still waiting.] However, Downton Abbey runs only on six or seven Sundays every mid-winter here in the States and is therefore hardly all-consuming.

But now there’s Netflix, an evil blessing.  No more waiting from week to week. Netflix makes it possible to stream every episode of multiple seasons of TV shows one after the other (plus hundreds of crappy new movies and many oldies but goodies) — all for $7.99 a month. You can sit pigging out on whatever it is till your eyes burn and it’s the wee hours of the morning.  Not that you have to, of course.  It depends on your self-control. And what you’re watching.

Unfortunately for culturally snooty me, a well-educated friend emailed a few weeks ago that she and her husband, a retired psychiatrist, were now “in thrall” to an “Iberian Downton Abbey” on Netflix called Gran Hotel. With such a recommendation, how bad could it be?  The weather outside was killer damp and hot. The sun was burning the impatiens. The sticky moisture in the air threatened aging lungs and newly straightened hair. The streets were empty of people.  I turned up the air-conditioner, drew the blinds and clicked on the set.

Gran Hotel (which Netflix has helpfully translated as Grand Hotel) was a television series that originally ran for three years in Spain, from 2011 through 2013. It reached 18.5% of the viewing audience during its first season; by the third season, between two and three million people were watching each episode. Since then, almost every European country, including Russia and the UK, and several in the far East, have acquired the rights to run it.  In America, Netflix has chopped it into 68 continuous episodes (with great cliff-hangers after each), running 45 minutes apiece.  That’s 51 hours of viewing pleasure.  Give it three or four episodes and, ladies (I’m not sure about the men), you’ll be hooked!  After a while, you may forget meal preparation, eating (unless before the TV set), perhaps basic hygiene, certainly bedtime.  By season three, it was Bill, clutching my hand, who was saying at 12:45 in the morning, “Let’s just see one more….”

It has nearly everything, including a multitude of mysteries and sub-mysteries involving characters, both upstairs and downstairs, who speak beautiful Castilian Spanish, of which I know nothing. (Although I did learn a few useful expressions during my 51 hours glued to the set. People said “I’m sorry,” “excuse me” and “I don’t know” a lot.)  The subtitles are reasonably clear and comprehensive (until the third season when the excitement mounted to a point where the translator began to misspell and leave out a few words.) It’s true that the costuming isn’t quite as elaborate as in Downton Abbey, but the whole thing runs only a year and a half in story time (with a few flashbacks), so styles and hairdos don’t really need to change. But I am getting ahead of myself.

CONOCER LA VERDAD CAMBIARA SUS VIDAS: Knowing the truth will change their lives!

Gran Hotel takes place in 1906 and 1907 in northern Spain near the fictional town of Cantaloa, at the eponymous and equally fictitious Gran Hotel.  All the outdoor shots were filmed on the grounds of the Palacio de la Magdalena (representing the hotel) and at several points nearby in Santander. The indoor sets — sweeping entrance hall, dining room, ballroom, yards and yards of red-plush wallpapered corridors where guest rooms are located, and more yards of grey-painted corridors of doors to small plain rooms where the staff reside, as well as the rooms themselves — were probably constructed in a Madrid studio.

The hotel is owned by the Alarcon family, now headed by Dona Teresa, a recent widow, and managed by the suave and suspicious-looking Diego Murquia, who was her deceased husband’s right-hand man. Dona Teresa (Adriana Ozores), will do almost anything to keep control of the hotel. She has three grown children: Sofia, pregnant with her first child and married to Alfredo, a future Marquis, who she hopes her mother will appoint as manager now that her father is dead; Javier, the only son — cute, but a womanizer and an alcoholic; and lovely Alicia, our heroine (Amaia Salamanca), who Diego (Pedro Alonso) wants and will do anything to marry and who our modestly born but literate hero, courageous and handsome Julio Olmeda (Yon Gonzales), loves at first sight.  Julio has come to the hotel in Episode One to find out what happened to his sister Cristina, who was working there as a maid and has stopped writing letters home.  When he learns Cristina disappeared on the night the hotel went from candlelight to electricity, he lies his way in as a waiter to discover what happened to her.

The hired help consists of a staff of  waiters and maids, presided over by stern Angela the housekeeper (Concha Velasco), who is the mother of Andres (Llorenz Gonzales), one of the waiters. Andres becomes Julio’s roommate and buddy. (At every parting, of which there are several farther along in the script, they clasp each other fervently to show the strength of their feeling.) A maitre d’ (different each season, for reasons made clearer as the plot thickens) supervises the waiters. One of the maids is Belen, who sleeps with Diego, as Cristina apparently did too, before she disappeared. Andres loves Belen. Angela, his mother, has no apparent husband. There is also a letter — in a large red envelope so viewers can’t miss it while it “secretly” travels from hand to hand during the first season — that apparently would wrest control of the hotel from the Alarcons (and Diego). That’s enough to get you started.

Be advised my friend was wrong in comparing Gran Hotel to Downton Abbey in at least one respect. Downton Abbey is polite. Gran Hotel flames with heightened Spanish drama and emotion. (And is also, perhaps unintentionally, much funnier.) You will find not only the star-crossed lovers Julio and Alicia, but a serial murderer who kills poor young women when the moon is full with a gold carving knife; an unhappy arranged marriage; a troubling mystery concerning when and how Don Carlos (Dona Teresa’s dead husband) died; the what-happened-to-Cristina subplot; the real skinny on Diego, who isn’t Diego at all; a detective Ayala suspiciously like Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot; Agatha Christie herself as a young English hotel guest trying to help Ayala and inhaling ideas for future mystery novels; Houdini performing a water trick at the hotel; a good-looking priest who fornicates with at least two of his parishioners in the confession box, impregnating one of them; an explosion which leaves the main floor of the hotel looking like a war zone; even cholera.  There is jealousy, attempted murder, suicide, seeming suicide, good adultery, bad adultery, revenge!

Expect duplicity nearly everywhere. You will see much listening at doors, hiding behind corners, a hidden room; a fall down the stairs; a miscarriage; bloody childbirth with appropriate groans in the kitchen; kidnapping; an underground dungeon; a duel with pistols at dawn; people who come back from the dead; the slim yet physically tough — but sensitive, quick-witted and always handsome — hero fighting like nobody’s business with his bare hands (“Where I’m from, you fight or starve!”); same handsome hero stripped to the waist a satisfying number of times; the lovely heroine’s beautiful blue eyes welling up with tears just as frequently whenever confronted with her no-win emotional situation; many people slapping someone else’s face on the slightest provocation;  many a stolen kiss (to swelling orchestral music cueing you in that it’s coming), one in the first season winning Spain’s award for Best Television Kiss and one or more nominated (but not winning) in Season Two. [There’s hotter stuff in Season Two.)

Also overlook a lack of realism. Blood never oxidizes but remains bright red on a knife even days after leaving a body. Shirts drenched red with blood can be rinsed clean white in a basin by a good housekeeper. A baby is born looking three months old.  Same baby lies peacefully in his bassinet, never growing as the plot unspools over many months, and can be carried in the arms without movement whenever required by the storyline. A corpse is successfully disposed of in a rolled-up carpet. Another corpse, exhumed long after death, doesn’t smell. Bullets always miss vital organs in good people, and extremely bad wounds that would leave the likes of us lying in bed for at least a month or two heal sufficiently within a day for the victim to be up and about, intent on wrongdoing (if he’s bad) or on saving the heroine (if he’s Julio).  Important documents are burned incompletely so that a  person may find a scrap that leads to clues or permits attempted blackmail.  Other important documents pop up just when needed. Poison and opium lie around where anyone can get at it.  I’m sure I’ve left a lot out, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

And whenever it all becomes too hair-raising, you can rest assured that after 51 hours of watching, the more-or-less good guys, plus Julio and Alicia,  will reach a happy ending, and the others not.

I’d watch it again myself, but I already know the plot.

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MY THREE-MINUTE ENGAGEMENT

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It was October 1994; I was again between husbands. (Between second husband and Bill, to be precise.) In other words, I was at liberty.  And working at a very large law firm, second largest in Boston.

This law firm (I name no names) was so large, for Boston, that it occupied many floors of a building a whole square block around.  There were so many floors it took three or four minutes for the elevator to get from the top one to the lowest.  The firm employed upwards of 300 lawyers on those floors, plus 400 in support staff, not counting the mail room.  Also pertinent to this story is that many of those 700 people sort of knew who I was.  Not because I had done such extraordinary things in court (I hadn’t), but because I was the only woman in the firm with a New York accent. Unlike anyone else who worked there, I sounded as if I’d come right out of a Woody Allen movie.

Levity aside, you didn’t have much spare time for lolly-gagging around if you practiced law at this big firm.  But you had a little bit.  It was still before cell phones and working from home. When you finally did get to leave, you were relatively free of the office and law for a while.  Which is how I was able to take an advertised walk with a Boston Park Ranger through the Emerald Circle of Boston’s municipal parks on the first Saturday in October. I did it to knock myself out so I would be too tired in the evening to indulge in self-pity, all alone by the telephone.

While dutifully admiring nineteenth-century statues of important historical figures on the Boston Common, I fell in with another walker; she was about my age, also divorced with two grown sons, and also living in Cambridge.  (A social worker, but you can’t have everything.) We went home together on the Red Line. Just before I got out at the Harvard Square stop, she asked how I felt about Mort Sahl.  He was coming to Cambridge for a two week run at the Hasty Pudding Theater on Holyoke Street.  Would I like to go with her the following Saturday night?

In all candor, I felt nothing for Mort Sahl.   By then I had seen him in performance three times.  First with a blind date, when I was very young and he was still unknown; next with first husband, when I was not yet thirty and he was very famous;  last with second husband, when I was not quite middle-aged and his career was not quite gone. So I’d had plenty of opportunity to decide he wasn’t my type. In spite of that, I agreed to go. It wasn’t as if I had anything better to do next Saturday night.

Attention, those of you not yet adults in the early 1960s:  Run, don’t walk, to Wikipedia to look up Mort Sahl.  His photo there will show you a tall, dark-haired man with a devilish grin.  You’ll learn he was born in 1927, had been married twice by the time of this story, was the first ever American performer to make it in stand-up comedy discussing current events and politics.  He was especially popular with East and West Coast intelligentsia — who jammed themselves into smart clubs on both coasts whenever and wherever he appeared, if only to say they’d seen him in action.

You’ll also learn how he would stroll to the mike so casually, wearing his signature sweater, with signature rolled-up newspaper in hand — and then let fire into a hot packed room. He was swift, sharp, biting, bitter. And merciless.  In 1960 Time Magazine called him “Will Rogers with fangs.”

My new friend brought another friend to the performance; I never did catch this one’s name.  The nameless friend had long streaming grey hair, flowing garments and practiced some kind of spiritual balance therapy with pyramids, algae and crystals.  Definitely not my type, either.

We accordingly chose a seating arrangement that allowed new friend and nameless friend to coo at each other till showtime, leaving me to case the room. Judging by the scatterings of silver heads and wispy white beards, we were an aging group. No young folks at all.  And plenty of empty seats.

Then the theater dimmed, the stage lights went on, the feature attraction strolled out to the mike.  He was still wearing a sweater, still carrying a rolled-up newspaper, still tall.  But the dark hair was grey, the grin querulous, the quips tired and forced.

And soon a new disquiet emerged from his discourse:  the end of his twenty-four year marriage. How he’d tried, how much it hurt, why it shouldn’t have ended.  Mort Sahl without fangs. The audience stirred restlessly. Two or three got up to go.  Didn’t he realize?  Didn’t he care?  My type or no, I began to feel bad for him. How could he humiliate himself like that?  Shut up  about the lost wife already and start snarling.

But he didn’t.  Or couldn’t.  On and on and on he went, laboring past the absence of response, the awful silences.  Until it was over. A few feeble claps. The doors opened. At last: a breath of fresh air.

I ruminated all weekend. About the fleetingness of fame, aging men and their lack of resilience. About what really matters, and what doesn’t.  By Monday morning, I had come to a decision.  I was going to write him a letter. Monday night I did.

What do you write an aging comedian whose sun seems to have set?

October 10, 1994

Dear Mort Sahl:

I was at the 7 p.m. show last Saturday, very pleased to be seeing you again in your red sweater still doing your thing to a gratified audience.  What was particularly pleasing for me has to do with an evening at the end of summer 1952, when I predicted your future to my date.

In August 1952, I was fresh out of college, an insecure little girl from the East whose parents had just moved to L.A. with daughter in tow. (No, I didn’t resist, which tells you something right there.) On that evening I was brought to a so-called party at someone’s apartment by a physically unprepossessing blind date (short! and with a big nose!) — the son of someone my mother had met at a beauty parlor.  He was in training to do psychotherapy.  Our disenchantment with each other was mutual; I never saw him again after that.

Among the other guests was you, sitting on the floor, looking unkempt, unshaved and somewhat ragged, and holding forth to the assembled with what I took for (and may well have been) venom and rancor about practically everything but especially the under-appreciation which you had been accorded in San Francisco, from whence you had just come in a state of apparent destitution.  During the interstices of your performance from the floor, my date whispered that you were the current boyfriend of still another guest, who was putting you up and feeding you while you purportedly tried to get on your professional feet in L.A.

It was very hot.  I was wearing — with maximum discomfort — that summer’s requisite outfit for the upwardly mobile: a waist cincher, a strapless bra that felt as if it were sliding down, two scratchy crinolines, a heavily quilted off-the-shoulder Anne Fogarty dress with a circle skirt and three-inch wide belt that dug into the ribs and also made gas, because it prevented the proper digestion of dinner.  In addition, I wore several pounds of makeup which were threatening to slide away in a flood of perspiration if we didn’t get out of there soon.  Not surprisingly, I did not feel benign.

“A loser,” I pronounced to the date with finality as we made our getaway.  “Now there’s someone who’ll never amount to anything.”

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Well.  I first went to see you perform (for money) in New York, in the company of husband number one — about four or five years later, I think.  It may have been at the Blue Angel. Husband number one dragged me. The sweater wasn’t red yet, the crowds were huge, you were too quick for most of the audience and at times, to my chagrin, too quick for me.  Husband number one, who was able to keep up, thought you were great.

The second time I saw you perform was again in New York, during one of your later renascences, but with husband number two.  I dragged husband number two.  The sweater was now red, you were much mellower, and mercifully slower on the draw.  No more semi-automatic attack weapons.  I could keep up.  Husband number two, the unwilling attendee, thought you were great.

This time, newly resident in Cambridge, I and a 1950′s-vintage lady neighbor I had recently met decided to go together. (No dragging.)  But she dragged still another lady I did not know.  Both ladies turned out to be into crystals, green algae, and the like.  I don’t know what the two ladies thought.  I thought you were great.

If it weren’t for the presence of the two ladies, who began clamoring to get to Chef Chow for Chinese food as soon as you walked off, I would have come back stage to tell you so. (I probably would also have talked about survivors, and change, and process, and heavy stuff like that, if you actually have real conversations when you’re off stage.)  But I couldn’t and therefore didn’t. Hence this letter.

I’ve never written a fan letter to anyone before, and probably never will again, but it seems unlikely that either of us will last another forty-two years, so here it is.

[I’m also sorry that you are lonely sometimes and that the end of your marriage hurts you so much — inappropriate as such remarks may be in a letter of this kind.]

If you ever come back to these un-Hollywoodlike parts, and feel like getting in touch, please do.

Take care and be well.

Nina Mishkin

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 I put my home address on the letter and mailed it.  I had done what I could. A summary judgment motion was waiting in my office. It was Tuesday morning, I was only half done, and the whole thing, with supporting documents, had to be filed by 4 p.m. Friday. Or the client would be in the soup, and I’d be out the door.[Those were the fun days of my life! The pay was pretty good, though, if you could stand the pain.]

I made it.  No soup, no door.   And not a peep out of Mort Sahl, either.  When I had time to think about him again, I wondered if my letter had ever reached him. I’d sent it to the theater, not knowing where else it should go. Was that like the Black Hole of Calcutta?

Oh well.  It was a pretty good weekend, all things considered: Hairdresser, shopping, pistachio ice cream in bed.  But not for the lawyer I shared a secretary with; he was slaving away his Saturday in the office.    [Yes, we did that sometimes.  Correction: more than sometimes.]

Let’s say this lawyer’s name was Jim.  It wasn’t, but let’s say anyway.  If my phone were to ring when I wasn’t there, the call would go to our secretary.  And if she wasn’t there but Jim was, he’d be the one who picked up. (Thinking, no doubt, it was for him.) That Saturday, my phone did ring. Jim answered, and put the message on our secretary’s desk.  Come Monday, she saw it before I did.

Did she ever get busy!  Soon every secretary on our floor knew what was in my message. Then the news flew, like wildfire, to other floors. Don’t legal secretaries have anything to do except gossip (as one of them put it) about “lawyers in love?”

By the time I showed up at 9:33 (after three minutes in the elevator) and saw the yellow sticky now squarely centered on my desk, I must have been the last to know what Jim had written on it:

Nina –

You got a call from Mort Sahl.  He’s at the Charles Hotel, 864-1200.  Call him Monday if you don’t see this before then.

Jim  (Saturday – 2:20 p.m.)

Oh, Mort.  Why the office?  I gave you my home address!  Couldn’t you have asked Information for that number instead?

I closed the door before I dialed.  (Yes, I was nervous.)  The hotel switchboard connected me.

The familiar voice was cautious:  “Hello?”

I explained who I was.

The voice warmed up.  “That was a great letter!”

Me: Glad you liked it. (This was true.)

He: You’re a lawyer?

Me (evasive):  Mmm.

He (skipping over the lawyer part): A really great letter. I’d like to see you.

Me: I’d like that, too.

(Awkward pause.)

Me again: Will you be here long?

He: Flying out this afternoon.

Me (disheartened): “Oh.”

He (encouraged by the disheartened “oh”): “But I’ll be back.  We’re doing another show in the East in December.  Maybe then?”

Me: Absolutely.

He: Okay.

Me: Okay.

He: Bye, then.

Me: Bye.

Well, what did you expect?  Romeo and Juliet?

Important Rule of Life:  It’s not enough for news to travel, it has to change and grow as well.  At one in the afternoon when I got back into the elevator for lunch, the head of my department was in the elevator, too. This dour lady lawyer had always disapproved of me. She didn’t like that I sometimes laughed. She considered my remarks about the environmental problems caused by underground storage tanks insufficiently serious. But today her thin face was wreathed in smiles.

“Nina!” she cried joyously as the elevator doors closed on us. I thought she might  be going to hug me.  “Congratulations! I hear you’re engaged to Mort Sahl!”

That’s probably the high point of this story.  It’s all downhill from here on.  Beginning with the three whole minutes in the elevator it took to get myself un-engaged. Dis-engaged?  You know what I mean.  So maybe I should stop while I’m ahead.  But I’d be lying if I let you think I didn’t watch The Boston Globe and The New York Times like a hawk for the next two months. However, if Mort ever came East again that year, it got by me.

Ah, don’t fret.  There is a happy ending. Three happy endings actually, if you take the long view.

  1.  The dour lady lawyer who headed up our department began to look on me more favorably.
  2.  Two years later, Mort Sahl found a new wife.
  3.  Seven years later, I met Bill, who’s more my type.

Also, Mort was right.  It was a great letter. And we both still have that.

SOPHIE BEFORE FEMINISM

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[A Story.]

When Sophie was twenty-two and still living at home in Los Angeles, a white elephant named Clark lived there too. Clark actually rented a furnished studio opposite the Paramount lot. But he was nine years older than Sophie, divorced, and had four children, plus alimony and child support obligations. His job as a university instructor  paid nearly nothing. He drove a broken-down ’37 Plymouth coupe and spent all his spare time writing unmarketable novels. The silent parental disapproval was palpable.

On the other hand, he wore a tweed jacket and had an MFA from Yale, initially major attractions for Sophie in this cultural wasteland to which her parents had moved her from the East a year ago. During the time she’d been with him in his pull-out Murphy bed, he’d also taught her quite a lot about what men like.  Still, her parents were probably right. There was no future in it.  He worked the summer session to make ends meet and spent August in Texas, where his children lived with their mother. All he could provide were modest weekend suppers, which Sophie cooked on his two-burner hotplate, and the diversions to be found in the Murphy, now becoming routine. He wasn’t even apologetic. “We’re made for each other,” he crowed. She would smile, falsely. She hated scenes, fled from conflict, chose the easy way. Also, there was no one else on the horizon.

And it wasn’t as if that were her only problem. At USC, where she was now a graduate student in the English Department thanks to a teaching assistantship which had come to her through Clark’s recommendation, she was just beginning to feel her way. She made sure to wear elegant suits with narrow skirts, handkerchief linen blouses, nylons with seams marching smartly up the back of her calves, and neat low-heeled pumps from Bonwit Teller – so no one could mistake her for a coed. But was it really all right to be teaching how literature illumined the meaning of life by sitting on the desk with her legs crossed, like Lauren Bacall on Harry Truman’s piano? Should she be reading aloud from The Catcher in the Rye to a Freshman Lit class of tanned eighteen-year-olds, plus a front row of vets newly returned from Korea and nine members of the freshman football team slouched against the back wall? Would someone from the Department come round to check?

Then there was British History 340 (MWF 2:00-2:50), unwelcome but necessary. No undergraduate English History survey course, no graduate English degree. It was surprisingly hard. And the thirty other students, male and fanned out mostly towards the rear of the auditorium, were – for her purposes — useless. They almost all looked too young. A somewhat older fellow with bad skin, up front on the left, nodded hopefully in her direction each time she slid into her seat up front on the right. But she always pretended not to see. There were also two other older ones, halfway back behind her, sitting together on their spines like her freshman football players. Returning GIs? Neither ever paid attention when she sailed past.

At the end of October, the professor concluded the hour by slapping the blue books containing the five-week exam answers on the first seat in front of the podium. 25% of the final grade right there. Sophie was nervous. Would a B jeopardize her assistantship? The class line snaked forward towards the diminishing pile of booklets. She took a deep breath, flipped through the top ones and recognized her name. In the upper corner of the cover: a large A-minus.   New questions quickly trumped relief. Was grading on the curve? Had anyone done better?

A voice with a distinctive crack disputed a grade. The owner of the voice waved his blue book in the air; it was clearly marked with another large A minus. Indignation rose sour in Sophie’s throat. A-minus wasn’t good enough? He was arguing? And actually getting an A? As she watched, the professor crossed out the large A-minus, remarked it A, and altered the record of the grade in his grade book. The owner of the new A turned with a smile of triumph to the room at large. She recognized him. The taller of the two who sat on their spines halfway back behind her. His achievement clouded her weekend.

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

Such an opportunity! Sophie turned partially towards the speaker, the better to show the curve of her hip and relative flatness of her girdled stomach, and inquired sweetly: “But why call yourself a Jansenist? This is the twentieth century! If you just eliminate God from your Jansenism, you could say you’re an Existentialist. Haven’t you read Sartre?” Sometimes even she was impressed by the nonsense that could emerge from her mouth when needed. He regarded her with interest. His dark eyes had a downward tilt at the outer corners which gave him an amused look.  “Hm,” he said. “I’ll think about it. Since you say so.”

“Do.” And down the aisle she went, feeling much better about her A minus.

He was lounging against the banister of the stairwell when she came out after class. She had a key to the elevator. The preliminary repartee was predictable. It got him into the elevator with her. Their trip to the lobby was brief and silent. He looked at her. She looked at him. He was tall, with thick rough features, a dark crew cut that was growing out, and those amused eyes. He needed a shave. He wore a heavy purple sweater with a large white HC on it. Bad color for him. Made him too pale. But none of that mattered. Too soon the elevator door opened. “Well, thanks,” he said. “It was a pleasure. See you Wednesday.” Sophie so much didn’t want to forget any part of this encounter that she wrote it all down as soon as she got home.

On Wednesday he had shaved. He was very polite. He gestured to the empty seats next to her: “Anyone sitting here?”   She smiled, shaking her head. He left one seat between them. The lecture began almost at once. They both took very careful notes. Sophie couldn’t have repeated a single thing she wrote.

They rode the elevator in silence again. Outside he asked if she would like a cup of coffee. They walked on slabs of sidewalk between borders of grass. It was as if she were in a movie. Although early November, the mid-afternoon sun was shining. He offered to carry her books. No, no she said, she could manage. He insisted on taking them anyway. No one had ever carried her books before. She knew they were talking about something, but the actual words didn’t count. Another something, very powerful, was pulsing between them. They reached Commons. The other teaching assistants from the English Department were sitting together at two tables and saw him carrying her books. She suggested they go sit with them but he said no, they should go downstairs. So the other teaching assistants also saw them go down to The Hole, where only undergraduates hung out. But what did it matter? Sophie’s real life was beginning at last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do understand,” he said solemnly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was nearly dark when they arrived. There were two rooms. They tiptoed through the first, which had bookshelves, but that’s all Sophie could see, because of course she had her glasses off. The second was the bedroom. He was clumsy at finding her buttons and hooks so she quickly undressed herself while he pulled off his sweater, shirt and pants and kicked off his shoes. Next she went to the bathroom. Sitting on someone else’s toilet squeezing jelly into the rubber cap, she reflected that this wasn’t as romantic as she might have liked. But it was much too soon for babies. After she emerged they drank some of the port out of the bottle (Sophie took only a sip because of the calories), and kissed again. Then his erection got in the way of more really close kissing so they went to bed, he climbed on top of her and came very soon. “That’s okay,” he said, putting his arm around her. “There’s lots more where that came from. Once I came seven times in one night.” She did like the arm around her.

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

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

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

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

They strolled out of the restaurant hand in hand and went to Pickwick’s, where they gazed at the shelves in the literature section and Sophie talked about Proust, which she had read most of and he hadn’t, while her curled fingers slid up and down his thumb. His good night kiss at her front door seemed almost reverent. She felt they were going to be together forever.

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

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

He did care about not making a mess, though. With a thick layer of old newspaper crackling under her naked behind every time she moved, and toilet paper and her last unopened Tampax within reach on the floor next to her side of the bed, the afternoon began to seem more about keeping the bed clean than abandoning herself to the transports of love. Did she dare turn over? Was her ass covered with newsprint? Was now the time to pull the plug and let him in? Sophie groped for the little white string with one hand, but it was slippery and wet and impossible to yank. Then she wrapped a thick wad of toilet paper around it, and gave mighty tugs with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands until finally out came the used and swollen tampon, hot from her body and soaked dark. “Wait!” she cried, holding him off with elbow and knee while she wrapped the detritus of her innards in more and more toilet paper until she could see no more seepage. Predictably (and mercifully), he came fast, at which point she pushed him off — lovingly, she hoped — so she could insert the last clean Tampax before there was damage to the sheets. That pretty much ended the promise of the afternoon for her. She wondered if she wouldn’t have been better off at the Pope and Dryden seminar.

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

“Then this is your apartment!” she said.  “No, “ he replied. “But it used to be.” As if that were an answer. He hurried her into the car.

She thought she would see him the next day, but when she arrived at the English Department Friday morning she discovered a teaching assistant meeting had been scheduled for two that afternoon, so she had to cut History. Two cut classes in as many days; her life was going out of control. At the meeting, another teaching assistant who was her best friend in the Department whispered that Clark had called to ask for a date and she had said yes. Since Sophie had broken up with him she thought it would be all right. They were going out Saturday night. Sophie knew he would try to get her into bed. Not because she was so gorgeous but to get even.  Would she yield? On the first date? She was still a virgin. (Unless she was lying.) But he was very skillful. Should Sophie warn her? Maybe she wanted to be deflowered. Maybe she’d been secretly jealous of Sophie this whole semester. We never know the real truth about anyone, do we? The Department Head was discussing the last composition unit of the fall Freshman English semester. Did he actually believe you could teach anyone to write? Afterwards Sophie walked over to Commons with the best friend to show no hard feelings, and they had coffee with the others who’d been at the meeting and were jabbering about what the Department Head had said. She kept her eyes on the door but never saw Will come in looking for her.

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

On Monday, Sophie cornered her. “So? How was it?” “Fine.” “Going to see him again?” “Don’t know yet.” She didn’t look particularly glowing or fulfilled, but maybe she was simply distracted; she had a class in five minutes. What did ‘fulfilled’ look like anyway?

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

He’d never mentioned a mother before. Should she suggest he introduce them to each other? No, the thought should come from him. “You won’t have to spend all that time with her, will you? Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, of course. But all four days?”

He nodded, sadly.

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

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

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

“But if you were married,” Sophie cried, “what did you think you were doing with me?” He looked down at the ground. After a while he said quietly, “I thought I could have a wife and mistress both.” Mistress? Hadn’t he understood what she’d been offering? What did he think this was? Some kind of Victorian novel?

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

She couldn’t give him up now, just like that. Temporize, she told herself. Play for time. Cry later.

He looked happier when she said yes.

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

They sat thigh by thigh in the Hole. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute passed their booth and waved. He must have known all along. Sophie felt dirty.

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

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

“I wish I were a better person,” he said.

That’s about as contrite as he got.

He called on Thanksgiving, around ten o’clock, from a phone booth on the corner near his in-laws. “I had to get out for some air,” he said. She was ready to meet him, but he had to go back. They both got A on the History ten-week. She wondered how he’d managed, with so much going on in his life. She’d had to really study for hers. The week after Thanksgiving break he came to the house to pick her up. A theological student who was out of town had lent him a key to his room. It was a narrow sliver of space containing a single cot with black blanket, a metal desk piled high with religious texts, one folding chair, and a dark prie-dieu. On the disapproving walls were several crucifixes in various sizes. They sat on the austere black blanket and tried to kiss. Then they hung their clothing over the back of the single chair and did what they had come to do. It was all very sad, although Will seemed to be in good working order in spite of their situation. Afterwards, they lay on top of the black blanket while he stroked Sophie’s arm. She told him he would love the baby when it was born. It was going to be his baby, a part of him. She thought she ought to say these things to sound wise and warm, and to make him feel better, although she had no idea if they were going to be true. He looked doubtful. “But I don’t want to be married,” he said. “The baby will make everything all right,” she murmured reassuringly, hating Little Miss Pure who couldn’t hang on to her underpants. She was dying for a cigarette. The theological student had no ashtray. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.

They went to Milani’s French Dip on Santa Monica near Highland. Plenty of ashtrays there. Their booth had a little box on it labeled “Swami Says.” For a penny, inserted in the appropriate slot, you could ask Swami any question answerable with yes or no. “Do we have a future together?” Sophie asked Swami. Swami said no.

She fished another penny out of her change purse. “Will we at least see each other until the baby comes?” Swami said no.

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

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

“All it can say is no!”

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

And then it simply unraveled. Will began to look for another job for when his classes would be over and had to hurry away after History to go on interviews. The week before Christmas vacation, they went a last time to the Hole. He seemed resigned to what would be. Sophie tried to memorize his face. “Time was just out of joint for us from the beginning,” she said. “I guess,” he said. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute came by and Will invited him to sit with us. They talked about the baby coming, and the job market, and it was almost as if Sophie weren’t there at all. At the end of the last History class, Will said he had to go. He was still wearing his purple sweater. Sophie was getting fond of it, now that she would probably never see it again. He put out his hand half way and then took it back and gave a little wave goodbye instead. She nodded and turned quickly, before he did. She wasn’t going to stand there and watch him walk away from her. He must have taken the final with a different proctor because she didn’t see him in the exam room to which she was assigned. She got an A in the course and assumed Will did too. Although what difference did it make, now that he was out of school and about to become a father?

Clark soon re-insinuated himself into her life. The business with the best friend had never gotten off the ground. He forgave Sophie her trespasses. (Although he didn’t forget them.) All was (almost) as before. Except she did hear from Will once more. He phoned from a booth in the hospital one evening in February. The baby was a girl. He was naming her Miranda, after Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest, because he wanted to protect her from the corrupt and evil world. “I had to call,” he said, “to say you were right. As soon as I saw her, I loved her. I wanted you to know.”

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

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

Maybe it would work out.

WHAT TO SEND A GIRL WHO’S GIVING YOU A HARD TIME

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While rummaging around the basement a few days ago, I found myself wrist-deep in the contents of a dusty old suitcase that hadn’t been opened for quite some time. It was the smallest and only surviving case in a three-piece set of Amelia Earhart luggage my parents bought for me when I set off to college in September 1948.  You wouldn’t want to use it as a suitcase these days.  It’s heavy (for its size) and has no roller wheels.  But it has remained useful over the years as a sort of storage box.

Indeed, when I managed to pry its two closures open, it was jammed full of yellowing correspondence from the time when people sent each other real letters on real paper — sometimes even handwritten — which were then folded into real envelopes with postage stamps on them.  These were letters that took at least two or three days to reach their destination, and sometimes longer.  You had to be patient.  Or else pace impatiently, until the mailman arrived.

We may revisit the interesting question of why I hang on to all this stuff in another post, after I’ve figured it out myself.  However, this post is not about that.  It’s about the folded piece of paper on top of one of the bundles of letters in the suitcase.  The rubber band holding the bundle together had dried out and it snapped when I picked up the bundle.  The top piece of paper slipped to the floor.  It was just asking to be read!  How could I not unfold it and take it over to a good light?

Long story short, it was a plea/demand straight from the gonads — its author being a young man I had met and in due time kissed, again and again, during the previous summer.  Unfortunately, he was now in a college twenty-five hours away from mine by train, racked by uncertainty as to my feelings.   He wasn’t quite as young as I was, but nearly — and was definitely hotter to trot. (At least when writing about it.)  Apparently, I was taking my time — too much time, as he saw it — in committing the degree of my desire to paper.

Having just reread his typed expression of angst for the first time in nearly sixty-six years, I like it much more than I did when I first received it. I even now like the not-so-surreptitious suggestion that I was being a bitch.  [“Bright EYE WET nose can be taught all manner of tricks”]  I probably was.  I sobbed at parting in Grand Central Station, but otherwise would go just so far, and no farther.

Nonetheless, I must have liked it enough, despite the jab, for him soon to become an important person in my early life, the one referred to elsewhere in this blog as “first serious boyfriend.”  And I like it so much now I thought other people might like to read it too.  I know he wouldn’t mind, if he were still alive.  He’d smile.  Maybe you will, too.

[Note:  I’d re-type it to make it easier for you to read, but I can’t reproduce the e.e. cummings style without a typewriter roller, and I no longer have a typewriter — not even in my rat pack basement.]

[Second note:   although e.e. cummings was cutting-edge stuff to the 1948 college crowd, his poetic style, emulated here, may not have aged well.   On the other hand, the feelings expressed have no pull date.  Some kinds of H-U-R-TZ never go away.]

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THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART VI)

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[Continued from five previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” When she was ten, her father died and her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

IMG_0563LIFE IN BAKU.  This is what I know about my mother’s life in Baku:

School.  She said she had not been a remarkable student, and did not especially like school. Her best subject was mathematics. On a scale of 0 to 5, her marks — I am using her term — were always 5 in mathematics, usually 4 in everything else. (Mathematics probably meant arithmetic, at least at first, although later it would also have had to include algebra, geometry, and maybe even calculus.)  However, her academic performance was good enough to win her one of the few places reserved for Jewish girls in a “gymnasium” — one of the official schools in Tsarist Russia from which a diploma was necessary for entry to any institution of higher education.  Admittance to a gymnasium — for everyone — was by examination, but  the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large. According to a memorandum my father wrote of his own early life in Russia, the Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was ten percent of the student population. My father added that when his brother, five years older than he was, took the examination, there were not many Jewish families in Baku, and even fewer Jewish children, so it was relatively easy to win a place. But when the time came for him to apply, it was a different story!  A flood of people had come south, fleeing first the war, then the Communist takeover in the north — and of course among them many more Jewish families. My mother was two years younger than my father; her own disclaimers about her scholastic achievement to the contrary, her performance on the entrance examination must therefore have been very good indeed.

Piano.  She had wanted to learn to play the piano, perhaps because cousin Lisa had played. Lessons were available to her, but her half-sister had no piano on which she could practice. For a short while she tried to practice on the school piano after hours, when it was not in use. But this seems not to have worked out, and she soon gave up. When I was seven and she was thirty-four, my father bought a Steinway baby grand on time (monthly payments) and arranged for me to have lessons. My mother was very proud of that piano; it had the place of honor in our living room. Every day she dusted it lovingly and carefully wiped down the ivory keys one by one. But when I — the helpful seven-year-old — suggested that now we had a piano she could take lessons too and practice while I was in school, she shook her head. “No, it’s too late,” she said.

Crushes. As she entered adolescence, she lavished love on famous women opera singers and actresses. She even brought the cardboard-backed photograph of one of them to America — her favorite, I suppose.IMG_0541 It shows a  svelte woman in a floor-length dress and a long looped string of pearls looking up at the ceiling dramatically. The photograph is signed (in Cyrillic lettering) Vera Kholodnaya; I have no idea who the woman was.  Perhaps a silent film star? A renowned soprano? I remember my mother singing snatches of arias from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin while she did her housework when I was little.  [As a result, I can sing them, too:  “Shto-tyi, Lenski, nyi tansooi-ish?” Why, Lenski? Why aren’t you dancing?]

Appearances. One summer, she said, she had only two dresses, both white. But every day, she would wash and iron one and wear the other, so that she was always clean and neat.

Dieting. She also dieted, allowing herself every day only one small bunch of grapes and one piece of bread. [Here she would draw with her two forefingers on the kitchen table the outline of the square of bread which had been her self-imposed allotment.] She must have had iron self control. As for the length of time she maintained this spartan program, she never said. Telling me about it, when I myself was trying to slim down for college, was supposed to be inspirational. But by then I recognized a recipe for certain failure when I heard it, and did not seek further detail. My generation counted calories.

Vanity. She squeezed her feet into shoes that were too small for her because small feet, she said, were fashionable in Russia and she was vain. (It may also have been that during wartime and afterwards, pretty shoes were hard to find and you took what there was.) When I was growing up, she wore a 6 ½ and then a 7. She said that in Russia she had sometimes tried to get into a 4. As a result, she developed enormous red bunions that distorted the shape of her feet and later gave her much pain and many visits to chiropodists. It was not until she was nearly eighty that she gave up wearing stylish shoes and consented to become an old lady in sneakers.

Starvation. After the Red Army arrived in Baku in 1920, food became scarce. Soon there were no more potatoes. No more grapes. Bread was rationed. And what bread was available was so adulterated with sand she developed canker sores from malnutrition.

Romance.  At seventeen, she had a boyfriend. He was blond, with light-colored eyes; his oddly combed hair featured a wave at the upper left temple. He appears at the right side of the front row of a group photograph of university students, sitting on the ground and wearing a jacket with some kind of medal hanging on it.  My mother, unsmiling and plump (despite the diet), with long brown hair loosely heaped up beneath a large hat, is seated near the center of the second row.

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Although they’re not sitting near each other, I know the blond one with the wave is the boyfriend because among the photographs she brought with her from Russia is a separate small photo of the same young man; the hair, wave and medal are identical.

IMG_0550On the back of the small photo, in pale violet writing so faint it would be illegible even if I could read Russian, is a personal message to my mother from the subject of the photograph.  They saw each other for about six months, she said. Once she also told me they were engaged. I now think this means she slept with him, a confidence she would never have shared with me at the time in so many words. [After becoming a mother, she put her own past conduct behind her and adopted the two principles on which American mothers were then allegedly raising their daughters: (1) Men want only one thing; and (2) No man will marry used goods.]

Another loss.  This fiancé was not my father. So how did they break up?  (At last, a juicy part of the story!)  My mother pursed her lips and smoothed the sleeve of one of my father’s dress shirts on the ironing board before sprinkling it with water from a glass. “His family was connected to the nobility,” she said. “So they arrested him.”  And? The hot iron made a sizzling sound on the damp shirt. “We went every day to the prison.” She didn’t explain who “we” was. “Until we found his name on the list.” “What list?” I asked. “The list of those who had been shot. ” My mother turned my father’s shirt over on the ironing board to do the back.

MY FATHER.  Not long afterwards, my mother met my father, an engineering student at the Technology Institute in Baku –probably during the summer she turned eighteen, or just before.  “How did you meet?” I asked.  “At university,” she answered.  My father was more specific.  They had mutual friends, who introduced them on the esplanade running along the shore of the Caspian Sea.  Four or five months later, he managed to bring her out of Communist Russia with him. They made this exodus sound simple when I first heard of it.  He asked if she wanted to come.  She went to ask her mother if she should go.  Her mother’s response is the only thing she ever told me Berta Isaakovna said to her.  There was no equivocation:  “If you can get out, get out.  There’s nothing for you here.”  My grandmother also sold a featherbed and a pair of pearl earrings to give my mother the money to pay her passage.

But it wasn’t simple.  “Getting out” was far from easy.  However, I have already written that story elsewhere. It appeared in an online magazine called Persimmontree. You can read it here, if you like. This may therefore be a good place to stop, before my mother and father reach America, speaking no English, but leaving war, hunger, and executions behind them forever.

When they were both in their early eighties and my father happy to reminiscence, I asked him once why he had invited my mother,  met so recently, to come with him to America. He thought about it for a moment, smiled, and said, “I wanted sex.”  I looked at my mother — that staunch advocate in my girlhood of “Men don’t marry used goods.”

“Mama, was this true?”  She nodded sheepishly, and lowered her head.  And never mentioned it again.  But who’s to say she was wrong to succumb so quickly, and so soon after the execution of the first fiancé?  I have to be glad she did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.

My mother’s experiences in America may well have further shaped the girl of eighteen who arrived on Ellis Island.  But what she experienced in those first eighteen years — the repeated losses, deprivations, dislocations, fear (whether or not I have got the details quite right) — was formative.  They crippled her as a person, a woman, a mother.  Until she died she was afraid of “them” and what “they” might do.  (You couldn’t ask who “they” were.  She didn’t know.)  She placed excessive value on “money,” both overly respecting and also envying those who had the security and comforts it could buy.  She thought you were nothing without a man, you must do all you could as a young woman to attract one, and then once you had him devote yourself to him and his needs for the rest of your life so as not to lose him  — irrespective of the cost to your own needs and happiness.  She thought it was safest to stay home, it was bad to be Jewish, it was good to be beautiful.  Once I was no longer a little girl, it was never easy to be her daughter.  But that’s another story.

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So I will leave you with one last photograph of my mother and father on the streets of New York, six months after they arrived in America.  It was the summer of 1923, when she was nineteen and he was twenty-one and their whole grown-up life in a new country was still to come.