The International Writers Magazine: New York Loves
I recently read a novel whose hero, an average guy in New York City, had somehow won as his fiancée a beautiful blonde uptown girl, unlikely except as a plot device so he could dump her and marry an average girl he’d known since high school. Back in the 1950’s I was going to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. The reason for this was simple, the Korean War was going on and if I wasn’t going to school I’d be drafted.
I lived with my parents in the Bronx, had a small scholarship and worked part-time in an uncle’s clothing store so I was able to cover my expenses. I was even able to go to a party given by some fellow students at the start of the term in September. I was having a reasonably good time when I heard some guy making disparaging about Jews. He was an Aryan type: tall, blonde, good-looking, white teeth. I moved over, exchanged some words with him and ended by hitting him in the mouth. I then left.
The next morning a stunning girl who was in my lit class (I’d noticed) stopped me on the way out and asked, “Are you the one who hit somebody at a party yesterday?”
“That’s me. Why, is he your boyfriend?”
“No. My brother.”
When I gave her a closer look I could see the resemblance. Like the Aryan, she was tall and blonde with very white teeth. She also had great legs. As I said, I’d noticed her in class, along with every other male. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be. He’s a jerk. Do you want to get some coffee?”
So that’s how I met Elaine. We spent a long time over our coffees in Columbia’s rather dingy cafeteria. She seemed interested in my background. I told her about living in Bronx tenements, with stoops, fire escapes and roaches and about my father, a plumber, who spent the World War II years working all over the country, including at the atomic plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to keep our family afloat. She professed amazement that I’d ridden the subway four years to go to high school and that on weekends I played in money handball games, a sport she’d never heard of. For my part, I was a little amazed that here I was talking to this beautiful uptown girl while all the guys in the cafeteria, including some I knew, covertly looked at me with envy. I supposed she was interested in someone like me as a naturalist is interested in a strange species. But she gazed at me with greenish eyes and I was captivated.
After the coffees, we went to her apartment on Central Park West and she took me to her bed. No, are you kidding? This was the 1950’s and nice girls didn’t do such things then. Born ten years too soon.
As I said, I was hooked and, even after finding out all about me, Elaine still seemed interested so we kept seeing each other all during the term. At first, we went to the Columbia library to study. I was doing my master’s dissertation on a Victorian novel I’d read and liked, “Middlemarch” by George Eliot and how it related to our modern day social ideas. The heroine wanted to help save the world, a noble purpose that led her into an ill-fated marriage. Elaine read the book to see what it was about and had some surprisingly good ideas about it. After our study sessions we’d walk to my subway station and kiss each other good-bye. It was all pretty chaste.
After a month or so I suggested we do something outside of the campus, like seeing a movie. There was a movie house within walking distance of the Columbia campus so we went to see a film that had recently come out, “Roman Holiday.” The place was nearly empty during the afternoon. I slid my arm around Elaine’s shoulder and she leaned into me. I kissed her and she didn’t object. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the movie but it occurred to me that there was some similarity between Gregory Peck’s character, a journalist, as I recall, but anyway a commoner, who has a fling with Aubrey Hepburn, a princess, and Elaine and myself.
It’s fair to say that Elaine’s appearance at the Central Park handball courts, where I was then playing on weekends, created a minor sensation. It was a warm autumn afternoon and she wore shorts, showing off her elegant legs, and a top that hugged her breasts. I introduced her to “da guys,” my partner Slim, who was a black guy reputed to have been a boxer, Manny, who worked in the garment district, and Big Gene, who was an ad executive. Oh, yes, there was also Herman the bookie, who handled the bets on our money games.
I don’t if it was because they were dazzled by Elaine but Manny and Big Gene were pushovers, two easy games, an easy 50 bucks. After, Elaine and I bought hot dogs from a cart and ate them on a park bench. “You looked pretty good,” Elaine told me.
“Maybe you should come to the courts more often,” I said.
She licked some mustard off her lips, which I found entrancing. “I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she said. “I’m going away for a while.”
“To my grandmother’s, in Cape Cod. I’ll be there for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
“That’s a long time. What about school?”
“I’ll do some reading and writing there.”
“What about us?”
“We can still talk, by phone.”
My first thought, I have to confess, was that her parents were spiriting her away because of me. I don’t know how much, if anything, Elaine had told them but if they were like my parents they must have known something was going on. The only indication my parents gave me was saying that I should be meeting some nice Jewish girls. Well, it didn’t matter anyway. Whatever the reason, Elaine was going away.
The going away for a while turned out to be quite a while. She was gone until after the first of the year. That’s also when I got my induction notice. I’d be going in right after the term ended in January. Elaine and I had resumed seeing each other. The musical “Kismet” had opened on Broadway and she’d gotten tickets. I took the subway downtown and met her in front of the theater. We had seats in the second row. I wondered if Elaine realized that, like the movie we’d seen, “Roman Holiday,” it was about a commoner in love with royalty, only this time the girl was the commoner. After the play, she said she wanted me to come to her place. We took a cab uptown. The doorman in front of her building greeted her. The apartment was, as I’d expected, sumptuous. My folks’ apartment in the Bronx would have fitted into the living room. There was a view of Central Park. I was staring out the window at all the lights when she grabbed me and pulled me into her bedroom.
Elaine and I wrote to each other while I was in basic training, then, after I’d been posted to Seventh Army Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, her letters became fewer. Back in those days, as in World War II, there was such a thing as a “Dear John” letter, in which the girl back home told the soldier that she’d taken up with some civilian. I got my Dear John letter one cold wintry morning. Well, I’d known since the beginning that it wasn’t going to last. I’d had my fling with the beautiful, blonde uptown girl and she’d had hers with the guy from the Bronx. I’d been a little bit in love with Elaine, but I’d get over it.
At Seventh Army Headquarters I worked in something called the History Section. My sergeant must have know something had happened when I came in to work because he said, “What’s the matter? Somebody died?” I told him about the “Dear John” letter and he insisted and taking me out and getting me drunk that night. I don’t remember too much about it, at some point I passed out. But when I came to in my bed in the barracks at three in the morning I was cold sober. I was intensely aware of the grunts and snores of the guys all around me and the smell of the latrine. I hurt, as if somebody had been jumping up and down on my chest. I stared into the darkness and images of Elaine flashed before my eyes. I guess maybe I’d been more than just a little in love with her.
Martin Green Jan 2011