THE DON (A story) (2 of 2)

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[….continued from previous post.]

Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.

Florence was not the ideal partner for this kind of analysis. Her lack of interest in style and grooming blinded her to the wife’s shortcomings in dress and makeup. Worse, she didn’t find Couteau as attractive as Clara did; his unfavorable report on her work in the Shakespeare seminar had jeopardized her scholarship and she’d had to write two more long papers over the summer to get it reinstated, understandably weakening her susceptibility to his charms. “It can’t be easy being his wife,” she observed. “I bet he’s a difficult man to live with.” Also she didn’t think his drinking out of Clara’s glass was going to lead to anything. She agreed it wasn’t what the typical don would do with the typical donnee’s wine glass, and further agreed he likely found Clara attractive, especially in that sophisticated corduroy outfit, or he wouldn’t have done it. That said, she was inclined to view the sip of wine as an error of judgment.

Here, Clara had to concede, Florence was the expert. Sloven or no, she had lost her virginity to a much older man almost as soon as she’d arrived at college three years before. Clara’s knowledge of her deflowering hardly constituted a confidence; she’d told at least six other people, all of whom had thoroughly discussed it with one another. He’d done it on the floor of his 57th Street art gallery, beneath a Picasso, the Saturday she went to New York to apply for a weekend job. It turned out there was no job. Just instant mutual attraction and a long affair. Even now they still connected from time to time, if their respective schedules permitted. (She checked her diaphragm in a Grand Central locker whenever she went home on school breaks.) Clearly her views on Clara’s future with their mutual don were entitled to deference.

“Look,” she said, “it was only your glass. If he really wanted to go to bed with you, why didn’t he kiss the back of your neck, or put his arm around your waist, or his hand on your tit? He could have done any or all of that while the two of you were looking out that damn window for so long.”

“No, he couldn’t,” Clara insisted. “You were there.”

“He didn’t care about me being there or he wouldn’t have done the thing with the glass. Besides,” she added, “you didn’t exactly encourage him. If you wanted to make something of it, why didn’t you turn around? You just stood there, for God’s sake. He must have thought you’d report him if he went further!”

So now it was Clara’s fault. “You really think nothing more is going to happen?”

“Not before he gets back to school,” opined this woman of the world who owned a diaphragm. “What do you expect him to do? Write you incriminating love letters? Call you on the house phone and explain to someone else why he needs to speak to you?”

“Then what can I do?”

Florence was buttoning her coat to get back to her own off-campus house. Behind as usual, she needed the Thanksgiving break to catch up on assigned reading. “Invite him over to lunch next term, after he’s back. Make hamburgers or something. This is a neat house for stuff like that. You could even serve it in your room. And see what happens then.”

Clara paced restlessly after she had left. Did she really want to steal him away from the wife in socks and become the wife herself – stepmother to his unseen little girl and slavey in his kitchen? Not really. But the delicious unhappiness of an affair with a married faculty member who couldn’t resist her: how could she not yield? Was it too dangerous? Would it jeopardize her degree? What should she do? What could she do? If only it had been a regular don-donnee dinner, without any of these troubling problems! She wished she’d eaten more of the wife’s cooking.

Taking Florence’s advice, Clara invited Couteau to lunch a few days before spring break. He seemed surprised, but accepted. In town, she bought a pound of freshly ground round, lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, and also a few hard rolls in case he needed bread. Everyone else in the house agreed to stay away for this momentous occasion. Clara cleared off her desk, borrowed a second desk chair from another room and laid out two place settings, napkins, salt and pepper, the ketchup bottle, a basket of the rolls and two glasses. Couteau arrived just as the two half-pound patties of ground round were nearing completion in the frying pan. (A half-pound was what Clara’s mother had always made for her father.) Clara slid the meat onto plates already decorated with lettuce and tomato slices, and led Couteau up the stairs, each of them carrying a plate and an eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. When he saw they were to eat in her room he hesitated momentarily, but then courageously crossed the threshold. Clara left the door open, to reassure him. “Where is everybody?” he asked.

“Why, at lunch!” she laughed gaily.

It was an awkward meal. Clara asked if the meat was sufficiently well done. He said yes, it was very good but a lot of food. Flushing with embarrassment, Clara said she thought that was the amount men ate. (This did not explain why she too had half a pound on her plate.) He said he had a class to teach that afternoon and would fall asleep if he ate it all. Hurriedly, she changed the subject and asked about his wife, his child. He said they were fine. He asked what she thought she might want to do next year. If she were applying to graduate school, he’d be glad to write recommendations, her last paper was really remarkable. She said she was putting grad school on the back burner for a while to see what real life was like. He nodded, and pushed his plate away. Half the hamburger was still there. Clara had finished all hers. He didn’t drink from her glass. He didn’t drink from his own glass either. Maybe he didn’t like Coca-Cola? He thanked her for the home-cooked lunch and got up to go. “We’ll have to do this again,” Clara said. “When you have more time.”

“When do I have more time?” he asked pleasantly.

As soon as he was out the front door, she hurried back upstairs. Damn him. Had he forgotten Thanksgiving, the heavy breathing, the sip of wine? And if he was regretting all that, if he had realized in the interim that a love between them could only come to naught, why did he agree to come to lunch and put her to all this trouble? He hadn’t even offered to help take everything downstairs! Well, of course not, why would he? That slavey of a wife did everything for him. She poured ketchup on the remains of his ground round and ate it angrily before stacking the plates. She had to make two trips because she had no tray, and had just managed to finish cleaning everything up, including the greasy frying pan, when some of her housemates returned from their own lunch in the dining room. “How was it?” they asked, curiously. They didn’t know about the heavy breathing and sip of wine.

“I’m certainly not doing that again,” Clara said, loss and indigestion throbbing in her midsection.

“Bad, huh?”

“Pretty awful.” She laughed hollowly. “And I thought I was being so nice. It just goes to show….”

 

And then it was really over. Parents began arriving for the commencement dinner. They sat on folding chairs on the small lawn in front of Clara’s off-campus house and exchanged polite remarks while waiting for it to be dinnertime. Photos were snapped. Couteau came looking for Clara in the dining room. How gracious he was to her parents, whose conventional views of life he had worked so hard, with only partial success, to eradicate in Clara. Although he sat at their table through the appetizer and entrée, chatting lightly of this and that while she hoped for a private look in her direction, he excused himself before dessert to join Florence and her parents at another table.

Following dessert and coffee Clara’s parents left too – because, said her father, it was a long drive home and they would have to get up early for commencement at eleven. Dutifully she walked them to their new Pontiac and then hurried back to the dining room. By then the dinner was breaking up. Some of the other parents were now calling taxis to go into town for drinks with each other. Clara made her way around clusters of people she didn’t know, past deserted tables littered with dirty cups and crumpled napkins, looking for Florence and Couteau. “Oh, they’ve left,” someone told her. “Her parents weren’t able to come after all, so he took her into town to the Spoon.” The Greasy Spoon was a drinking hangout. Clara had never in all her four college years been there. He took her? On the very last evening they could ever have together? Sloppy disheveled her? She swiped the last four brownies from a tray near the kitchen, wrapped them in two napkins and took them back to her room, where she ate them methodically at the desk which was no longer her desk, brown crumbs falling on her new yellow cotton dress.

The next morning the sun shone. Alphabetically by last name, the graduates lined up in black caps and gowns rented for the occasion, to sit in the first two long rows of folding chairs arranged on the broad front lawn of the administration building. Florence was two seats away. Clara leaned over the girl between them and poked her. She turned. “What happened at the Spoon last night?” Clara whispered.

“Nothing,” Florence whispered back. “He drank a lot. He looked pretty drunk by the time the place closed.”

“And then?”

“What then? I went back to my room.”

“And him?”

“He went home. At least he said he was going to.”

The girl sitting patiently between them suddenly made shushing noises. The faculty, also in caps and gowns, were filing solemnly out of the building to sit on a dais set up on the front portico. Ah, there was the college president, followed by the dean. Clara tried to make out Couteau under one of the black caps. Sour brownie rose up in her mouth, the taste of failure and gastric reflux. She swallowed hard and choked everything down, stomach acid burning her throat. A name was called, a diploma presented, hands shaken. She heard clapping from parents, families and friends of others coming from the seats on the grass in the rows and rows behind her. Another name. And another. The clapping grew slightly less enthusiastic. Too many names. It seemed to go very fast all the same. Soon she tensed. There. Her name. Up she went. Diploma. Handshake. A scattering of claps.

Afterwards there was some milling around, but everyone was anxious to get on the road. Couteau approached. Stay in touch, he said. She nodded. He walked away, out of her life. A few of the others from her senior house waved to her. Goodbye, goodbye. Stay in touch. She nodded again. You too. It was hard to say more without crying.

 

Clara kept the Neilson and Hill, but although Couteau had covered only eight of the plays in class, she never again opened it to read another. At first she feared she wouldn’t be able to duplicate her interpretive success with All’s Well That Ends Well. Later, dipping into Shakespeare slipped further and further down her to-do list. But when she was sixty, her two children grown and gone from the nest, her career as a patent lawyer settling into four unpressured days a week at a small boutique firm, she began to look back at her life and it crossed her mind she’d like to see Couteau again before he died.

Having obtained his present address and telephone number from the college and made arrangements for a visit, she discovered he now lived in a modest two-story house at the top of a very steep hill in Kerhonkson, a small town in the Catskills. Margaret Couteau opened the door with a warm smile. “He’ll be so glad you came,” she said. Although quite wrinkled, she otherwise hadn’t changed much, except for white hair and the extremely thick cataract lenses in her glasses that enormously enlarged her eyes.

Couteau, heavier and looking much older than his wife, sat hunched sourly in an easy chair before a television news channel with the volume turned up high.  Two canes leaned against the chair. He made no effort to get up, but did switch off the television with a remote. Then he stared at Clara for a moment, as if unsure of who she was, before extending a cold gnarled hand.

“His arthritis is very bad,” explained Margaret.

“Hello, Charles,” said Clara, as cheerfully as she could. “You do remember me, don’t you? Clara? From the class of ’52?

He continued to stare. “I remember you used to be angular and sharp,” he snapped suddenly. “What happened?”

Clara said nothing. It had been forty years. I was only angular and sharp for about two weeks as an entering freshman, she thought. Is it my mind he’s remembering?

“Margaret says you’re some kind of big shot lawyer now. So you sold out too.  Like most of the others.”

They had lunch in the adjoining kitchen. He needed the two canes to maneuver himself to the table. It was fillet of sole, peas and carrots. Clara noticed Margaret had actually shelled fresh peas and scraped fresh carrots. Couteau complained the carrots weren’t sweet enough. Clara had brought a good Bordeaux and the most expensive single malt Scotch she could find in her local liquor store. He nodded when Margaret showed him the bottles, but otherwise took no notice. When he had finished eating, he rose with help and stumbled painfully away for a nap on a sleeper sofa in the living room. “He can’t get up the stairs anymore,” explained Margaret when he was out of earshot. “He has to live down here now. We put in a downstairs bathroom.”

Clara helped her clear, wash up and dry. There was no dishwasher. Then they sat down at the kitchen table again. “This must be very hard for you,” said Clara. “Alone here at the top of a mountain. How do you manage?”

It seems Margaret did all the driving up and down – to get groceries, reach the drugstore, fill the tank of their fifteen-year-old Buick. Genevieve, the daughter, lived with another lesbian woman in Western Massachusetts. She did speak with her mother every week, so there was that. “But Charles is very disappointed Genevieve turned out the way she did,” said Margaret. “He feels it was some kind of failure. Unnatural, he calls it. He doesn’t want to talk to her when she calls.”

“How can that be?” exclaimed Clara. “His views about how to live were so liberating!”

“I don’t know about that,” said Margaret. “Charles was always quite a conventional man. He even made me stop working after we married. He didn’t think a wife should go out to earn money. You can see where that landed us.”  Then she noticed the expression on Clara’s face. “He did talk a good game, though,” she added kindly. “You weren’t the only student who found him inspiring.”

“You’ve got to get off this hill,” said Clara. “How much longer can you go on like this?” She wasn’t just thinking of the cataracts.

“Tell that to Charles.”

Couteau woke up in time to see Clara leave. He appeared somewhat anxious for her to be out of the house so he could turn on the television again. There was a program he wanted to watch. Only Margaret seemed sad to see her go. Before she came, Clara had imagined she might make a little joke about that sip of wine on Thanksgiving Day so long ago. All things considered, it was just as well she hadn’t.

 

 

ANOTHER STORY, VERY SHORT

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The high functioning daughter is on the phone.  What a nice surprise.  “We’ve just rented a beach house for next August,” says the daughter.  “You’ll have to come out for a weekend. The kids will be back from day camp then.  And Bob and I will both have off.”

It’s only October. Such closely scheduled lives. But the mother knows she can’t say that. “Oh, lovely,” she replies. “Something to look forward to.”

Christmas and New Year’s come and go. Easter rolls around. The mother begins really thinking about summer, even though it’s still a few months off. She hardly ever sees these three grandchildren now they’re all in school and then rushing to after-school sports, music lessons and playdates. Not to mention the daughter, rapidly advancing in her architectural firm.  At least those are the excuses, when she brings it up.

“Which weekend should I plan on coming out?” she asks the daughter carefully at a dinner given by her son-in-law’s mother.

The daughter’s face assumes a familiar unpleasant expression, as if the mother’s question were entirely out of line. “No weekend, actually. There are none left. We owe such a lot of people. We’ve invited too many as it is.”

Did her daughter actually forget the October invitation? Or had it become inconvenient?  “I thought it was a big house,” says the mother, even now not having learned from experience. “I could also come during the week.” She hates herself for adding that.  For having to beg.

The daughter shakes her head decisively. “Not such a big house. No, it would just be too awkward. And we need the weekdays to recover from the guests.”  She offers a tight smile, suggesting that what she’d just said should be thought amusing.

The mother perseveres. “So does that mean I won’t be seeing you at all this summer?”  It sounds better for “you” to be taken as plural but right now she really means “you” singular — the “you” who used to be her difficult, brilliant much-loved baby girl.

“Looks like it,” says the daughter.  “There’s a lot going on. Maybe we can find a time in the fall. I’ll have to check with Bob.”

Why should she be surprised? For a long time, she’s been on tenterhooks with this daughter anyway. Should she have nailed down an August weekend for herself last October? Sent a confirming email ten months ahead? Who does such things with family? It’s been explained to her by others (counselor, family doctor, close woman friend) that the daughter may not be able to help it;  with this kind of disorder, she probably doesn’t even understand how it makes the mother feel. It’s not intentional. She shouldn’t take it personally.

The mother always nods. Easy for them to say.

It’s not their daughter, she thinks.  Not their heart that hurts.

CAN A REALLY GREAT WRITER MAKE IT ON WORDPRESS?

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[Last fall I registered for an adult education course that failed to attract a sufficient number of registrants and was therefore withdrawn.  It was about “The Long Short Story.”  I had already bought the books containing the six stories to be discussed, and don’t easily give in while there’s still hope. So I put up a post in which I offered to host a reading program with the professor’s curriculum if I had three takers — a foolhardy idea, as hardly anyone in Princeton knows I blog.  But there was one brave soul, in a town just to the north, who raised her virtual hand.  We’ll call her G.  

And so G. and I, in an extremely leisurely way, began.  We decided to meet every other Thursday at 2 p.m. (except for December, because G. has a large extended family for whom holiday preparations are time-consuming).  We eliminated Faulkner and Conrad from the professor’s list and added a few authors of our own. We alternate houses and make tea. (G. is English.)  Occasionally, instead of reading a new story, we watch a DVD movie version of a story we’ve just read, and then talk about what changes were necessary to show the story visually without too many voice-overs and what was lost in translation from print to screen.

But because it’s only two very good long stories a month (one, if it’s a movie month), there’s time to read carefully and read again.  G. is more thorough than I am in the line-by-line stuff. (She comes from a career in science.) I focus on structure, what is suggested by what is said, and what is not said because it’s not necessary to say it. We tell each other we’re learning how to write better memoir, and perhaps we are.  We certainly have a pretty good time, even though we hardly knew each other before this literary adventure.  Because we’re women, sometimes the conversation wanders off point. But we were professional women, so it doesn’t wander too far.  No reminiscences of childbirth yet, or anything like that, although given time we might get there.

So far, we’ve read Chekhov’s “Lady With A Dog,” Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” Mann’s “Tonio Kruger,” Carlos Fuentes’ “The Prisoner of Las Lomas” and Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” (which deserves a post from me all to itself).  Next up are stories by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, and after that we’ll see.  But last Thursday, in addition to a celebrated long short story we added a very short one by the same author. In the end, we spent as much time talking about the very short one as the famous long one and decided it was a perfect  little story. 

“How do you think it would do if I posted it?” I asked.  “There are blog posts just as long.  Blog posts which are short stories by aspiring authors. And it would certainly be a change from what I’ve been blogging about recently.”  (At this G. rolled her eyes roguishly.)  “What if I left off the famous author’s name till the end and sent it out on its own?”

The very short story is about a young protagonist living with his uncle and aunt in a deeply Catholic provincial city around 1900 who meets with defeat and despair so palpable you may feel it too.That’s probably all I should say up front, although feel free to ask questions or comment afterwards.  I cannot advise what clicking “like” might mean in this context.  It could be that you “liked” the story, or that you “liked” the idea of the posting experiment even if you hated the story. If there are no “likes” at all, G. is going to get it next time for not having stopped me. So maybe a “like” could also mean I shouldn’t take it out on her.]

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ARABY

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two stories stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbors in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.

When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ash pits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlor watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of laborers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me. I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring “O love! O love! many times.

At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.

“And why can’t you?” I asked.

While she spoke she turned a silverl bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

“It’s well for you,” she said.

“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”

What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening!  I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.

On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening He was fussing at the hall stand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:

“Yes, boy, I know.”

As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlor and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.

When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.

When I came downstairs again I found Mrs. Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs. Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:

“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”

At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the hall door. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hall stand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.

“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.

I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:

“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”

My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.

I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.

I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Cafe Chantant were written in colored lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.

Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.

“O, I never said such a thing!”

“O, but you did!”

“O but I didn’t!”

“Didn’t she say that?”

“Yes. I heard her.”

“O, there’s a … fib!”

Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:

“No, thank you.”

The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

by James Joyce.

[“Araby” is the third story in Dubliners. The long short story G. and I also read last Thursday, which ends the book, was “The Dead.”]

THOSE WERE THE DAYS

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[A story.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Won’t you get a ticket?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

How does one respond to that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why are you here?”

“Looking out for my interests.”

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

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

“Oh?”

He changed the subject. “Why are you?”

“Why am I what?”

“Here.”

“Work.” (The easiest answer.)

“This is work?”

“Norman Pagel thinks so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Andre’s Norm’s client.”

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

“You mean his sister?” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Andre, do you really have a sister?”

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

“And a pretty cousin, who died?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S. SHARES SOME FAMILY HISTORY

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[A story]

S.’s mother refused to marry his father unless her own mother could live with them. S.’s father must have wanted to marry S.’s mother very much, because he said yes.

S.’s mother was so attached to her own mother because she was all her mother had. When her mother arrived in the United States from Poland, she was already a widow with two very young children. S.’s mother was three. Her baby sister was less than a year old. S.’s mother’s mother, without husband or income, gave the baby up for adoption to a Jewish family from New Brunswick, Canada. After the sisters were grown, S.’s mother tried to get in touch, for her own sake as well as her mother’s. But the younger sister refused to have anything to do with her, and could not forgive their mother for having given her away.

S.’s father was not a religious man. His new mother-in-law was a very religious woman. Although she had lived in the United States since S.’s mother was three, the mother-in-law had never learned English. She communicated with the world, and with her new son-in-law, mainly through her daughter, his new wife. And only in Yiddish. S.’s mother, who S. suspects never cared much for religion herself, kept a kosher home for her mother’s sake. When S. was eight or nine, his father began taking him out to the fights on Friday nights (the holiest night of the week), where they would eat trafe hot dogs (unclean! unclean!) slathered in mustard and relish. “Don’t tell your mother,” his father would say.

S.’s father and S.’s mother’s mother hated each other. When he was really annoyed at her presence under his roof, he called her “KUR-veh.” It meant “whore.”  Nothing could have been farther from the truth, but it must have been the worst word for a woman in his vocabulary. He spoke English perfectly well; he used the Yiddish word so S.’s mother’s mother could understand it. For variety, he sometimes also wished cholera on her, also in Yiddish. Since he was the breadwinner, she had no recourse but to make herself scarce whenever he came home from work. S. cannot remember their having been in the same room together more than once or twice, and then never for long.

The family lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where S.’s father ran an Army-Navy store in a rundown neighborhood. The apartment had two bedrooms. S.’s father and mother took the bigger bedroom, and the mother’s mother the smaller bedroom. When S.’s sister was born, they set up a cot for her in her parents’ room. When S. was born three years later, he slept with his grandmother. In the same big bed. He slept there until he was eleven, when he woke one morning with an erection and refused ever to share a bed with her again. Another arrangement was then made for him: the living room couch.

S.’s grandmother adored him. He was the Boy. He was going to be a rabbi. Like her uncle. At least, those were her plans for him. She had a rabbinical school in Poland all picked out. (Had she succeeded in getting him a place there, he would have arrived in Poland just before Hitler’s armies marched in.)

When S.’s father was out of the house working, she would creep into the kitchen to do her own special cooking. (S.’s mother also worked during the day, helping his father out in the store.) He remembers his grandmother rendering chicken fat, to be used instead of butter for cooking fleisch (meat) meals, and giving him special treats of it, salted and smeared on rye bread. She also gave him the chicken necks rendered of their fat to chew on and then spit out. They were called gribenes. His sister didn’t get these treats. His grandmother said it was their secret together. The only other memorable aspect of her cuisine S. now recalls was the spaghetti — boiled and mixed with a can of Heinz vegetarian baked beans.

S. accepted the fact of his grandmother. But the woman he says he truly loved was his mother. “Tatele mein,” she called him when she got back from work in the evenings. “My little man.” But what did he love? He has few memories of her, other than her veneration for learning, her love of opera on the radio, her ardent support for FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, her rejection of makeup, her unending yearning to be reconciled with her little sister, and her great fondness for the state of Georgia, where she had apparently spent several happy years as a child after her mother found a second husband and lived for a time in Georgia with him.

Matters in the apartment came to a head shortly after S. began sleeping on the living room couch. S.’s father put his foot down; pre-marital promise or no, he wanted his mother-in-law out! By then he was able to pay rent for her on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Except how could she live alone? She couldn’t speak English. She was getting old. The solution S.’s parents devised was to send both of their children to live with her during the week. S.’s sister, by then fourteen, would do the shopping and help with the housework after school.

But why did S. have to go, too? To this day, he’s not sure. At eleven, he could have managed in Bridgeport until his parents came home in the evenings.  Was it so easy for his mother to part with her tatele mein, her little man? He thinks she simply deferred to her mother once again. There were better Hebrew schools on the lower East Side. And in one or two years, yeshiva — the equivalent of high school for the devout. A wonderful preparation for Poland!

From then on, S. and his sister saw their parents only on Sundays. S. did not do particularly well at the yeshiva. At sixteen, he even took a forbidden Saturday job as an usher at the movies, where he luxuriated in sinful appreciation of what was on the screen. But thanks to the hard work of their parents at the Army-Navy store, both he and his sister were able to go away to college, their tuitions and other expenses fully paid for.  (The Polish option was not considered.)

After earning an advanced degree in Spanish literature, his sister subsided into deferential marriage to a tall, well-spoken but extremely religious man who took her away to Canada, where she spent much of her life in motherhood of four children. S. says she was never a happy woman.

S. himself became an M.D. His parents were very proud. Afterwards, however, he married a lapsed Catholic. She was French and charming and had a cute behind. But although she made a nominal conversion to Judaism, when she came to meet the family bearing a dozen roses, S.’s grandmother flung the roses on the floor. S. does not comment further on this incident, or indicate whether his mother apologized for her mother to the bride.

When S. talks about these things, he says his mother, now long dead of Alzheimers, was an angel. But if asked what kind of angel would repeatedly choose her mother over her little son, he squirms. Then he adds that although he can remember very little about his mother as she was when he was growing up, his sister — who shared their parents’ bedroom until she was fourteen — always said she was an angel. Finally he asks, somewhat rhetorically: What choice did his mother have?

A hard question to answer. However, S.’s medical specialty is interesting. Even though he enjoyed radiology best during his medical training, he elected to do psychiatry. Child and adolescent psychiatry. We might also note that although he still understands some Hebrew and Yiddish, his ability to converse in either of these languages has faded. He hasn’t gone to synagogue or temple for years and does not associate with any Yiddish speakers. He calls himself a secular humanist.

One of S.’s sister’s four children was gay. (Her very religious husband never found out.) This son killed himself when he discovered he was sick. Two of her three other children have five children between them. However, her youngest daughter (the one without children) refuses to speak to the other two, and the oldest daughter is not on good terms with her own older daughter.

S. himself is the father of three children, by two wives. His  daughter, now in her forties, has many problems and gives him much heartache. She is unlikely ever to marry or have children of her own. The two sons each have a child apiece, but they are very far away and not particularly communicative, and he has very little opportunity to see them.

Although S. can only surmise the degree of torment his mother and father experienced in their marriage, he points out that from their torment came, after much perseverance and additional torment, seven great-grandchildren (and recently two baby great-great-grandchildren). Thus the generations succeed each other. However, what else we can make of what he has shared with us I cannot really say.

Is the pain and suffering of life tolerable because there are also movies, hot dogs with mustard and relish, gribenes and cute behinds along the way? That is a question each of us must answer for ourselves.

HOW I GOT TO BE BORN IN AMERICA

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[This piece first appeared under another title in the Spring 2010 issue of Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  The editors called it “A Story.”  It is a story, about another story.  But whatever the title, it’s what’s at the end that counts.]

***

I was fifteen when I learned how my parents had managed to get out of Russia. I found out only because Mr. Mirsky had come to dinner. My mother and father did not usually discuss the past. While I was still a little girl, I did sometimes ask my father why he had left, but I never thought to ask how. I was sure that if you were a grownup and decided to go somewhere, there was no problem about it. You just went.

My father always answered that he had left because of Stalin’s mustache. The mustache scratched when Stalin kissed him.

“Why was Stalin kissing you?” I would demand.

“Because he was my uncle.”

“But Daddy, he wasn’t your uncle!”

“Of course he was my uncle,” my father would laugh. “In Russia, he’s everybody’s uncle. That’s why they call him ‘Uncle Joe.’”

Well, even I knew that was nonsense. Stalin never kissed my father.

Then came the war—the Second World War—and the Soviet Union became our ally. It was suddenly okay to have a Russian last name (although people were still always asking you to spell it). I even stopped wishing my parents had named me Joan or Barbara, and focused on getting the teachers at P.S. 99 to pronounce my first name correctly.

My father met Mr. Mirsky at the Marshall Chess Club about a year after the war. There must already have been early rumblings in the papers of the Cold War to come, but it wasn’t called that yet. In any event I didn’t read newspapers much. By then, I had plenty of homework from Hunter High and spent all my leftover time being hopelessly in love with Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Mirsky had emigrated from Russia earlier than my father and mother, while the Czar was still on the throne and it was easy to leave, but had gone to England, not America. (He had even flown in the Royal Air Force during World War I.) Afterwards he had married a rich Argentinian and now lived with her in Buenos Aires most of the time. He was temporarily in New York, at a small residential hotel (confided my mother), so as to make sure that his daughter, who was at Vassar, met the “right” sort of young man. He was trim, rather good-looking for an older gentleman, and had a charming English accent with a faint underlay of Russian and beautiful manners. He always kissed my mother’s hand when he arrived for one of the occasional Sunday dinners to which my father invited him, and he always brought a fifth of Haig & Haig Pinch, which he emptied mainly by himself during the course of the afternoon, after my father had had his habitual single shot and my mother her habitual single sip.

Although I was several years younger than Mr. Mirsky’s daughter, I was consumed with envy of her. Rich mother, distinguished father, Vassar, and her choice of an appropriate husband delivered on a silver platter! I therefore lingered at the table after these dinners, so as to gather every crumb of information that might fall from Mr. Mirsky’s lips about this fortunate young woman. My father was less interested in Mr. Mirsky’s problems with his daughter’s romantic life. His usual discretion and courtesy dissolved by good food and Scotch, he had a dismaying postprandial tendency to reminisce. Always hoping he would be quick about it so we could get back to Mr. Mirsky’s daughter—who after several of her father’s dinners at our house had somehow managed to become entangled with a Life photographer of whom both her parents disapproved—I would stay fixed in my chair (the alternative being greasy pans in the kitchen sink). And so, on one occasion, I heard the following story:

In 1921 my father was nineteen years old and in the third year of the engineering program at the Institute of Technology in Baku. Baku was then still part of “White” Russia. (Mr. Mirsky confirmed this with a nod.) In many of his classes, there was a slightly older, very serious student with round spectacles who never chatted with anyone and was not part of any social group my father knew of. But because they were enrolled in so many of the same lectures, they began to greet each other when they met in the halls, and once in a while they lent each other their notes when one or the other had to be absent from class. Then the Red Army completed its long southward march from Moscow and reached Baku. The solitary bespectacled student disappeared from school.

One day, two policemen rapped at the door of the apartment where my father’s family lived. He was to come at once to the Central Police Station. What had he done wrong? He told his frightened parents not to expect him back. However, after he was dragged to the station and roughly pushed into an office set off from the main room, who did he see behind the large desk in front of the windows? His missing classmate!

“Have a seat,” said the bespectacled fellow, in a not unpleasant voice. “Would you like a cigarette? A coffee?”

Such courtesy! And what’s more, an apology of sorts: The police should not have manhandled him. They were new recruits. Not yet trained. A weary sigh from Mr. Spectacles. What could he do with such peasants? “Please, have a seat,” he urged again. (My father was still standing.) “It is not, of course, a criminal matter.”

Two small cups of bitter black coffee appeared. Bottoms up together! And with the coffee, a modest confession. All the time the two of them had been attending lectures at the Institute together, Mr. Spectacles had secretly been head of the local Bolshevik party cell. With the arrival of the Red Army, there was no longer need for secrets. As my father could see, he was the new Chief of Police.

(How old could he be, my father wondered. Twenty-two? Twenty-three?)

But then, enough with pleasantries! Time for business. Bringing his empty cup down on the desk with a loud clap, the young Chief of Police briskly explained that he had ordered my father brought to him because he was the only student from the Institute he knew by name. Since he was now very busy with his new responsibilities, he had no more time to go to class and would therefore appreciate it if my father could fill him in on a regular basis with what was going on there so he could sit for the exams at the end of the academic year.

“’Appreciate it!’” said my father to Mr. Mirsky. “As if I had a choice!”

And so for the rest of the academic year, my nineteen-year-old father came daily to the Central Police Station after school, trying not to see what was taking place in the main room as he passed through it. He sat nervously on the extra chair in the inner office, where he read aloud his notes of that day’s lectures while his former classmate nodded thoughtfully behind the big desk and, as my father put it, signed orders for execution by firing squad. The small cup of bitter coffee he was offered each time didn’t help.

After a while, he couldn’t stand it any more. It wasn’t just the mandatory sessions in the police station. Life under this new regime was becoming hopeless. He didn’t want to live in fear that the next time the police rapped on the door it would be a “criminal matter.” He didn’t want his family to have to share their apartment, their kitchen, their bathroom with three other families they didn’t know. He didn’t want meals to consist primarily of sandy bread and moldy potatoes, brought back from the countryside by his two sisters on their bicycles. Once he managed to scrape together enough money to buy his mother a pound of butter on the black market for her birthday. He saw the butter, paid for the butter. But what got wrapped up for him to take home was a pound block of ice that melted on the kitchen table as his mother unwrapped it. He had to leave.

Mr. Mirsky shook his head. “1921? Too late. You needed papers for that. No more getting on the train and taking off for Paris or London.”

“Well,” said my father, “I was young. And I was stifling. There was no harm in trying. But not Europe,” he added. “I was thinking America.”

And should he bring his older brother with him? Then there was my mother, just seventeen, whom he had met a few months before. He asked if she wanted to come to America, too. She had to go ask her mother. “If you can get out, get out!” her mother told her. “There’s nothing for you here now.”

With what must have been considerable courage, my father came with three sets of the necessary papers, filled out except for the all-important signature, to his former fellow student, the new Chief of Police—who by now seemed also to be functioning as the de facto head of the provisional government in Baku—and told a brazen lie.

He, his brother, and his half-sister would all very much like to study in Germany during the next semester, he said. There were some important courses there, not being offered at the Institute or the University in Baku, which they felt were necessary to their education. Would it be possible for their departure to be authorized for this limited purpose?

The Chief of Police peered over his spectacles at my father, then looked away. He did not ask anything about these very important courses, or where they were being offered, or if my father or his brother or his so-called half-sister with the different last name spoke German, or when they all planned to return. Instead, after a moment he picked up his pen and quickly signed all three sets of papers.

“Did he know you were lying and not coming back?” I asked.

“Of course he knew,” said Mr. Mirsky.

“Then why did he do it?”

“One good turn deserves another?” suggested my father. “He later rose very high, you know. Very high.” He looked meaningfully at Mr. Mirsky.

“So?” said Mr. Mirsky, leaning forward. “Who was he?”

“You can’t guess?”

Mr. Mirsky shook his head no.

“Lavrenti Beria,” said my father softly.

Mr. Mirsky examined his glass for some time. “That’s quite a story,” he said, finally.

After he left, my father came to find me in my room. “Don’t tell that story to anyone else,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you hear it.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “Isn’t it true?”

“Of course it’s true,” said my father. “That’s why you mustn’t spread it around.”

“But it’s such a good story,” I protested. “It could even be in Reader’s Digest.”

My father sighed. “Do you know who Beria is?” he asked.

Did I know? What did he think? That I was stupid? Lavrenti Beria was Stalin’s executioner. Head of NKVD, the Soviet secret police agency that later became the KGB. He was responsible for millions and millions of deaths of innocent people. He was a bad bad man. Just looking at his face in the newsreels, you could tell he was evil. That’s what made it a story, for heaven’s sake.

“You never know what they’ll think,” my father said.

“What who will think? Who is ’they’?” He was so exasperating.  “You’re not in Russia anymore, Daddy. This isn’t the Soviet Union. You’re an American citizen.”

Our voices brought my mother out of the kitchen. I could see her pale, worried face next to his. Two anxious people standing in the doorway of my room who did not want to hear from me about freedom of speech, or this being a free country, or any of the other things I had learned in Civics. Although they had managed to escape from a place where fear had darkened their lives and were now in a nice three-and-a-half room apartment with good light in Queens, they were both forever alert to gossamer threats of danger everywhere.

“Be on the safe side,” said my father. “Don’t tell.”

They were my parents.

I promised not to tell.

The brother who was supposed to come with my father to America decided at the last minute to remain behind. My mother and father never saw their families again. But they eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles, and later to Palm Springs, where they lived long and relatively tranquil lives under the California sun. By contrast, my mother’s brother and my father’s brother and two sisters in Baku all died before them—one banished to Siberia and an unknown fate during the Kirov purges (for which Lavrenti Beria was responsible), the others succumbing to various diseases after shortened lives of constricted deprivation.

I became a lawyer after college, eventually married, and had two sons—each of whom now has a little daughter and son of his own. That makes seven of us, all American born, who could be said to owe our existence to Lavrenti Beria. He doesn’t get full credit, of course. However, one could make an argument that but for him, we would not exist. Which excuses nothing about his life, except that it’s interesting to think about. On the other hand, it’s highly improbable that our seven lives were foreseeable in the Central Police Station of Baku in 1921, when Beria set pen to paper on the basis of my father’s dubious explanation of his need to take leave of the better Soviet world then in birth. So if I put my professional glasses on, proximate cause just doesn’t figure into it and none of us owes Beria a thing.

What happened to Mr. Mirsky? The problem of the Life photographer soon resolved itself without his intercession; the young man was sent overseas to cover some unsavory part of the world where trouble was brewing. Several years later, when I myself was in college (although not Vassar), I learned from my mother that the daughter eventually met the scion of a publishing company (a choice apparently “right” enough for her parents) and had a very grand wedding. Her father then returned to Argentina and the rich wife and was never heard from again.

Stalin died early in 1953. Lavrenti Beria was soon afterwards either shot in his own house in June 1953 (according to his son) or executed by firing squad in December 1953 after a trial without defense counsel (according to official accounts), whereupon he began gradually to fade from popular memory. That would seem to release me now, finally and definitively, from the promise I reluctantly made my father not to tell the story I had just heard him tell Mr. Mirsky.

But after all these years it’s not, as Mr. Mirsky observed, “quite a story” any more. Not when the name in the punchline no longer inspires fear and trembling in anyone. In fact, it seems to have become quite another story—about a time when I was young and my father was alive, sitting at the dining room table, his eyes shining with pleasure as he told us what had happened when he was young, and life exciting, and the unknown future still ahead.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #7

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Danilov’s Advice, 1945

Her mother’s despondency didn’t lift. Anna dealt with it by spending as little time with her as possible. Every school night she worked in her room for three or four hours on her Latin, English, Algebra and Biology assignments, including the ones for extra credit. On Saturdays she always tried to arrange a visit to one of her new high-school friends from another borough. On Sundays she took long walks all around Kew Gardens and Forest Hills no matter the weather, peering into the windows of other people’s houses and daydreaming of life in another family. Behind the closed door of her room she also made frequent and lengthy entries in her diary, including every detail of her mother’s complaints about her, so there should be some record of them.

Since this will not be read by anyone till I am gone, I can confide from the inner recesses of my soul and hold back nothing. Someday I will be famous, and after I am dead people will want to know all about me. That is my motive for writing in this secret book. It is an account for posterity of what is going on in my life, so that future generations will not have to speculate about missing facts.

It did occur to Anna that those future generations might think her conceited for being so sure they would be interested in her, but she was certain that someone out there in the centuries to come would want to know what she had really been like, and then admire her fortitude and other good qualities. Besides, it made her feel much better when she unburdened herself in pen and ink, and right now that was the most important thing.

One November weekend when her father was home she went with him to buy the Sunday paper. Being unable to keep up with him when she was little, and even the business later with the belt, seemed so long ago and insignificant compared to her present circumstances. Besides, it was no problem at all to keep up with him without getting out of breath now she was fourteen; they could even have a conversation while they were walking. She told him she was having a lot of trouble with her mother. Nothing she did was ever right. She didn’t know any more what would please her.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back again. Suppose her father didn’t believe her? After all, her mother always cheered up when he was there. Surprisingly, he nodded thoughtfully.

“Did you ever hear of the Danilovs?” he asked.

“Only the name,” said Anna. “Mother used to mention the wife sometimes. Wasn’t she a famous opera singer in Russia?”

“Yes, she was. And he was a famous orchestra conductor. They were here in New York for a series of concerts in 1914 when war broke out so they couldn’t get home again. And after the revolution, naturally they didn’t want to.   He — Danilov — was about my father’s age. A fine musician and a real man of the world. Very helpful to me when I was young and just off the boat.”

“I never met them,” said Anna, wondering what these Danilovs had to do with her mother troubles.

“Of course not,” said her father. “They moved to L.A. just after you were born. But before that, I always felt I could go to him when I needed advice.”

“And?”

“And,” said Anna’s father, “after I had been married to your mother for about six months, I realized I was tired of her. I was only twenty-four and she was already very boring. I wanted a divorce. So I went to Danilov to ask what to do. You know what he said?”

Anna shook her head, even though she had already learned in English class that the type of question her father had just asked was rhetorical and therefore required no answer.

“He said, ‘So what if you’re bored? You get divorced, you’ll find another woman, and in six months you’ll be bored with that one too. This one is young and pretty. Why go through the trouble to change? They’re all the same. Manage with what you’ve got.'”

They had reached the front door of their apartment house. For a moment Anna was flooded with pleasure to learn that her father found her mother boring. Then she wondered what lesson she was supposed to draw from this confidence. Manage with the mother she had? That’s what she was already doing!

“Don’t tell your mother,” said her father as he felt for the keys in his coat pocket. “It’ll be our secret.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she was seeing her first shrink, that Anna began to wonder why her father had been so ready to share advice from a so-called man of the world with his fourteen-year old daughter about wanting to leave her mother. Did he think he was comforting her? He had even seemed in a particularly good mood for the rest of that day.

Then, having leveled the playing field as best he could, he went back to Philadelphia and Anna went back to managing.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #5

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Belt, 1943

Once school began again in the fall Anna didn’t see her father much except on Sundays, when he didn’t go to work. She would be on her way to P.S. 99 before he was up in the morning. By the time she came home in the late afternoon he had usually already left with his cello for the subway trip to whichever downtown hotel he was playing at. And because he had to be there from the beginning of the cocktail hour until they stopped serving dinner, he wouldn’t get back again until eleven or so, by which time Anna was in bed if there was school the next day.

Sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights she did still happen to be up that late, listening to records in the living room or talking with her mother about the movie they had just come back from seeing. But once they heard the sound of his key in the lock, her mother would jump up and say, “There’s your father. He’ll be very tired. You better go to your room.”   Anna always went. If her time alone with her mother was over, why stick around? From behind her closed door at the end of the corridor she could hear their two voices at the other end, speaking a mixture of Russian and English. Although she had come to understand a few household Russian expressions, she could never quite make out what they were saying. After a while she stopped trying.

Then one afternoon during her last semester of grade school, she dropped her schoolbooks on the hall table, hung her coat up in the hall closet, and found her father home, apparently not in a good mood. He was standing with her mother in their bedroom and he wasn’t wearing one of the dark suits he reserved for going to work. Her mother gestured and put her finger to her lips — meaning, Anna supposed, that she should go quietly away and leave them alone. But Anna was not in such a good mood herself. She had got B+ on her most recent composition for English, unfairly she thought, and wanted to complain about Mrs. Seabury, her eighth grade teacher, who had refused to raise it despite Anna’s best efforts at persuasion. She planted herself in the doorway.  “What’s going on?” she asked. “Why is Daddy home?”

She spoke to her mother, but it was her father who answered. “Anna, I want to talk to your mother alone.”

“Why?” asked Anna. “What’s so secret?”

“Anna, do as I say.”

“I want to hear.”

“This doesn’t concern you.” He sounded very stern.

“Why not? I live here too.”

Anna had never confronted her father before. Was she moving into a danger zone? She could feel her heart beating faster.

“Anna!” Her mother had her hand on her chest. She looked alarmed.

“When your father tells you to go, you go,” said her father.

“And if I don’t?”

Her father looked as if he didn’t know what to say next. “I’m your father!” he sputtered.

“So?”

“Anna,” her mother pleaded. But Anna didn’t care about pleasing her mother just then.

“Who says you’re the boss?” she demanded.

Her father was breathing hard. Suddenly he unbuckled his belt and wrapped one end around one hand. “Lay down on the bed and pull up your dress,” he commanded.

Anna stared. Was this really happening? Neither of her parents had ever even spanked her before. Beating with belts was from stories about poor unloved little children growing up on farms in Europe in the last century. Besides, she wasn’t a little child anymore. She was twelve! She was nearly as tall as he was!

She tore the belt from her father’s hand and threw it on the double bed. Then she turned and ran to her own room, slamming the door behind her. No steps came after her in the hall. The apartment was very quiet. It was probably safe to hurl herself on her own bed and stare, enraged, at the ceiling. How dare he? Pull up her dress? Whip her? With a belt? She was never going to forgive him!

After a while her mother tiptoed into her room and sat next to her on the bedspread. “Anna,” she said. “He didn’t mean it. He really didn’t. He’s so sorry.”

“Then why didn’t he come tell me himself?”

“It’s hard for him to apologize. Men aren’t like us. They have pride.”

“I have pride, too.”

Her mother sighed.

“Did he at least say he was sorry to you?” asked Anna.

“No, but I can tell. He’s upset.”

He’s upset? You think I’m not upset?”

“You have to understand, Anna,” said her mother. “You’re a big girl now. He just lost his job. The hotel is economizing. Live cocktail and dinner music can be cut. So they cut it. And now we won’t have money coming in any more.”

Anna sat up. Her mother had a serious expression on her face. So it was true. Anna tried to imagine what life would be like if her parents couldn’t pay the rent or buy food. “Where will we live?” she asked. “Will the landlord put us out on the street?” Why did this have to happen to her now?

“Well, he will try to find something else,” said Anna’s mother. “They did give him two weeks salary when they let him go.”

“Can he find something in two weeks?”

“We hope so. He’s certainly going to try.” Anna’s mother stroked her hair. She hadn’t done that for a while. “But he’s very worried. So it wasn’t a good time to make him angry.”

“How was I supposed to know he was worried if no one ever tells me anything?”

“We don’t want you to have to think about our problems,” said Anna’s mother. “You’re still a child.”

“You just said I was a big girl.”

Her mother ignored this remark. “But even if he was angry,” she said, “he would never actually hurt you. You’re his daughter, a member of his family. Believe me, that man couldn’t hurt a fly.”

“I still think he should have come to tell me he was sorry,” said Anna.

Anna’s father did find another job during the next two weeks, although not in New York. What he was offered was in Philadelphia. But it paid extremely well, said Anna’s mother, and might also lead to profitable side engagements playing at society parties and weddings, so they would be able to save money for the next rainy day. Unfortunately, he would be living at the Philadelphia hotel and coming home only every other weekend.   Well, they would just have to manage, said her mother.

It was a big load off Anna’s mind to learn they would not be put out on the street. She also hoped that once her father had nothing more to worry about, he would tell her he was sorry about the belt. But he didn’t. He went off to Philadelphia without a word about it. He must have forgot.

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.

COMING ATTRACTION: A STORY ALMOST EVERYONE WILL HATE!

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Men will hate it because from their point of view the main character — I hesitate to call her the heroine — is a manipulative bitch.  (Although they might want to consider what made her one.)

Women who (unrealistically) want happy endings will hate it because it doesn’t have one.

Anyone who actually enjoys reading about manipulative bitches hoist on their own petards  (the biter bit, as it were) will probably hate it because it’s long, long, longer than any blog post — even one tagged WP Longform — has a right to be. You can’t possibly take it to the john for a quick read on your iPad.  6,000+ words? You’re kidding, right?

So if you’re one of the two or three people who actually plan on looking for this hateful story in your Reader or e-mail, just be aware you’re going to have to sit down somewhere comfortable and devote real time to reading it, as if you found it in a high-class literary journal.

Which is where I initially planned for it to be found.  But although the members of a writing group who read it several years ago all thought it was a page-turner (when it was on real pages, and not a screen), the much younger fiction editors of those high-class literary journals where it has been slowly — oh so very slowly — making the rounds have not been similarly enthusiastic.  Printed form rejection slips. Not even a kind penciled word.

I’m getting too old for that sort of old-fashioned nonsense, even if you can now submit [to most of them] online.  While there’s a saving on postage stamps, the online processing fee balances things out. And the waiting-around afterwards doesn’t get any quicker. Art may be long, but life is short, believe me.

And I have a blog.

Yes, it’s a real story.  In the third person. Not just “Getting Old” me nattering on.  But it takes place at a time when I was young. So please don’t try to find out if the manipulative bitch was me.  My policy with “fiction” has always been, “You don’t ask,  I don’t tell.” In any event, the best thing to think, whatever else you think, is “She does write well, though.”

Look for it tomorrow!  “Sophie Before Feminism!”

Bet you can hardly wait.

AT ROSCOE

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[A story.]

In the summer of 1937, Anna and her mother and father went away to a place in the Catskills called Roscoe. It was during the two weeks her father didn’t have to work. Anna was six. There was a big main building with rooms for guests and a dining room where everyone had meals and also a lounge where grownups played cards, checkers and chess, and listened to the radio and talked after dinner. The swimming pool was on the lawn behind the main building; it had a shallow end for children, and all around it were places to sit and lie in the sun. There were also two much smaller buildings down a slope on the right called Annex A and Annex B; they had only guest rooms in them. Anna and her parents were in a room in Annex A because it was a little cheaper than the rooms in the main building, which each had a private bathroom. The two Annexes had only one bathroom to a floor. But each room in an Annex had its own little sink for light washing up, so sharing a bathroom wasn’t so bad, said Anna’s mother.

The Pool

If you got tired of swimming and sunning at Roscoe, you could go for a stroll to the village in the late afternoon, when it was cooler. In the village was a little store with a wooden floor where Anna’s mother and father would have iced coffee and buy Anna an ice cream cone. But most of the time they stayed beside the pool, where her mother put lotion on herself so as to tan instead of burn, and chatted a bit with other ladies. Her father didn’t use lotion; he sat under an umbrella and had lively conversations with other husbands.

After Anna came out of the children’s end of the pool, she would spread her towel on the grass to hear what was going on. Usually she settled near her mother, because she didn’t understand what the men talked about, like how President Roosevelt had saved us and the bad things that were going on in Germany. But sometimes she found a shady spot near her father’s chair, and that felt better than getting sweaty in the sun where her mother was, even if she couldn’t follow the conversation.

Soon she began to notice that not all the ladies stayed in the sun. When her father was talking, a few of them always moved over to listen. “Your father is such a wonderful raconteur,” said one of these ladies to Anna. “What a lucky little girl you are!”

 Divorcee

The guests at Roscoe were all married to each other except for one lady who wasn’t married any more, although once upon a time she had been. Anna was sorry for her at first because she was the only one without a husband, but the other ladies seemed not to like her. They especially disliked the way her bathing suits showed off the tops of her big boobies, which didn’t droop even a little bit. She also wore makeup all the time, even to the pool. And when she walked, her behind wiggled from side to side. Whenever this lady went to sit under a pool umbrella where the men were, the ladies who stayed behind in the sun near Anna’s mother would talk about her — in soft voices, so she wouldn’t hear.

 Luck

A man sitting by the pool said to Anna’s father that nothing was like it used to be and nowadays you sure needed luck to get by. Anna’s father said, “I’ve got news for you, mister. You always needed luck.” Then he told a story about coming to America with Anna’s mother.

The story took place a long time ago, before Anna was born. Her father and mother were in a big city called Constantinople, in a country called Turkey. They had arrived there on a ship from Russia. Then they needed special papers from the United States in order to get to New York on another ship. But there was a problem. A very powerful third country called England wanted to keep ships from coming in or going out of Constantinople because Constantinople was the only way in or out of Russia by water, and England didn’t like what was happening in Russia. (What was happening was that it wasn’t Russia any more; it had recently become the Soviet Union.) England had many warships, and could do what it wanted, said Anna’s father.   So Anna’s father and mother needed to get those papers very fast, before England decided to act.

“Anyway,” said Anna’s father, “the United States had an office in Constantinople where doctors gave health inspections to anyone wanting to come to America. If you were healthy you could come, but if even a little something was wrong — then you couldn’t, until you went to another doctor and were treated for whatever was wrong with you. Which of course took time. And money.”

“Why was that?” asked a lady who was listening intently. “If it was just a little something?” It was the lady with the big boobies, who had no husband.

“Well,” said Anna’s father, who seemed not to mind being interrupted. “Those doctors in Constantinople weren’t American doctors, who can fix you up one, two, three. No siree! They were Turkish doctors. Out for all they could get!”

Anna’s father went on with his story. He and Anna’s mother arrived at the health inspection office early so he could look around. At the front of the nearly empty waiting room he saw a chair and a small writing table that held two saucers filled with colored buttons — red buttons in one, black in the other. Behind the table he also saw several open medical examination rooms. He didn’t know what the buttons were for, but he put a few of each color in his pockets.

Soon the waiting room filled up and an official-looking person arrived, carrying a big leather-bound book. This person settled himself at the table with the buttons, took out two rubber stamps and a stamp pad, and began to call names from his big book for the health inspections: man’s name, woman’s name, man’s name, woman’s name. Anna’s father heard his name and then her mother’s. The person at the table motioned Anna’s mother into one of the examination rooms and her father into the other. “As soon as my examination was over — and it was very quick, let me tell you,” said Anna’s father, ” the doctor gave me a black button and said I could leave. But when Masha came out of her examination room, she had a red button in her hand! What did that mean? Which color meant yes? Which color meant no?” Anna’s father paused for dramatic effect. “How could I know? What I did know was that — red or black — we should stay together. So I took away Masha’s red button and gave her a black one from my pocket. Then we went together to the official with the rubber stamps. He looked at our black buttons and stamped our papers: ‘Approved.’ We made it onto the last boat out of Constantinople.”

“Oh, that was luck!” said the lady with the big boobies. “Except why did they give Masha a red button?”

“Masha still had long hair,” explained Anna’s father. “They told her she had lice. Of course she didn’t. It was a scam. I later heard that they said that to every woman with long hair. The treatment by another doctor would then cost fifty dollars, which the two Turkish doctors would split.”

On the way back to their room in Annex A, Anna told her mother what she had just heard about the red and black buttons. Suppose her father had guessed wrong? Would he have come to the United States alone? Would her mother have had to go back to Russia?

“Don’t think about that story,” said Anna’s mother.

“Why not?” asked Anna. “It was a lucky guess about the buttons, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” said her mother. But she wouldn’t explain what she meant.

 In Annex A

Anna’s father liked to play chess. So did some of the other men at Roscoe.   Mostly they played after dinner in the evenings, but one afternoon after lunch (which you could eat in a bathing suit with just a shirt or robe over it), Anna’s father said it was too hot for him by the pool and he was going to look for a chess game in the lounge. Anna’s mother went back to her blanket and towels on the grass where the women she was friendly with usually sat, and Anna jumped back into the pool. But she had drunk a lot of water and lemonade at lunch, and soon she needed to go. What a bother! It would have been so easy to do it in the pool; no one could see if you stood in water up to your waist. That was wrong though, Anna’s mother had said, because other people used the pool too, and some of the other children even swallowed the water by accident. So Anna dutifully pulled herself up out of the shallow end, told her mother she was going to the bathroom, and hurried along the path to Annex A.

The Annex was dark and still. The maids did the vacuuming and made the beds in the morning; Anna thought now she might be the only one in the building. She and her parents had one of the two front guest rooms on the second floor. Up the stairs she went, as fast as she could. The bathroom on that floor was at the other end of the hall, between the two back guest rooms. She squeezed her thighs together so as not to have an accident. And then — oh dear! — the bathroom door wouldn’t open.

“Hello,” she called, rattling the doorknob. “Is someone in there?”

No answer. How quiet it was. She could hear herself breathing.  “Please? Will you be out soon?”

Nothing. Not a sound.  It wasn’t right. Shouldn’t the person inside answer? At least say, “Just a minute, little girl?”

She tried again. “I really have to go.”  Did she hear a sigh from the bathroom?

The door stayed shut. She clutched herself between her legs and looked around for help. Someone. Anyone. That’s when she saw the door of the back guest room on the right was partly open and the lady with big boobies was sitting at a dressing table inside, combing her dark hair in the mirror and keeping her gaze fixed on the reflection in front of her as if Anna didn’t exist. Hadn’t she heard Anna talking to the person in the bathroom?

The lady was wearing nothing but a slip. It was peach-colored and satiny, with creamy open lace at the edges; you could see the outline of the tips of her big boobies through the satin. Even though the maids had made all the beds in the morning, this lady’s bed was messed up, with the sheets and bedspread thrown back every which way and the pillows tossed around. And even though this lady didn’t have a husband any more, there was something black thrown on a corner of her bed over the tangled sheets that looked like a man’s bathing trunks. They were the kind of black knitted bathing trunks Anna’s father wore.

Then Anna knew she shouldn’t wait any longer for the bathroom door to open. She turned, ran downstairs, out of the Annex, up the path towards the main building, and reached the children’s end of the pool just in time.  Her mother noticed she was back and sat up on her blanket. “Everything all right?” she called.

The sun was in Anna’s eyes. Waist deep in water, she squinted in the direction of her mother.

“Anna? Are you all right?”

That was a different question. Anna nodded yes, she was all right.

           

BATHROOM

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[From a novella in progress.]

Anna had to make a wee, but the bathroom door was closed. Although the knob was above her head, she could reach it on tiptoe — a glass knob, with little smears of white paint on it. She turned it and pushed the door halfway open.

The toilet was right behind the door. Her naked father stood in profile, holding some part of himself over the bowl. She never saw his face. She never saw what he was holding. As soon as the door opened, he slammed it shut again, just missing her. His voice was a roar: “DON’T YOU EVER COME INTO THE BATHROOM WHEN I’M IN IT!” Why was he so angry when she hadn’t known he was there?

And she had to go so badly! She burst into tears. Her mother came running. Now her father was yelling at her mother. Her mother spoke through the door, saying calm-sounding things in the foreign language they used with each other sometimes. Then she took Anna away to the kitchen, where she taught her to sit on a saucepan on the floor whenever she had to make a wee or a stinky and her father was in the bathroom. The saucepan dug a circle in her hiney. It hurt.

“Sometimes I have to use a pan, too,” her mother confided.

Grown-up Anna occasionally looks at the height of doorknobs, trying to estimate how old she could have been when this happened. Certainly not more than three.

 

 

MOLLY ON HER OWN

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[A story.]

The campus seems to clear out on Friday afternoons. Students who come from New York and find themselves without weekend dates go home as soon as their last class is over. It’s only two hours away. Even the dreary girl across the hall from Molly who plans to major in East Asian Studies has already gone back to Brooklyn. Home is a place to which it has not occurred to Molly that anyone in this exclusive, expensive women’s college would want to go, given her own eagerness to get here after high school.

But now, on the fourth dateless Saturday of her first semester, she decides immediately after her meager breakfast that since she too has a home to go to, she can study there as well as here. She pulls a small carry-on from the dorm room closet, a gift from her parents when news of the full scholarship arrived last spring. All she really needs is the current reading assignment for her Tuesday Exploratory Lit class – it’s Gide’s Strait is the Gate, in translation — and a few toiletries. Still in narrow jeans and jean jacket, she just makes the 10:10 to Grand Central. From there, it’s the familiar subway out to Queens.

Molly is 5’7” and weighs 125 pounds. The 125 pounds is new, the 28” waist of her new jeans likewise, both the rewarding results of rigorous dieting all summer long so as to begin college life looking right. She may be almost always hungry, but she’s also gratified right now by the sight of her silhouette in the dark window of the subway car as it hurtles from Manhattan to Queens.

How happy Molly’s mother and father are to see her! What a surprise! How beautiful she looks! How they’ve missed having her in what her father calls her “little room!” (It’s the smaller of the two bedrooms in the apartment, a half-room really.) They’ll celebrate! What would she like for dinner? A nice porterhouse steak? Peas? Potato? Poppy-seed rolls? (Her father’s favorite.) And of course a special cake from the bakery, because it’s such a special occasion! What does Molly mean, she can’t eat potato, rolls, cake? One slice of cake isn’t going to hurt her. Now that she’s thin, she has to start eating normally again.

Afterwards, when she looks back on how it all started, Molly won’t remember the dinner, or whether there were poppy-seed rolls. She will remember the cake: a large three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate cream between the layers and thick chocolate fudge icing on top and around the sides. She allows her mother to persuade her to have a slice, her father nodding his approval.   When she’s finished slowly eating every last delicious crumb while they watch lovingly, they urge her to have another. (“Don’t be silly, of course you can, what are we going to do with all this leftover cake? Actually, you’re a little too thin. You could use a few pounds.”) And on Sunday morning, the celebration goes on. Her father hurries out to bring back lox, cream cheese and bagels for a late breakfast because, “How often does this happen?”

Amazingly, the waistband still closes when Molly wiggles into her jeans again on Sunday afternoon. “Take the rest of the cake,” her mother urges as she watches Molly repack her carry-on. “Maybe your new friends would like some.” Molly doesn’t say she doesn’t have any new friends, not really. Doesn’t tell about her disappointing room assignment, at the end of a long hall, where she shares a bathroom with a plain girl from Brooklyn who studies in the library all day and every evening, comes back to the dorm at eight-thirty, takes a hot bath, and is in bed at nine. Or about the two sophomore girls in the next nearest suite of rooms who are somewhat distant. In fact, Molly tells her parents nothing at all. Why should they worry about her? Isn’t she supposed to be grown up now? Instead, she insists she can’t take the rest of the cake because it would only get squished in the carry-on. She insists although she does very much want to take the cake, one last sweet taste of home to bring back to her lonely and difficult new life. She thinks about the cake on the subway all the way into town.

In Grand Central, she has fifteen minutes to spare before her train. One of the station kiosks is near the gate. Perhaps a candy bar to tide her over until supper back at school? Isn’t that what “eating normally” is all about? She gazes indecisively at the attractive display of O’Henrys, Milky Ways, Almond Joys, Hershey bars, M&Ms; it’s been so long since she’s tasted any of them. But why decide which to buy? Now that it’s all right to allow herself an occasional treat, why not stock up, for later? Molly enters her gate with seven candy bars in a small brown paper bag, one of each kind to enjoy during the week to come, plus a second O’Henry for the ride. She anticipates the taste on her tongue of the caramel, peanuts and chocolate even when lifting her carry-on to the overhead rack and settling in near a window with her jeans jacket on the seat next to her, so she can savor this unaccustomed pleasure in privacy.

She does try to wait until the train has climbed from the underground tunnel through which it has to pass to emerge into the twilight of the Bronx. But waiting is impossible. Trembling with happy anticipation, she unwraps the O’Henry and bites into it while the train is still in the dark tunnel. She can’t not do it. She’s on automatic pilot now.

Soon the O’Henry bar is gone. And after she’s methodically eaten three more, it’s just not worth bringing the last three to the dorm. She can always buy more at the campus store. When she steps off the train at her station, only crumpled candy wrappers remain in the brown paper bag. Before getting into one of the waiting taxis, she tosses the bag. There! Evidence gone! The waistband of her jeans feels snug, but with her jacket on, no one will notice.

By the time she reaches her dorm, she has just enough time to climb the stairs to her room, set down the carry-on, unsnap the top of her jeans and walk all the way to the dining room at the other end of campus. Why should she skip supper? Calorically, the day’s shot. She might as well enjoy what’s left of it.

Meals at college are always cafeteria-style, which means you can take as much as you want, and even go back for more. Molly has never done either of these things. Sunday night supper is especially hard for the rigorous dieter; it usually consists of some kind of slumgullion that uses up scraps remaining from the previous week — accompanied by single-serving bags of potato chips, pitchers of whole and skim milk, long loaves of crusty white and light brown bread, already sliced, and tubs of peanut butter and grape jelly. Dessert? Spotty-looking apples for the health-minded and powdered doughnuts on trays, plus cocoa, for everyone else.

But tonight Molly begins with a lightened heart. She serves herself some sort of hash with an egg on it, and a generous squeeze of ketchup. She has never had it before, and therefore plans to return for seconds. She also puts two bags of chips on her tray, and helps herself liberally to the white bread, three slices of which she slathers generously with peanut butter and jelly. Allowing herself to have these things is okay, she reasons, as she plunges her knife deep into the peanut butter tub, because she’s only going to do it this one night.   She chooses whole milk over skim. “I’m just so hungry!” she exclaims to the two classmates who set their own trays down at her table. “I had to miss lunch to catch the train back.”

Her classmates seem to think nothing of it. After all, Molly is thin. When it’s time for dessert, all three return to the buffet together. Molly’s classmates skip the apples. They’re for powdered doughnuts. “Mmm, they do look good,” exclaims Molly, taking two. And they are, despite all she’s already eaten. So she waits, very slowly sipping cocoa, until the others have left. Then she returns to the doughnut tray, trying to look casual, where she wraps six doughnuts in double paper napkins to bring to her room. She would take more, but can only manage to carry three in each hand. On the path up the hill towards her dorm, she meets someone she recognizes from British History hurrying to get some food before the dining-room closes. “For my suite-mate,” Molly explains without having been asked, waving the napkin-wrapped doughnuts. “She didn’t feel like coming down.”

The future East Asian Studies major isn’t back from Brooklyn yet. She must be having supper at home. Molly closes her door, unzips her jeans, and sits at her desk without undressing further to eat the six doughnuts. She might have preferred to stop after three, but doesn’t want to leave the other three around for the next day, and so manages to get them all down. Only when there’s nothing left to eat does she become aware she’s uncomfortably full.

Molly knows in a general way that during less than three hours, she has consumed seven candy bars, two large platefuls of greasy hash with egg, two bags of potato chips, three thick peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two glasses of whole milk, a large cup of cocoa, and eight powdered doughnuts. But rather than think about it, she pushes her carry-on to the side of the room. Gide can wait until tomorrow. Then she pulls off her jeans, shirt and bra, leaving them in a tangled heap on the floor, and gets under the covers.   She falls into a deep sleep almost at once, and never hears anyone come down the hall, open the door opposite hers, use the shared bathroom and go to bed.

It’s been many years since Molly’s parents celebrated her surprise visit home with a three-layer chocolate cake. Yet she still remembers with perfect clarity everything she ate on that Sunday after she left their apartment in Queens to come back to college. She has no such clear recollection of subsequent episodes of aberrational eating. Indeed, on such subsequent occasions she will sometimes make a detailed confessional list of what she’s consumed before falling, groggy with food, on her bed — so as to help her remember this other self who lives in her body and eats so desperately.

There won’t be a subsequent occasion for a while. College will get easier. She will have friends. But nobody ever said that life is fair. And for grown-up Molly looking back, here – at the gateway to adulthood — is the template for the recurrent nightmare of her future life. Here is where she discovers solace for what isn’t fair. And here too are solace’s ever-present companions: shame, falsehood, secrecy — followed by sleep so profound it resembles a little taste of death.

NO PAINKILLER AVAILABLE

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Not every ache or pain is age related. And not every pain can be numbed, even by prescription. Here are three paragraphs about pain not numbed in someone not yet old. I call the three paragraphs a story, although the beginning of the story precedes the three paragraphs and the story has no end. Which I suppose is the point.  There is no end.

I didn’t write it.  I wish I had.  To me it says everything there is to say about what it’s about. Which (I think) makes it impressive, if unconventional, writing.  Yes, it’s by Lydia Davis again. [From The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador paperback edition, pp. 170-171.]  I know some of you found her hard to take when I posted about her before. But this piece really got to me, so I thought I’d try again.  It’s not very long. See how you feel about it.

Wife One in Country 

Wife one calls to speak to son.  Wife two answers with impatience, gives phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in voice of wife two and tells mother he thought caller was father’s sister: raging aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman.  Wife one wonders: is she herself perhaps another raging woman, constant caller?  No, raging woman but not constant caller.  Though, for wife two, also troublesome woman.

After speaking to son, much disturbance in wife one.  Wife one misses son, thinks how some years ago she, too, answered phone and talked to husband’s raging sister, constant caller, protecting husband from troublesome woman.  Now wife two protects husband from troublesome sister, constant caller, and also from wife one, raging woman.  Wife one sees this and imagines future wife three protecting husband not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two, as well as constantly calling sister.

After speaking to son, wife one, often raging though now quiet woman, eats dinner alone though in company of large television.  Wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again.  Watches intently ad about easy to clean stove: mother who is not real mother flips fried egg onto hot burner, then fries second egg and gives cheerful young son who is not real son loving kiss as spaniel who is not real family dog steals second fried egg off plate of son who is not real son.  Pain increases in wife one, wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again, swallows pain again, swallows food again.

P.S.  If “Wife One” is at all to your taste, you may enjoy some of the quiet musings of one of the WordPress bloggers I follow.  She identifies herself as JMPod, and her blog is Original Pea.  I don’t know if she’s read Lydia Davis, but some of her short pieces remind me of Davis. What she writes is often not upbeat. Although she does say she writes mainly for her own pleasure, it would be great if more people found her.  Some things can’t be fixed. But it helps when you can write about them and other people read what you write.

HAPPY NEW YEAR 1959

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[A Story]

 On New Year’s Eve, Millie and Richard went to a party at the home of a New Dramatist who lived in the Village.  The New Dramatists were a group of aspiring playwrights who met periodically to read and critique each other’s work.  The meetings were good for Richard because they got him out of the apartment. This party, however, was not one of the regular get-togethers.  Wives and “others” could also come.

“Who’s going to be there?” Millie asked, as they peered through the icy dark at house numbers.

“Playwrights, who else?” said Richard. An elongated drop hung from his nostril; she wondered if it was going to freeze in mid-air before it could fall.

“I think it’s here,” he said, starting down the steps to the basement apartment of a brownstone.

Millie hoped it wasn’t going to be a fancy party.  Her five-year-old navy blue Kimberly knit dress was not very festive, although the best she had.  Also she hadn’t managed to do such a good job with the pin curls after washing her hair in the shower that afternoon.

“Come in, come in,” exclaimed the short dark-haired host, whose name Richard had told Millie was Tom; he tugged them over the threshold into a tiny vestibule and pushed them into the smoky living room so he could shut the outer door.  The other guests, already seated and looking cozy, watched with interest while Millie and Richard divested themselves of knitted hats, gloves, coats and scarves, and bent down to pull off their galoshes.  The hostess emerged from somewhere to gather everything up.  “I’ll just put your things in the back,” she said.  “To get them out of the way.” She disappeared, arms around her load.

Tom rattled off the names of the people on the sofa and in the two easy chairs, for Millie’s benefit. There was also a large very plain woman standing alone underneath the street-level window high on the wall; she had a long square face and a thick rectangular body.  Then Tom brought two kitchen stools into the center of the room for Millie and Richard to sit on.

“I’ll never remember who you all are,” she ventured.

“That’s all right,” said the woman sitting in the middle of the sofa with a man’s arm around her.  “We don’t remember who we all are either.”

Tom had two jelly glasses for Millie and Richard filled with something dark red that didn’t look like wine.  His own jelly glass was on a table.  “To Iris!” he proposed, raising his drink towards the woman on the sofa.

“To Iris!”

Syrupy and caloric, Millie thought, sipping as little as possible.

“Mazel tov!” exclaimed the man with the arm around Iris.

“Mazel tov?” asked Tom.

“It means congratulations,” Millie said. Richard kicked her, but maybe it was an accident.

The man with the arm around Iris winked at Millie. “Iris just had a play optioned for production on Broadway,” he explained.

“That’s wonderful,” she said, politely. Richard said nothing.

“Yes it is,” said the man who had winked.

“What’s it about?” Millie asked.

“Oh, we’ve already been through that,” said the man.  “You two should have come earlier.”

“About a young woman with a dream,” said Iris kindly.

“Is there any other kind of young woman?” Millie asked.

Richard kicked her again.  This time it hurt.  If he didn’t want her to talk, why didn’t he say something himself? He had plenty to say at home.

“Good for you,” said another man, stretched out on his spine in one of the armchairs. He had long thin legs. “Brilliant and beautiful,” he said to Richard.

That’s what Edmund Wilson wrote about Mary McCarthy when they were divorcing, Millie thought. “That beautiful, brilliant girl.” Edmund Wilson had been her thesis subject, and was supposed to be her dissertation subject, too, if she could ever find time.

“Hear hear,” said Tom.

“Excuse me but I didn’t catch your name before,” Millie said to the man with the long legs.

“He’s Tom, too,” said Tom.  “We’re the two Toms of the group. His wife, over there, is Alice.  My wife, in the kitchen where she belongs, is Susan.  You can tell us apart by the wives.”

Was everyone drunk?   “When did this party start?” Millie asked.

“Long long ago,” said the man with the arm around Iris.  After a thoughtful pause, he added, “Now it’s time for a change in the conversation. I am equipped to talk about two subjects.  One, the dry cleaning business.  Two, what’s wrong with the world. Which shall we start with?”  He held out his glass for a refill to the Tom who was host.

Richard smiled — his boyish smile, not the sardonic one.

“What’s so important about dry cleaning?” Millie inquired.

“It kept a roof over Iris during the twenty-six months it took her to write her play,” said the man on the sofa. “The play should be dedicated to Sheldon’s Dry Cleaning.”

“You’re Sheldon?”

“Jewish girls are so smart,” said Sheldon.

Millie slipped off her stool and looked around. When parties are bad, head for the kitchen.  The plain rectangular-shaped woman under the window pointed towards a glass-paned doorway at the side of the sofa.  “Whatever you’re looking for, it’s through there,” she said.

“Who is she?” Millie whispered to host Tom.

“Against the wall?” Tom whispered back.

“Yes.”

“Hulda.  With an umlaut.”

“Pardon?”

“Over the “u.” In her name.”

“Moving on to the Cuba situation, are you going to explain Batista’s options to us?” Sheldon asked Richard.

Millie opened the glass-paned door and went down a dark hall with two more doorways. At the end was a dimly lit galley kitchen, where the hostess  — Susan?  Alice?  no, Susan — was smearing orange cheese spread on Ritz crackers.  “What can I do?” Millie asked, squeezing in sideways next to her.

“Put them on a plate?” said Susan.

Millie began arranging the finished crackers in circles on a melamine platter with a plaid pattern.  “Why did Tom say your place is in the kitchen?”

“Did he say that?” A rubber band kept Susan’s dark blonde hair from falling in her face as she dug into the cheese spread.  She had chewed off most of her lipstick. Better dressed and groomed, she could have been quite good looking. “He doesn’t like it that I go out to work four days a week and leave him with the baby.”

“What kind of work is that?”

“Secretarial.  Temp.  I wish I didn’t have to.  I’d love to be home with the baby. But what choice is there? It keeps us going while he writes the play.”  She sighed.  “And you?”

“Ad agency. But it’s not great. I’m looking around.”

“My temp agency’s pretty good at placements,” Susan offered.  “Do you want the name and address?”

Millie shook her head. “I can’t do secretarial,” she explained.  “No shorthand.”  That was easier than saying what she could do.  Although — come to think of it – what could she do?  The art director where she worked had just complained to their boss that he got nosebleeds when he had to sit down with her to develop an ad.

“Does Alice work too?” she asked.

“Well, sure.  She’s a New Dramatist wife, isn’t she?”  Susan scraped the last of the cheese spread out of the jar.  “Do you want to see the baby?” she asked.  “She’s in our bedroom.”

The bedroom was dark and warm and smelled of baby powder.  A crib stood against the foot of a double bed piled with coats.  “We really need another room,” said Susan softly.  “She’s nearly eight months old.”

Millie could hardly make out the baby’s cheek in the feeble light from the hall. She had no experience with babies. What was she supposed to say?  “She’s a good sleeper,” she finally ventured.

“I love her so much,” said Susan.  “She’s the most important thing in my life.  I carry her picture around with me all the time.”  She pulled a small locket up from inside her blouse and opened it.

Millie nodded without coming too close.   “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Well,” said Susan, putting the locket back inside her blouse. “Maybe ’59 will be better.” She sighed.  “We ought to get back to the others.  It must be close to midnight.”

Millie wanted to look at the sleeping baby some more, but it wasn’t her baby. So how could she?

Almost everyone had switched places in the stuffy living room.  Iris and Sheldon were in the easy chairs.  Short Tom was perched where Millie had been sitting.  Hulda, Alice and long-legged Tom were on the sofa, with Tom’s arm around Alice.  Only Richard was still quiet and smiling boyishly on his uncomfortable stool. What was it with Richard tonight? Millie considered the expression fixed on his face. Actually, it wasn’t just tonight.  In public, Richard was almost always that way — bland and kind of out of it. As if he wanted to join in but couldn’t.  She passed around the platter of Ritz crackers.

Sheldon was still talking about Cuba.  Had anyone read the cover story in Time that week, he wanted to know.   Millie had, at the 53rd Street public library during lunch hour, but couldn’t remember anything she’d read except that there had also been a woman up in the Sierra Maestra — in addition to the younger brother and that other fellow from South America who was the best friend.  Sitting at the library table in her winter coat, she had imagined sharing a sleeping bag in a semi-tropical forest with a hot-blooded revolutionary. Of course she didn’t know Spanish, but that didn’t matter for a fantasy.  The problem was the guns. She would need passion without bloodshed.

“Countdown to midnight, people!”  This from Alice, wife of long-legged Tom.

Six.  Five.  Four.  The two Toms were counting aloud. Millie wondered what she was doing here.  She had nothing in common with these people.  Three. Two.  One. Happy New Year!

“To Castro Fidel!” cried Sheldon, lifting his glass.

That’s wrong, Millie thought.  It’s the other way around.  But Richard hopped down off his stool for the first time all evening and before she could say anything to Sheldon kissed her with proprietary gusto.  So she had to kiss him back.

Then she had to kiss both of the Toms.  Long-legged Tom tried to stick his tongue down her throat, but she clamped her lips and teeth shut.  Sheldon himself didn’t come for a kiss.  She saw him go kiss big ugly Hulda instead.

Richard wanted to leave now that it was 1959.  “It’s because there’s no more punch, isn’t it?” said short Tom.

Coats and galoshes appeared. At the door, one of the Toms suggested a get-together for bridge.  Millie didn’t know how to play bridge.  Richard pronounced bridge a great idea.  “We’ll call, we’ll call,” he promised.

“So I did eventually remember everyone’s names,” Millie said as they climbed up to street level.

Richard wasn’t listening. “Iris’s play is no damn good,” he declared.  “I heard some of it at the workshop meetings.  She must know somebody. Or he does.”  He meant Sheldon.

“Well, it can’t be Sheldon,” Millie said. “He’s a dry cleaner.”

But Richard was already ahead of her.  She had to hurry along the slippery dark street to catch up.

“Why do you think Sheldon kissed Hulda?” she asked when she reached him.  “Was he just sorry for her?”

“Hulda!” Edward said scornfully, hurtling down the subway stairs.  “She can’t write at all!  It’s a miracle she got into the group.”

What a waste of an evening, Millie thought, fumbling in her pocket at the turnstiles for their two tokens.

The only good thing about it was not having had to spend it alone with Richard.  Now there was just one more day to get through, and then she could go back to work.