The Bronx, Christopher Columbus High School, 1951
Marsha was not beautiful but had huge breasts—the largest of any girl in our high school—and she wore tight sweaters.The boys were crazy for her; some groaned and bit their hand, Italian-style, as she walked by. I was awed by her full lips, by her straight shoulders and her confident walk, head up high, unattainable. I was sure I was not the only boy in school who jerked off at night imagining her.
Marsha was famous but she did not hang out at the cafeteria table with the cool ones; she sat alone, unapproachable, with an open book or with one of her three less attractive slaves, who by association shared her glory. Since she let no boy walk her home or carry her books, and since it was rumored that she went out with college men, she clearly was an “aloof bitch,” a “cockteaser,” a “cunt.” She was, for me, a goddess.
I was walking home from school one April day and heard some- one behind me say, “You’re the artist.”
I turned. It was hard to look at her and not focus on her breasts. “How do you know that?”
“Everyone knows that and thinks you’re a fairy.”
“Well, I’m not,” I said.
“Not an artist or not a fairy?”
I was stymied. I had never known that girls talked so boldly or that anyone would think I was a homo.
“I like girls,” I said.
“Well, I never saw you look at me.”
“I dream of you,” I said.
“I do,” I stuttered.“Really.”
“Good-bye,” she said, walking off slowly. I wondered if she had meant for me to catch up or follow her, but I was baffled and stayed in place.
A week later one of her slaves passed me a note in the cafeteria. It was written in faint blue ink and with almost invisibly thin lines. What kind of pen could do that?
I will be at Louie’s tomorrow at 4 p.m. Marsha.
At first I thought it was a prank.And after I sat around waiting long enough, one of the slaves would come over and say, “Waiting for someone?” I would be a fool to go and be humiliated. But supposing she showed up and I didn’t? How could I miss this chance?
I got to Louie’s early to get a booth. It was empty anyway, the whole stretch of the soda fountain counter with no one there but ketchup bottles and sugar bowls and gleaming napkin dispensers.
Louie, the luncheonette owner himself, came over. “Lime Rickey?” he asked.
“Thanks. Later, maybe,” I said, feeling important that he had remembered my favorite drink from the time I was delivering for the butcher the previous summer.
Marsha slid into the booth exactly at four by the fat clock over the door. She was wearing a powder-blue sweater with a soft- looking pink kerchief; she smelled of something wonderful not in nature; she pulled back her shoulders. Louie’s eyes popped in a cartoony way.
“I got your message,” I said. “What message?”
“The note you sent.”
“Why would I send you a note?”
“It wasn’t you?” I asked, sure now I had been tricked.
She waited a long time before she said: “Of course it was me, who else?”
“Don’t you know how to play?”
“No,” I finally said.
“Well, I guess I’ll go now,” she said, taking from her blue purse a giant pair of sunglasses. She put them on in slow motion. “Going already?”
“Who do I look like in these sunglasses?”
“Like a movie star.”
“Sure, but which one?”
“Betty Grable, I think.”
“More like Ava Gardner, I think,” she said, rising from the table.
Louie brought over a Lime Rickey.“That’s her story.Talks to a guy a few minutes and walks out.”
“She’s an old friend,” I said.“She just came by to say hello.”
“She has a lot of old friends.”
I hated her. I didn’t go to the cafeteria the next day or the following week. I did not want to see Marsha and her slaves having their laugh over me. I got my lunch at an Italian deli close to the school, where I bought “loosies” for a penny a cigarette.The whole pack of twenty cost eighteen cents, but I liked buying one at a time. It made me feel rich. For two weeks I ate Sicilian salami with mustard sandwiches and drank a bottle of Coke. I sat on a stoop and smoked cigarettes for my dessert and wanted not to think about what had happened and not to think that I was an idiot and not to think of Marsha’s breasts under her powder-blue sweater. I also took another route home after class. It was longer, but I did not want to see her, to ever see her again.
She found me in the mail. The postcard read: “I like you. Don’t avoid me anymore.”
I tore it up. But I was happy. Now I no longer had to think of her as a person but as a game I need not play. I returned to the school cafeteria and sat in my usual spot by the window and read. Marsha smiled and waved. I smiled and waved.
The bell rang, the last of the day and the last of the week. I would soon be home and back to my easel and to my beautiful world of paint and canvas and comforting dreams. In a moment, I was out the school’s heavy doors and among a throng of students rushing to freedom.
“Don’t be that way,” she said on the school steps. She was holding her books under her breasts, thrusting them forward like an offering.
I stepped away.
“I was just teasing you.”
She was wearing a powder-pink sweater with a blue scarf and a tight black skirt, and I tried not to look at her for too long.
I started down the steps.
“Can’t a girl tease you?”
“Good-bye,” I said, deliberately echoing her last words to me at Louie’s Luncheonette. I had saved it up and was dreaming, during my salami-with-mustard lunches, of a scene where I could use it.
“You stole my line,” she said. “And now you owe me.”
I walked. She walked beside me, leaving her three slaves behind. “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to, but I want to—”
“Apologize?” I said.
“I want to make it up to you. I’m not a mean girl.”
“Make it up to me? How?”
“Whatever you like.”
I felt myself blushing. “Oh!”
“No, not that.”
“What would you like?”
“Will you model for me?” I heard myself ask.
“You mean naked.”
The idea of seeing her naked made me dizzy and blurred the line of trees along the Bronx Parkway.
“Of course not.”
“I know I have a bad rep, but I’m not that kind of girl. I write poetry.”
“OK. Let’s forget the modeling,” I said, amazed by my boldness in ever having asked.
We had walked to the street where we had last split off before I had gotten her note, before our rendezvous at the luncheonette, before I hated her.
There was no goodbye this time. She walked away quickly and I did not look after her. I went straight home and reviewed my few canvas-board paintings. One was a study of a bowl of fruit beside a vase of roses that I had copied from an art book; another, the yellow ceramic lamp, two brown chairs, and the fold-up cot in my room, whose window looked on to nothing exciting. The idea for this one came from Van Gogh’s painting of his room with a wood-frame bed and straw-bottom chair, everything yellow, gold, orange, with a wall of light blue. Like Van Gogh’s, my picture was all swirls, with the paint plastered on thick—“impasto” was the word I had learned; “impasto,” like paste, like pasta.
I saw that my still lives were a dead end: even Cézanne had not stopped at apples. My art needed an infusion of figures, of people, of vibrant human life.What would be the point of living with a model in my Paris studio if I could not draw or paint her and bring her warmth and my love for her onto the canvas—as Modigliani had with his mistress, Jeanne?
I sat on my cot and tried to summon noble thoughts that would elevate my art. Long ago, it seemed, when we studied the Greek myths in my grade school Special Progress class, my teacher told us about Plato and his idea of ideal forms and how for everything on earth there was its immortal archetype: a kitchen chair had its perfect echo out there in the world of perfect forms. I wondered about Plato until the afternoon darkened and then I thought about Marsha and fled under the sheets and, with my eyes closed, caressed myself to a silent, creamy explosion.
A Powder-Blue Sweater
Someone called me from the street and I went to the already open window. Marsha was standing there. She glowed in the sunlight.
“I was walking my dog and I thought I’d say hello.”
I almost hadn’t seen the dog; he was so small and white and ugly, with an upturned nose and busy teeth. Perfect, I thought, she has a dog, like her slaves, that gives her no competition.
“That’s nice of you,” I said blandly, so commonplace for an artist who would one day live in Paris and exchange brilliant words with fellow artists and poets.
“Do you want to walk with me?”
“Will your dog bite?”
“Only if I tell him to.”
“Maybe another time, I’m painting now.”
“Sure.” She walked away almost to the corner and turned. I ducked my head in.
After a few minutes I heard her call out again. I waited before returning to the window. I made a preoccupied frown so she would know how deeply I had been into my work before her interruption.
“Can I come up and see your paintings?”
We lived on the ground floor, several feet from the sidewalk. Only a low hedge separated us; I could smell her jasmine perfume and feel the softness of her sweater—powder blue again.The blue held more power over me than her pink.
“Not today.” I was ashamed of how the apartment looked: the broken-down furniture and the grime from the street coating the walls. Also, I was not sure enough of the quality of my paintings to have her judge and perhaps mock them later with her slaves.
“Don’t play hard to get,” she said. Her dog quivered and tugged her away with the leash.
“I’ll take a walk with you,” I said, pretending not to have heard her.
We walked without speaking into the Botanical Gardens and went off the path up into a hill wild with trees and bushes.The dog sniffed the trees and planted a long stream against a baby elm.
“You can kiss me if you like,” she said, securing the dog’s leash around a thicket.
We kissed. I got dizzy in her perfume and dizzier when she raised my hand to her breast.
“Haven’t you ever kissed a girl before?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“So why is your face so red?”
On the way back home, and just before we reached my building, the dog, without a warning, growl, or bark, bit deep into my ankle.
The Artist at Work
When I was ten, I first heard of the astonishing idea of sexual intercourse, where a man puts his thing into a woman’s thing and moves it about until she makes a baby.
“You made that up,” I said to my friend Arthur, who, at eleven, already had a faint mustache, which he darkened with his mother’s eyebrow pencil, and knew all sorts of strange facts.
“Not only that,” Arthur said. “Sometimes a woman freezes up down there and your prick gets clamped inside her and you both have to go to the hospital stuck together on a stretcher.”
When I was twelve, I felt the first stirrings of pubic hair. I was too embarrassed to ask my mother what that itchy fuzz was all about, but Arthur knew.“The hair comes first and then you start to get hard-ons.” Then he explained about the hard-ons, how they came over you when you saw a girl naked or even imagined one naked.
One cold, late November morning, a week before my thirteenth birthday, I woke and found white gooey globs on my pajama bottoms and on the sheet. I knew something unusual had happened during the night when I felt a warm flow and surge in my body, but I had not wakened. I thought I was sick, and I was frightened. I washed my pajamas in the sink and sponged the top sheet as clean as I could and hoped my mother would not see the whitish ring that was left behind.
“Hey, Fred, that’s great, ”Arthur said,crushing my hand.“You had a wet dream. I get them all the time unless I jerk off twice a day.”
It was only a year later that I learned what he had meant by this and understood its joy and the terrible longing for girls day and night, the fantasy of them that drove me under the sheets whose stains I had to sponge down before my mother woke and discovered my infamia. Sometimes I wondered if my mother, in the next room, had heard my moans as the white stuff spurted and slid into my hand.What would she think of me if she knew? I was already living in shame without her knowing.
When I was fifteen, it was Marsha I fantasized about under the sheets, and sometimes she was more real and exciting in my dreams than when we met and kissed and fondled and left each other with bruised lips and indefinite longings.
It was also Arthur who had guided me step by step through the rituals of teenage romance:
1. First, the kiss. No tongue.
2. The kiss and a feel of the breasts with all her clothes on.
3. French kiss, but no slathering of the tongue.
4. French kiss with hand on breast under the bra.
5. Bra off; breast kissing and licking nipples.
6. Rubbing against her thigh with pants on. (Coming in pants acceptable.)
7. Give her a bracelet with your and her names engraved on a little gold heart and let the world know you are GOING STEADY.
8. Put penis between her breasts; slide back and forth until you come.
9. Petting below the waist and beneath the underpants.
10. Guide her hand to your penis and let her stroke you until you come.
11. Slide finger into the vagina. Swirl finger about. Last stop before marriage and the real thing.
After three weeks, I was at rule four when Marsha agreed to pose for me and one day appeared at my door.
“My mother knows I’m here,” she said.
“In case you want to try some funny stuff.”
“What are you talking about? What funny stuff?”
“You know very well.”
“Have I ever gone further than you let me?”
“So why are you worried?”
“My mother says I should never be in an apartment alone with a man.”
“That’s a good rule, generally.”
She looked about for the first time and said what I’d always dreaded she would say: “How can you live here?”
“It’s just temporary. We’re going to move.”
“Really? That’s good.Where to?”
“I’m going to live in Paris as soon as I finish high school next year.”
“With your mother?”
“No, she’s going to live in Tuscany, where we have some property.”
I heard a dog barking out the open window. “Is that Rudolf?” I asked.
“I leashed him inside the hedge. He doesn’t like you.”
“Too bad, I would have painted him sitting on your lap, like in old paintings of aristocrats.”
“Maybe he’ll get to like you, one day.”
“OK, let’s start now before it gets dark,” I said. It was only four o’clock in May and did not get dark until at least seven, but I was worried that my mother would return early from work and ruin the intimate atmosphere—what artist’s mother walks into his studio while he’s painting his model?
I set up a canvas board on my easel and had a few charcoal sticks at the ready for outlining her before I began to paint. I placed her in a chair by the window where we first had chatted and turned her to the light.
“Do you like what I’m wearing?”
“Yes, very much.”
Marsha was wearing a powder-green sweater and a green scarf. Her black skirt was tight and her legs bare and ripe.
“Is that all?”
“Because you look beautiful.”
“I want you to make a portrait of me that will last forever. One that will hang in a museum someday.”
“I will try.”
“Also, my mother wants to see it.”
I made an oval for her head, as I had learned in the How to Draw from the Model book that Seymour had finally sold me.Then I drew a larger oval for the chest and abdomen, and two long ovals for the arms.
Marsha yawned.“How long do I have to stay this way?”
“It’s not even been three minutes,” I said. “Don’t break my concentration.”
I did my best with the face, but I knew I was in trouble when the eyes seemed too large and the nose too flat.The chest was another problem: How was I ever going to imply the juicy fullness beneath her sweater? I rubbed out the drawing and started again, and now, with Van Gogh–like abandon, I slashed in the paint with my butter knife.
“This is enough,” Marsha said.“I’ve got to go walk Rudolf. Do you want to come?”
“I have to work on the painting.”
“Can I have a look?”
“Of course not, I’ve just started.”
She sighed, immaturely, I thought. I walked her to the door.
“Don’t you want to kiss me?” she said with a make-believe pout.
“All the time.”
“Do we have to kiss standing up?” she asked, lightly caressing the back of my neck and sending a current through me.
My cot was too narrow and would not have held us both, so we went to my mother’s room and into her bed. My first time in a bed with a woman, so different from lying down on the grass in the park with the dog ready to snap. I felt an unimagined boldness—I was an artist in bed with his model. I kissed and used my tongue. She slowly twirled hers.
I put my hand under her sweater and left it there. She did not take it away. I put my hand under her bra and felt the huge, soft swell of her naked breast. She touched me below and I burst into a warm, steady flow of excitement and embarrassment.
“Can I look now?” she asked.
“When it’s done,” I said, trying to keep in focus in my role as the artist and not as the boy who had exploded in his mother’s bed.
First Review. Picasso Unmasked
A few days later, Marsha and I met at Louie’s and held hands over the orangey-red Formica-top table littered with the remains of a Lime Rickey,a watery Coke,french fries,and the edges of two hamburger rolls.
“You know,” she said,“I’ve been thinking that I won’t model for you again until I see what you’ve done.”
“But this is a process that takes time,” I said.
“You just want to get me into bed.Which is OK, because we are going steady.”
“Of course! After what I let you do!”
I hoped that no one had heard her, and if they had, what filthy things did they imagine I had done to her? But now that we were going steady, I wondered what more she would let me do.
“Let’s go over to my place right now.”
“What made you wait so long to ask?”
I paid, took her hand, and walked just short of running across the streets to my house. We rushed to the bed and after few minutes of necking I said, “Take off your sweater.”
I was amazed that she did, and without a fuss. We kissed until my lips hurt and my teeth hurt, too.
Then, in a madness of desire, I heard myself say: “Take off your bra.”
I thought she would be angry and walk out. But in a tone used to soothe a cranky baby, she said,“Here now,” and I drowned myself in her breasts.
“Now can I see the picture?” she asked, putting on her bra and sweater.
“Yes,” I said, in a warm haze of satisfaction.
She pointed out that her nose looked like a wedge of yellow cheese; her ears, twin orange slices.
“But it looks nothing like me,” she said, summing up the strange concoction on the canvas.
“It’s your essence,” I explained.
I dared not admit that I had no idea of how to represent faithfully the human face or body—or the form of a dog or a cat or of any animal thing.
“How can I ever show this to my mother? She hates Picasso.”
“This was only your first sitting,” I said.“I’m sure I can make it more realistic if you want. But then, I might as well take a photograph.”
“I want to go home now,” she said, her disappointment trailing her all the way to the door and out into the street, where my goodbye wave was not returned.
I took the road beside what was once a horse trail for a riding club up near Pelham Bay Park, which was green and had fancy Tudor- and Spanish-style private houses and seemed like another country, where no one spoke Italian or Yiddish. I passed the Institute for the Blind, with its black iron gates always shut and its mysterious, seemingly uninhabited old buildings in the middle distance. I had never seen anyone on the grounds and wondered if the blind were kept indoors so as not to go astray in the streets and maybe get hit by a car or fall down to China through an open manhole.
I wondered what it was like to be blind, and I thought that death was better. Not ever again to see the sky or a beautiful woman on the street or a movie or a painting or see a girl with her clothes off or see the ocean. I had never seen the ocean, only the tame Long Island Sound whose waters lapped the artificial Orchard Beach where my mother and grandmother and I had sometimes spent some summer hours under a grilling sky, my grandmother fully dressed in black, drawing attention and making me want to turn invisible.
The worst of all: to be blind and never again to see Marsha and her naked breasts with their pink nipple buds.
Thinking of going blind and never again seeing Marsha or her beautiful breasts brought me to call her the minute I got home. She had not been in school for a week and her girlfriends explained: “She’s in bed with a bad cold.” Each time I had called, her mother said,
“She can’t come to the phone, Freddy. I’ll tell her you called.” But this time she came to the phone after I heard her mother shout, “Talk to him, already!” The dog went wild with barking.
“Are you all better? Are you OK now?”
“Of course.Why shouldn’t I be?”
“You were sick?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot.”
“Are you well enough to come over?”
“Will you come over?”
“To do what?”And then, in a whisper:“Sex?”
“Then come over and model for me.”
I laughed as if she were joking, teasing me. “OK, come over anyway.”
“I can’t, my boyfriend won’t like that.”
“Marsha, stop kidding. Come over.” I heard the pleading in my voice.
“Fred, you’re cute and a nice guy, but without a future.”
“Of course I have a future, to be an artist and live in Paris with you.”
“That’s what I mean, no future.”
“Who is this imaginary boyfriend?” I began to suspect she was not joking but still could not believe it was true.Why would she want another boyfriend, and where and when did she find one? I suddenly had a vision that she was seeing Tony Gavanti with his green pegged pants.
“What does it matter?”
“I guess it doesn’t,” I said. But it did matter, the world’s worth. “Is it anyone I know?”
“He’s the son of the butcher you deliver for.”
“Murray? Is that his name?”
“He likes to be called Morris.”
“Marsha, this is crazy. I thought we were going steady?”
“We were, even though you never got me a charm bracelet. But things happen.”
I felt myself sinking. “Well, things can unhappen, can’t they? I have your bracelet on order at the jeweler’s, with our names etched on a gold heart.” I had not done this at all, but I knew from my friend Arthur that that was the way it was done.
“It’s too late. Anyway, I’m doing you a favor. One day you’ll thank me.”
I heard her mother yell, “Get off the phone already! Suppose someone’s trying to call you?”
I got a little dizzy from all this and felt my chest collapsing and my voice shrinking, turning me into the boy of seven. I took a last chance.“This is a joke, right?”
“Let’s say good-bye, Freddy.”
“I’ll see you at school and walk you home.”
“I left school,” she said. “We’re going to live in Toronto. Morris has a job with his uncle there.”
I still didn’t completely believe her, but I clung to my last straw and played hard to get.
“OK. Good-bye, Marsha. Keep in touch.”
Now I would never see Marsha again or smell her dizzying perfume. Now and forever I would be stuck in the apartment with my mother and all the emptiness of that. I paced about the house in a daze. Finally, I left and wandered about until, as if by magic, I found myself in the Botanical Gardens, where I sat on a rock overlooking the bushes where Marsha and I had first made out. I was sure no one would ever have sex with me again until I was at least twenty-five or was married.
I returned home and started to paint but I felt nothing for it, not even for the smell I loved of the turpentine that I brushed into a little mound of zinc white. I thought about what to do and hit upon the plan of telling her we would get engaged and marry.We would have to wait a bit, because in New York State you had to be sixteen to marry. But if she wanted, we could marry in Kentucky, where fifteen was legal.
It was Monday again and I was in school again. In place of the usual noise, the shouts and curses, there was a stillness as green as the walls. Students and teachers glumly, silently milled about the hallway. Mrs. Knovac, the Spanish teacher, had a handkerchief to her eyes, and Miss Wexler, the biology teacher’s assistant, was crying; some students, too, especially Elizabeth, who paced the hall with tears flowing down her face. Elizabeth spotted me and rushed over.
“Oh, Fred! Oh, Fred! Mr. Anderson died.”
“No he didn’t.”
“Heart attack over the weekend.”
“Stop it. It’s not funny.”
“He was only thirty-two.”
“Thirty-two is old,” I said.
“You’re a jerk.”
The principal’s voice came over the PA system announcing that school was closing early; in fact, we could all go home now in honor of Mr.Anderson.
“Didn’t you love him, Fred?”
“Not the way I do,” she said, as if she was angry with me. She turned and bolted away when she saw Tony approaching. “Too bad about Mr. Anderson, huh?”
“Terrible,” I said, as the truth of his death began to sink in, along with the selfish feeling that he was the one teacher I believed cared about me. From now on, I imagined, I would be adrift, floating from one boring class to another for eternity.
“Take care of yourself,” Tony said. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“OK, see you.”
He took a few steps and stopped, turned about.
“I’m glad it wasn’t you who knocked her up.”
“Marsha, you prick, who else?”