Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 126 in 2011.
Near the village of Laetoli, northern Tanzania, in volcanic ash hardened to stone, paleontologists have discovered the footprints of our distant ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis. They tell us that 3.7 million years ago a woman and boy passed that way walking hand-in-hand. In every life there’s a passage that leaves an indelible impression; mine, I’ll call Vicki. That wasn’t her name. But I don’t want you Googling her or otherwise peeking up her skirt. She was forty-one when I fell in love with her, I was nineteen. It didn’t last long. She broke it off. I never got over it.
In 1960 I was a college drop-out studying creative writing with Stanley Kunitz at Columbia’s School of General Studies. She was an accomplished actress, newly divorced, starving for work. It was fifty years ago, that September evening she entered the classroom and my life. A voice behind me said, “Is this Professor Kunitz’s class?” It was a throaty voice and low. You could hear cigarettes in it, and the whisky bottle on the nightstand next to the bed. I’d answered “Yes” before my head turned and her eyes registered. They were opaline, and her cheeks were pinked by an early frost. “Thank goodness!” She swirled the Hermes scarf from her throat. (She knew how to cover her entrance.) “Didn’t want to be late for my first class.” Her bosom was heaving. She put one hand to the front of her coat. (She knew how to coax attention to her body.) I said “I’m Steve” and she said “Vicki” and I sensed something had begun. Then she shot me what I came to call her ‘professional’ smile. It was practiced, studied, dazzling as a flashbulb going off in your face. She sat at the desk behind mine like a promise.
That semester there were a dozen of us in what was called an adult education class, all misfits. We convened on Tuesdays and Thursdays at seven and broke at ten. As a curriculum we parsed great works: Hamsun, Kawabata, Günter Grass, and Roethke, Jack Gilbert and Randall Jarrell. Along with their masterpieces we work-shopped our own stories and poems, handing copies around or reading aloud, then plunging into critique. Four of us – ‘The Regulars’ – had studied with Kunitz for three semesters. The bit players in my tragicomedy were Laurie, Ralph and Denault Blouin.
At the break I worked up the nerve to ask “Want a coffee?”
Vicki looked up, stared as though seeing me for the first time. “Thank you. Yes, white.” I fetched one for each of us. She said “Thank you” again and held the cup in both hands for the warmth. She had impeccable nails – mauve, long, curving in soft arcs to flawless verges, almost talons. She wore a gold wedding band.
I sipped, said, “What do you write?”
She cocked her head. “Sorry?” She had a way of smiling when she asked a question, an inward smile. It made you feel she knew the answer – that she’d already scanned your conversation to its conclusion the way an actor skims a page of script.
“I mean...” I was always tongue-tied around her, “...do you write, like, fiction? Or poetry?”
“Oh. I...write fiction.”
That half-heartbeat’s hesitation should have told me she hadn’t written before. But I was nineteen and said, “Me, too.”
After class The Regulars convened at The West End Bar. Over a pitcher of Rheingold we deconstructed our classmates. One was a balding ex-Marine; Laurie didn’t like him. There was a giggly girl who sat in the first row and asked Kunitz endless questions. Laurie didn’t like her either. Denny liked them all; then again, he liked crowds. In particular he fancied, “that blonde. The one behind Steve. I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”
Ralph said, “Don’t you know who she is?” Denny didn’t. Neither did I.
Laurie said, “Vicki Grant.” The name didn’t mean a thing.
“The actress, dummy,” Ralph said. “She just got divorced. It was in all the papers.” Ralph wasn’t much of a writer, but a great reader of newspapers. “She was married to – ” He named a movie star. “She made some B-flicks. Then she was on Broadway in the ‘Forties.”
I couldn’t have heard right. “She can’t be that old.” My first Broadway matinee had been High Button Shoes in 1948; I’d been seven.
“She’s got a kid older than you are,” Laurie said like she’d read my mind. I shut up. But I wasn’t fazed; all I’d heard was She’s single!
I’m not sure that wedding ring would have stopped me back then. It would have, once I’d grown up and grasped what marriage is. At nineteen I thought all’s fair in love and sex. Not that I’d had much experience; The Pill hadn’t been invented and most college girls still lived like nuns. But that night at The West End I set my sights on Vicki. I knew it was pure presumption. But what was it Oscar Wilde said? “The only thing one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
Next class, I brought Vicki another coffee. When we broke, I asked if she’d like to share a cab downtown. Inside, we bumped along Broadway together. The folds of her coat were warm against my leg. I was alone with her for the first time. With the windows snug against the cold, something sweet and lilting filled our space.
“You smell nice,” I said. “Is it perfume?”
“My Sin.” I didn’t know My Sin from Aqua Velva. But it sounded deliciously risqué to a nineteen year-old on a quest for his next piece of ass. I couldn’t know I was being drawn into a master class in the pain of being formerly rich and once-upon-a-time famous.
She said, “Mind if I smoke?” We did that in those days: smoked in taxis, on airplanes, in other people’s homes. She opened her handbag. The Hermes scarf was tied to its handle now; it was yellow and red with images of bridles and stirrups.
“Pretty,” I said. “You like horses?”
“Um-hum.” She lit up with a narrow gold lighter. Her lips printed a crimson corona on the filter-tip. She may have been just tired; it was half-past ten. But the way she held that cigarette, the half-lidded way she eyed me in the sliding light, she radiated a languor I’d only read about. That’s when the hubris of it came home to me. This was no co-ed in cotton socks who was hot to pet but wouldn’t go all the way. This was a woman. A full-grown, ripened woman. This would be an adventure. This could be big. This would be dangerous.
The cab ride wasn’t half long enough. We stopped before a massive apartment house at 72nd and Central Park West. A liveried porter opened her door with a crisp “’Evening, Miss Grant.” I was hoping (praying, actually) she’d say, “Like to come up for a drink?” But she said, “Thanks for the lift. Steve, right? See you Tuesday.” She pushed a ten-dollar bill into my hand. That was the first time she touched me. I sat staring after her; if I wasn’t in love already, I was sorely infatuated. The cabbie said, “Where to, Mac?” and winced when I quoted my shabby address.
It was the same after our next class except Vicki didn’t ask my name and I wouldn’t take the ten dollars. The time after that, as we pulled up I blurted the speech I’d rehearsed all afternoon. “Want to have lunch tomorrow?”
She looked at me like I’d said, “Want to see me naked?” There was a long beat, the kind you see in the movies. I don’t know what she was weighing up. Me, I didn’t breathe. Then she smiled. But this one wasn’t professional. It was the smile your mother gives you for a good report card.
“I’d like that,” she said. “But let me take you. Shall we say Voisin? One o’clock? You know it?” Was she joking? Know it? I couldn’t even pronounce it. “In the Beekman. On Park. I’ll book a table. Don’t be late.”
I didn’t know Voisin or any restaurant like it. And Park Avenue was terra incognita. But I still got there before twelve-thirty and had to walk to Bloomingdale’s and back so I wouldn’t appear the panting puppy I was. I’d pressed my pants myself and ironed my dress shirt. They looked it. I had one respectable pair of shoes (too small). My blazer missed a button. And this was before shabby chic was chic. But lust is a dauntless daredevil. I pushed through the door, ignored the judgmental glance of the maitre d’ and spoke Vicki’s name. In a twinkling I was tucked into what I called a ‘booth’ but learned was a banquette. The table wore a bowl of roses and shimmering flatware and stemware. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten a meal on a tablecloth.
Vicki was ten minutes late. For nine I was certain she wasn’t coming. I didn’t understand the part about ladies being sure their escort had arrived before they showed. The maitre d’ bowed as he greeted her. She saw me, hit the switch on her professional smile. My heart leapt. As she came toward me, I memorized her every step, each one, individually. She was wore a gray suit with an airy, gray scarf that wound around her throat and up over her gleaming hair, then down the other side of her face and around her throat again. It was lunchtime-appropriate, but exotic, fascinating. Every head in the restaurant turned to watch her pass. No doubt about it, Vicki was an event. I swear I could already smell My Sin.
She slid in beside me. “Hope I haven’t kept you waiting.”
“No. You look great.”
“I have a producer meeting at two-thirty,” she said, and ordered a Kir directly. “Join me?” I didn’t know Kir from Nedicks Orange. (It was white wine with a swirl of purple stuff.) She touched her glass to mine. We sipped.
I said, “Are you going to be in a play?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She sighed magnificently. “Non-stop rehearsals, then eight shows a week? If I take it I don’t see how I’ll have time to write.”
“What are you writing?”
“A story” was all she said.
“What’s it about?”
“Professor Kunitz warned us not to talk about a story ’til we finish it.”
She had me there. “Well, what’s the arena?” That was a fair question.
“Grunions,” she said with a twinkle.
I said “Cool” though I didn’t know a grunion from a Chevy Corvair.
We chatted about books we’d read. About why she’d left California and why I’d quit college to write. And we ate–-at least I did. The way she picked at her salad you’d have thought she was arranging flowers. When she noticed I noticed, she said, “In my game you have to be thin to win.”
I hadn’t an inkling what was knotting her stomach that day. I only knew she was forced and artificial, like she didn’t want to be there. I felt like a rube in my mismatched pants and jacket, and a tie as wide as a loaf of bread. My ears burned. I was ready to give up hope. I couldn’t imagine what an actress feels on her way to meet a producer who might--or might not-–offer a part. When a writer has a story rejected, it’s just one magazine, one story. But when you’re an actress, it’s you they’re rejecting, your very persona, every gram. I couldn’t conceive the terror a fortyish, out-of-work actress suffers – an actress whose stardom was setting while I was still in short pants, who’d spent all morning preening to meet a sloe-eyed producer who’d spot the crinkles in the corners of her mouth and the nicotine stains on her fingers. To my eye, Vicki was a singularity. Not a star, a supernova. She was glamorous, breathtaking. The Flying Lady on a Rolls-Royce. To a producer she was just another go-see – a starlet past her sell-by date – a needy woman desperate for work.
We were on our coffee when Vicki lit a cigarette. That seemed to relax her. She eased back into the banquette. “You have lovely table manners,” she said. “Tell me about your parents.”
An odd question to ask a guy wearing a bright red HEY, I’M FALLING IN LOVE WITH YOU sign. But maybe not so odd for a grownup to ask a kid. I said my folks were a doctor and registered nurse. “What about yours?”
She said her father had been a Colonel in the British Army, a regimental who’d carried the flag in two wars, then retired to a villa on San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. My imagination conjured black and white flashes of C. Aubrey Smith in Gunga Din and The Four Feathers.
“Daddy didn’t want me to be an actress,” she said.
“What did he want you to be?”
She ground out her cigarette. “A lady.” She looked at her watch. “Oh, dear. You won’t mind if I run.” She nodded for the check. While she signed she said, “Please. Stay and have dessert.” Then, as she stood to go, “Pick me up on your way to class tomorrow? Say, six-thirty? Have the doorman ring.” She knew how to exit on a high.
She was lying, of course. Her father had been an officer, but non-commissioned. His ‘villa’ was a semi-detached in Oakland. Years later, I discovered he’d middle-named his daughter ‘Grant’ after the hero of his adopted country’s Civil War. A studio flack named Richard Condon rechristened her ‘Vicki Grant’ in 1939. That lunch marked the first time Vicki lied to me. She lied many times thereafter. At first, I resented it. Then it made me feel powerful. If I didn’t have power, why lie to me? I still like it when a woman lies. Duplicitiousness is feline, titillating.
We cabbed to class on Thursday. It wasn’t until coffee that it occurred to me to ask, “Did you get the part?”
She seemed distract. “Which part?”
“The one you saw the producer about on Tuesday.”
“Oh, that little part. Yes, well, they offered it to me, of course. They really wanted me. But the play was, oh, such dreary stuff. French people turning into elephants. And somehow it’s about Nazis? Can you imagine? Honestly,” she seemed to wave away an insect with the back of her hand, “everyone’s a producer nowadays. Every Jew in a phone booth holding a dime.”
“I’m Jewish,” I said, stung.
“Sweetheart, I know you are. My husband was Jewish. It’s just,” she had a theatrical shrug you could see from the 26th row, “just a figment of speech.” She laid her cheek against mine, a motherly buss. It was the first time she kissed me. I didn’t correct her.
A week later she invited me up for supper before class. She made coq au vin in a brass skillet, and crunchy haricots verts. We shared a Chambertin that went to my head like The Superchief crossing the Mojave. I was useless in class that night. I’d been useless for several sessions. I was flat-out in love with Vicki. She knew it. Kunitz knew it. Everyone knew it. After class, Laurie and Denny dragged me to The West End and barricaded me in a corner booth so I couldn’t get away.
“Have you lost your mind?” Laurie snarled. “We’re halfway through the semester and you haven’t turned in a single story. Kunitz is going to kick you out of class! Aside from which,” she looked like she wanted to spit, “everyone knows it’s that bitch who’s wrecking you.”
“Laurie, I love you. But do me a favor. Mind your own business. And don’t call her that.”
“It’s a waste of feeling,” Denny said. He was sensitive. “There’s no future in it.”
“Maybe not. But it could make a hell of a past.”
“That what you’re telling yourself?” Laurie said. “She’s going to make good story material?”
“Christ, I hope so.”
“Then stop fucking her and start writing about her!”
“I’m not fucking her,” I protested. “Not yet.”
Denny looked disappointed, bless him.
“You’re too good a writer,” Laurie said. “Christ, you could be something. Not just a hack. You should be working, not making a fool of yourself.”
That smarted. I looked to Denny. “Actually, people are talking about you,” he said.
“Who? Who’s talking?”
“The whole class,” Laurie said. “It’s all anyone talks about. You and that scarf-waving, no-talent, over-age bitch.”
I was getting angry. “I’d better go. Let me out.”
“Yeah, you’d better,” Laurie said. I’d never realized she had a thing for me.
Vicki’s apartment was in The Dakota, a massive 19th century pile the well-known and well-heeled called home. Back then, Lauren Bacall and Leonard Bernstein lived there. So did Judys Garland and Holliday. You saw Dakota’s facade in Rosemary’s Baby and on the evening news when John Lennon was assassinated under its porte cochère. Vicki’s condo’ was an agglomeration of Russified, woodworked rooms with drapey velvet curtains that blocked out the morning and the view of the park. It was cocoon-like, insulated. I should have grasped the significance. But, like I keep saying, I was nineteen.
Her bedroom where we passed our nights was carpeted in fur like the foot wells of a Rolls. That had been her ex-husband’s idea. She liked to throw herself down on his carpet and fling her dressing gown open. I suppose that was a way of getting even. The walls were upholstered in moiré silk. They surrounded a bed as broad and deep as an ocean churning with predators. The carpet and walls soaked up every moan, every cry. No sound escaped. It was a room for whispering. Nights, after Vicki was sated we whispered together in the dark. She told me about her stage debut in San Francisco. She’d been fifteen, an ingénue, a Juliet. At nineteen, she packed her pointy bras and drove south toward the aurora of Hollywood. She told how she struggled to find an agent and meet producers and directors who might throw her a part. She told how her money ran out. She would laugh each time she told how she’d wangled a screen test by bearding a famous producer in his home. She described the little skirt she wore that day, how she sat on the lowest chair in the room so he could see her stocking tops and the plump V of her lilac panties. She talked about becoming a Goldwyn Girl and falling in love with Fritz Lang – the Metropolis Fritz Lang, monocle and all – and dating Babe Ruth. She talked about fucking Gary Cooper in the paint shop, and playing a spy opposite Dana Andrews. She fucked Andrews in his Packard. He was drunk (as usual), and Cooper was hung like a horse.
All that began one night after class. We’d shared our usual cab and Vicki invited me up for a drink. Halfway through a Musigny she said, “I feel like I’ve been wearing these clothes since August. Give me a minute to change.” She went into the bedroom. Forever passed. She came out wearing a lilac dressing gown. But she didn’t sit down. “Are you in love with me?” she said.
It was such a bald question, I couldn’t reply.
“I know,” she said softly. She cocked her head and stared at me as though I were a street urchin begging a handout. Then her lips tightened. “Well,” she said, resolved. She unlaced the silk rope and opened her gown. It was like the curtains at The Music Hall rising as they parted. She was high-breasted. She shaved her mons. Her legs were perfect. She said, “Do you want me this way?”
I was speechless. No, the superlative of speechless. I was breathless to the verge of asphyxiation.
“Come,” she said, and switched off the lamp.
We made love – or whatever it was that first time – on gold satin sheets in a bed as wide as the Pacific, floating somewhere above a fur carpet in a mythical palace hung between Central Park and the Moon. In her arms I felt engulfed, surrounded, consumed. I’d never been with a woman who shaved down there. Those gorgeous thighs embraced my hips; her heels drove the backs of my knees like an equestrienne’s spurs. She was tight. She climaxed at the first push, then again and again. When I had, she turned her face to the pillow and wept. I was afraid I’d hurt her. “No,” she said. “No, no, it’s not that.” She never said what it was; there are things adults don’t discuss with children. Next morning her wedding ring vanished.
Two more encounters that week and we’d become to my way of thinking, lovers. Lovers, that is, in the Heloise-Abelard, Juliet-Romeo, Cleopatra and Antony fatal sense of the word. To say I’d fallen for Vicki would be like calling 9-11 a plane crash. September went, October came. Writing? Who was writing? I was in delirium, besotted with Vicki – inundated by her, drenched in her. We strolled in the park. We went to MOMA. We sipped chocolate at Rumplemeyer’s. The only place she wouldn’t go was the movies or theater – not even to see Psycho or Carousel. Instead, we heard Zoot Sims and Getz at The Half Note, and Astrud Gilberto at Birdland. Vicki’s celebrity opened the doors of Le Club, a new kind of dance joint called “discothèque” where we hunched in the Frug until perspiration soaked us together like Elmer’s glue. We heard Artur Rubenstein at Carnegie Hall and Parsifal at the Met. We rode the merry-go-round and went to the zoo. It was ecstasy. It was also expensive. I’d quit work and had no money. Vicki paid for everything. I should have been ashamed. I wasn’t. Finally, so I reckoned, after nineteen years and eleven months of insipid, protracted childhood, I was in love. Everywhere we went, people noticed us–-well, noticed Vicki-–and I burned with pride that she was–-get this!–-with me.
There’s a special delight – a wicked satisfaction – in being seen in public with a beautiful woman and, particularly, with a star. There are those little shocks of recognition in stranger’s faces, the unabashed stares of other men, women who follow you with envious eyes. Your companion’s starlight suffuses the space around her, and you bask in the reflection. You can almost hear people thinking, Oh! That’s her! Who’s she’s with? I was a kid. She was an icon. I was fucking her. And I didn’t give a damn what Denny thought or Laurie said.
November brought the election. Kennedy, a Catholic, was standing against Veep Richard Nixon. Vicki said she’d invited friends to watch the returns on TV. She wanted me there. “I’ll say you’re my nephew. Staying with me a few days.” I was thrilled to be part of a deception.
On Tuesday the 8th we slept past noon, then dragged uptown to vote at P.S. 9. I was startled to discover she’d registered under her married name. Afterward, we shambled down to Solly’s on Broadway for coffee, coffee, bagels, smoked salmon and capers. “You were surprised when I gave my married name,” she said.
Mouth full, I stammered, “Not really.”
“I saw you. What did you feel? When you heard me say
Mrs. – . Tell me.”
Shrug. “Didn’t feel anything.”
“Were you jealous?”
I had to laugh. She could see right through me. It wasn’t intuitive. It was experience. “Yeah, I was jealous, okay?”
She shook her head. The light of the neon signage scuttled through her hair. “It’s not okay. It’s wonderful.” She took my hand. Solly’s was crowded. Waiters went by. Customers went by. Babies cried and old men spilled their tea. But we sat like that, her hand clutching mine, while the whole world went on spinning.
Think about that. Here’s this kid–-He’s in love with an accomplished, worldly woman twice his age and then some. She doesn’t love him. He knows that. Still, there she sits, holding his hand, gazing into his eyes – and she doesn’t give a damn who sees her. These things don’t happen. Or do they? It was happening to me and I didn’t know how to manage it. But that blustery afternoon, over toasted cream cheese-shmeared bagels and panty-pink salmon, I realized I couldn’t manage this affair and I shouldn’t try. If I wanted Vicki–-and God knows I wanted her more than life–-I had one choice: give myself to her utterly, wholly, and unreservedly for better or worse (as the ritual goes). And I did, right then and there.
We went home to meet the caterers. While they rolled their tables and polished each glass, Vicki and I made love in her bed, in the sauna, in the shower and on the tapioca colored rug on her dressing room floor. By seven o’clock when the first guests barged to the bar, I was whipped, exhausted, euphoric. I hadn’t an inkling that night of election returns would be the axis on which my career turned. Ethel Merman sailed in about eight. I’d seen her in Annie Get Your Gun. She was loud as a fog horn before her first drink. Comden and Green-–I’d loved their Wonderful Town–-weren’t speaking to anyone, not even each other. Zero Mostel was the center of attention. He was in rehearsal for Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and the buzz around town was deafening. Mostel rattled one-liners machinegun-style. Toward midnight he got drunk and weepy. “Jews are like that,” Jerry Robbins said. I mentioned the first show I’d seen was his High Button Shoes. He told Vicki, “Your kid has excellent taste,” then said goodnight.
Toward one a.m. it was clear the final tallies wouldn’t be in before dawn. Vicki’s party began winding down. People had early rehearsals and deals to do and matinees to perform. Harold Clurman sidled up and asked Vicki to go clubbing. He’d directed her and a newcomer named Brando in a fiasco called Truckline Café. “Wish I could,” she said in a sweet-sad way, then nodded at me. “I’ve got Stevie to look after.” Ten years later I studied with the formidable Clurman; he didn’t recognize me and I didn’t remind him.
When the last guest had gone and the caterers were counting spoons, Jack Kennedy was clinging to a razor-thin lead. I snapped the TV off. Vicki threw herself on the sofa and kicked off her shoes. I didn’t feel tired any more. I was smitten. Meeting half the marquee names on Broadway had pumped me full of ambition. I babbled about writing a play. Vicki looked spent, like a marathoner collapsed at the finish line. I said, “Do you miss being on Broadway?” She shot me a look that told me I was nineteen, a brat and, worse, an insensitive fool. I understood why she wouldn’t go to movies or the theater.
Hemmingway said, “Making love when you’re writing is hard because they both run off the same motor.” He nailed it for me. Once I fell for Vicki I couldn’t write my name in the dirt with a stick. But she seemed the opposite. Mornings, I’d awake to the chatter of typing from her study. She had one of those Olympus typewriters. It was German, sleek as a Porsche. She wouldn’t show me pages. I stopped asking. Truth was, I didn’t give a shit what she was writing. I didn’t care if she were typing The quick brown fox humps the lezzy dog. I bought a copy of Lee Strasberg’s book and perched on the living room sofa. I’d made up my mind to learn everything about drama, acting, theater. I was serious about writing a play. Anything to inch closer to Vicki’s milieu. Even so, I didn’t read much. I just sat staring through the doorway of Vicki’s study, watching her bend over the platen and hammer the keys. Under her desk the skirts of her dressing gown hung open. I studied her legs. They were long and elegantly tapered, soft and pliable and strong. At moments–-when she was wrestling with sentence structure, I suppose-–she’d come up on the balls of her feet. Other times–-when the work was flowing–-her toes would turn out. There was something erotic about the way they parted. Fifty thousand times I imagined myself kneeling beneath her desk with my face between her thighs and my mouth pressed to her vulva, lapping her while she typed.
When she finished her story Kunitz had her read it in class. I’d never seen Vicki perform. And we dozen misfits weren’t much of an audience. But she read with a voice so slashed with color I was entranced. It was a sad story, a coming-of-age story, the tragedy of a young actress who arrives in L.A. looking for work. All she wants is a part. All she gets is “thanks for coming in’s” and propositions. Eventually she meets a young writer. He’s beautiful, bright and gifted, a dark-haired, blue-eyed college drop-out who lives at the beach. They become lovers. He’s inspired to write a play for her. She helps him with the work. They read sides together. They sit up nights and perform monologues for each other. They share fantasies about opening nights and glowing notices. When the full moon comes he tells her the grunions will be running that night. He’s invited a bunch of his friends for a party. The sun sets, the moon rises, they walk to the shore. Sure enough, by moonlight the surf’s aglitter with tiny fish–-millions of them-–glinting and spinning and leaping through the waves. On impulse she drags her startled lover into the frigid water. They embrace and tumble together in a melee of tiny bodies. Then she sees his friends arriving. Some of the men are carrying nets. To her horror, they rush into the surf, begin sweeping up buckets of fish, harvesting them before they can lay and fertilize the eggs that must become next year’s adults. She’s incensed. Over the roaring of water she screams at the fishermen. She tries to wrestle the nets from their hands. But the men laugh and thrust her aside. Two days later she arrives at her lover’s house to discover he’s moved on. It’s raining. The shack where they loved and dreamed is deserted, a dripping shell. There’s no farewell note. The patio is strewn with pages of the script they worked and dreamed on. The ink is running, and pages are flopping in a surly west wind. She turns to go. The wind blows up the pages. They stick to the backs of her legs.
When Vicki finished there wasn’t a sound in the classroom. Even Kunitz sat silent, nodding his head. I found my feet and stood. I began to applaud, alone at first, then others joined in. I saw a new expression in Vicki’s eyes. I realized I’d never seen her happy. If she feared that one day I’d leave her, she was wrong.
Next morning I woke to shouting instead of typing. I rose naked from the sheets and stood in the bedroom doorway. In her study, Vicki was on the phone. I’d never heard her so angry, so wounded. What she said went like this:
“What the hell am I paying you for? What do you mean he doesn’t have the right thing for me? I can play thirty. Hell, I can play twenty-five in a musical. For Christ’s sake, Henry, I read it! There are thirty-two speaking parts! Thirty-two parts! And the motherfucker doesn’t have one for me?” There was a pause. I could hear her breathing. I could almost hear her heart pounding. “What about Leland? What about Merrick? He’s bringing over Stop the World with Anthony Newley. Of course I know Tony. From when ‘the King’ and I were in London. He’s got who for Evie? Anna Quayle? Christ, her own mother’s never heard of her. So what if she did it in the West End? London isn’t Broadway. Fuck! Just a minute.” I heard her shuffling papers. “That script you sent me last week – the thing about Freud. There’s a part in there. Wait a minute.” Shuffling. “Here! A Far Country. This–-the von Ritter woman. Elizabeth von Ritter. I could play her over the moon and Al Ryder knows it!” There was a long pause. Then a shriek. “Kim Stanley! Are you kidding? She’s a twit. A bore. She’s got a face like a beagle and – Goddammit! I don’t care if she’s fucking the Pope! The bitch can’t talk, can’t act. She keeps a waste basket in the wings so she can throw up between scenes. Oh, yeah! Yeah-–” turning nasty, “--she was great in Picnic. When was that? 1952? Christ, Truman was president and Grace Kelly was a virgin!” There was a pause. I could feel the air draining from her as if from a torn balloon. She murmured, “Henry. Henry, don’t you think I–-Henry, stop. No! No television. I’ve told you a thousand times. For God’s sake, Henry, it’s-–that’s a soap opera. What? I am being realistic. Christ, I hate it when you use that word. All right. Okay-all-right-okay! Call me. Will you? Soon?” Her voice dwindled to a whisper. I heard her put the receiver down. I stood stock still. Everything inside me was shivering, vibrating as though I’d been struck like a tuning fork. She slumped out of her study, lit a cigarette, turned toward the bedroom and saw me. She stiffened.
“You heard that, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t hear anything.” Then I thought, Give yourself, give yourself. “Yeah, I heard it.”
Sharply, she turned away, went to the window. But she didn’t look out.
I stepped forward. “Vicki-–”
“What?!” she snarled.
I froze. I didn’t know how to reply.
“All right!” She crushed her cigarette. “It’s high time you knew. I’m washed up as an actress, kiddo. Finished in Hollywood, finished on Broadway. I can’t beg, borrow or steal a part.” Screaming. “Not one little shit-eating part!” Grumbling. “Hell, I can’t even get a reading. All I can do is cling to the little dignity I have left. Or peddle soap like a whore on–-fuck it!-–Guiding Light. That’s who I am, sonny. That’s who you’re living with.” She opened her arms as though taking a curtain call. “An over-the-hill ingénue. A relic. A fucking pathetic! A has-been.”
“You’re not,” I said softly.
“Yeah?” She glared at me. “Then what am I? What?”
“You’re the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Tears burst from her. Not weeping, sobbing. She put her hands to her breast and seized two fistfuls of her gown. Then she raised her face toward the ceiling and cried out like a soul in Hell. I thought she was going to rend her clothes. I thought she’d run mad. Then suddenly she was in my arms, clutching me, caressing my face, weeping into my eyes, kissing my lips through her tears, moaning, “God, I’m so glad I have you. I’m so glad I have you. I don’t know what I’d do without you. God.” Plenty about God, not one word about love.
December came. Fifth Avenue was lit with fairy lights by night, choked with shoppers by day. That winter you couldn’t count the Gucci handbags or Pucci scarves. It was the dawn of the jet-set era; chic shops hummed a symphony of Romance languages. We window-shopped Tiffany and Bonwit’s. We bought steaming chestnuts from street vendors and washed them down with Dr. Brown’s. We made love in a stairwell at the Pierre. We made love in the men’s room at Gallagher’s. We even made love in the library of The Yale Club. We made love backwards, forwards, upside down and sideways. Sometimes, when I picked her up for dinner, in the elevator she would stand behind the operator, lift her skirts to her waist and flash me her stockings and lacey garter belt and freshly shaven mons. Those dinners were an agony of anticipation. In mercy, under the table she’d slip off a shoe and rub her toes in my crotch until I climaxed. She played me like a harmonica, teasing out every note.
The 16th December being my birthday, Vicki promised a birthday surprise. It was mysterious. I was to present myself at seven p.m. bringing my toothbrush – our code for spending the night. Obedient, I ironed my dress shirt and good pair of slacks, brushed my shoes and blow-dried my hair. In the mirror I still looked like a kid who shaved once a week. But my shoulders were broadening, my pec’s had begun to swell and my six-pack was stony as an alligator. Even better, I had the libido of a goat and the stamina of a stallion.
Vicki’s surprise began when I stepped through her door. The apartment was candlelit – not an incandescent bulb in sight. In her silk dressing gown she slid through the glow like a whisper. She spun me a Kir, then another. There was a bottle of Krug in a cooler alongside the table. She’d laid her best Baccarat and Jensen sterling. For dinner she’d prepared endive salad and filet mignon with sauce Béarnaise, mangetout and pommes Dauphinoise. All my new-found, ritzy favorites. After coffee and petit fours she poured moody old cognac and we swirled our way to the living room. Once settled, she handed me a leather box. It was red with gold filigree. Inside was a wristwatch. I had a watch, a Benrus with a crystal so scarred I had to guess the time. This new watch was thin as a silver dollar with a sleek leather strap. It called itself Patek Phillipe. I supposed it was French. I’m wearing it now, as I type this.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, not “You shouldn’t have.” I was glad she did.
“There’s a sentiment on the back.” She turned it over in my hands. The incised letters read, “Time after Time, Love, Vicki.” I stared at the word. Love.
I was excited, said “Thank you,” then “Thanks a lot,” then “I love you.”
“I know,” she said in her sweet-sad way. Then she got to her feet, shot me that impish smile. “Ready for your surprise?”
I held up the watch. “Isn’t this it?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Hardly.” She said, “Come” and took my sleeve and led me to the bedroom. It was aglow with scented candles, redolent of lilacs. When I reached for a shirt button she caught my hand. “Tonight, I do everything.” She undressed me, tucked me under the comforter, then slid off to her dressing room. When she emerged she was wearing black lingerie. I had seen her in black before, but not like this. When I murmured “Wow” she put a finger to my lips.
She did everything. She even rolled on my condom (we always used one). We made love vigorously, passionately, like always. But every time I came close to a climax she’d draw away. At last, when I was sweaty with lust, she reached down and caught the collar of the condom between her fingernails and yanked it off. Then she rolled over. “Take me back there,” she said. I was startled. I’d never done that. I said so. “I want you to have me that way. I want to feel you come inside me.” We came together. It was one hell of a birthday present.
Thinking about it next afternoon, I couldn’t imagine anything two people could do that was more intimate. Now I knew Vicki inside and out. Anyhow, that’s what I thought.
Christmas break was coming. I couldn’t wait. I wasn’t writing, and showing up for class was humiliation. Laurie had finished the poems for her first book. Denny had taken up transcendental meditation and quit drinking beer. Ralph’s itchy, surreal stories had turned into bitter self-loathing. He’d about run out his string. Me, I had a holiday fantasy about moving into Vicki’s apartment and gobbling plum puddings in bed for seventeen days. The night the phone rang we were watching Naked City on ABC. Over Harry Bellaver’s nasal baritone I could hear the excitement in Vicki’s voice. I couldn’t catch but the odd word. But I knew that call was life-changing, both for Vicki and me.
When she put the phone down she was breathless. I’d never seen her eyes so alive. “Do you know who that was?” Then she shrieked, “Billy Wilder! Billy Wilder just called--” she was gasping for breath, “to invite me--” She couldn’t get the words out. “He invited me to, to, Gstaad! For Christmas and New Year’s! Gstaad! Can you believe it?” Wilder was the most powerful director in Hollywood. His Some Like It Hot had won an Oscar that spring; next April, The Apartment with Lemmon and McLaine would win him three more. I’d never heard of Gstaad. “It’s, it’s a ski resort,” she stammered. “In Switzerland. My God! I don’t have clothes! Christ. I don’t have a goddamn thing to –-I–-I’ll go shopping. That’s it! Saks and Bergdorf’s and...and Saint Laurent. They’ll have ski wear, don’t you think? France is next to Switzerland. They have skiing in France, don’t they? Oh, God! There’s no time and so much to do!” She threw up her hands and rushed into the bedroom. My plum pudding fantasy went with her.
For three days she could hardly spare me a moment. She was a maniac, out before the stores opened and back every evening with boxes, bags, garment holders, more boxes. The living room became her dressing room. I was banished to the bedroom. Every evening was a fashion show. I’d sit on the bed with a carafe of red wine. She’d assemble an outfit in the living room, then step through the bedroom door like a model sashaying a runway. She’d bought fox hats á la Russe, a mink Eisenhower jacket, a sable coat with a hood. I didn’t know there were such clothes in the world. Her sweaters were froths of foamy cashmere or handspun alpacas or rare double-coated Icelandics (whatever that was). There were blouses, shirts, mufflers six feet long, caps and gloves and an evening gown–-a white sheath paved with rhinestones, it took my breath away–-and towering stilettos and cushy slippers. The Italian boots were so soft they were almost edible. It was a non-stop, over-the-top orgy of consumption. She was like a kid. Cinderella dressing for the ball. I was glad for her, glad she was going, seething I wasn’t.
While she packed, I spent two nights in the digs I shared with Ralph. Or, rather, two nights in the side room at P.J. Clarke’s. “And if she took you with her?” he said. “What would you do all day? Go around asking people for their autograph?”
He was right, of course.
“Like I been saying, you gotta find a lay your own age.” He stared at me. When Ralph was drunk he had a way of peering into your eyes that made you feel he could see out the back of your head. “The bitch is going to break your heart. You know that, right?”
I shrugged. “Ever been in love?”
“Me? Absolutely. Right now, I’m screwing Jackie Daniel. And I’ve got a late date with Widow Cliquot.”
“I mean really in love.”
“Oh, that.” We drank. “My junior year abroad,” Ralph said. “At the Sorbonne. First week I got there.” He sighed, remembering.
Softly, I said, “What was she like?”
Behind his spec’s he squinted, picturing. “She had long arms. And a heart-shaped face and wavy mouth. She wore a headband and her hair was all curls.”
“What was her name?”
He raised his chin. I saw his eyes had misted. “Her name was Recamier.”
“Recamier? Like the lady in the painting?”
“She might be a painting to you. But to me, she’s the most beautiful girl in the world.”
It was ten years before I came face to face with David’s Madame Recamier at the Louvre. She was as Ralph had described her, long arm and all. And framed, like a woman beyond a proscenium.
“Trouble was,” Ralph said, “it didn’t matter how much I loved her. Every night, come closing time, the same fat Frog would kick me out.” That was Ralph’s way of telling you things about you; by telling you things about him.
I cleared my throat. “Figure its closing time for me and Vicki?”
“It was hopeless when you said ‘I’m Steve.’”
By then I’d read enough about dramatic form to recognize that Billy Wilder’s phone call had been the anagnorisis; what ensued must be peripeteia. The afternoon Vicki left she summoned me to The Dakota. In the hall, her suitcases and hatboxes were stacked, a mountain of English leather dotted here and there with a cocky Louis Vuitton. I’d packed less when I went away for a year at college. When she opened the door I was stunned. She’d cut her hair. She was wearing a V-neck, a skirt that barely covered her knees, white cotton socks and loafers. The skirt certainly showed off her legs. But the effect was disorienting, jarring. She spun around on her toes. “Do you like it? Well? Say you like it.” I did. She rambled her excitement-– Gstaad, the skiing, the blue sky, the air–-she’d heard Audrey Hepburn would be there; Bill Holden, too (they’d done Sabrina with Wilder in ’54) – and the whole Wilder crew might make a pilgrimage to St. Moritz where Ingrid Bergman was holed-up with Roberto Rossellini. To climax that name-dropping avalanche, Vicki declared she couldn’t wait to hit the slopes and she’d miss me at the après ski parties.
“Will you?” I said.
“Of course I will.” She glanced at her watch. “And I’m sorry I can’t be with you for the holidays. So–-” she rose “–-I have a present for you. But you must promise me-– solemnly, now-–not to open it ‘til Christmas.” I promised, and she handed me a heavy box wrapped in gold foil and tied with an Hermes scarf; the one I had always admired. “Sniff,” she said. The scarf was impregnated with My Sin. At the door she kissed me, then shot me one last profession smile. That one was a sunburst, blinding.
She didn’t telephone. Not even once. I was bereft. I was miserable. On Christmas morning, faithful to my pledge, I undid the Hermes scarf. The scent of My Sin was intoxicating. The sliding silk whetted my fingers. I dreamt I was rucking up Vicki’s skirts and delving her intimate things. Inside was a card. “Write something wonderful. Christmas 1960. Vicki.” She had pressed an imprint of her lipstick. I kissed it. The gift was an Olympus typewriter. It was gray and chrome and sleek. I couldn’t wait to try it, shoved in a sheet of paper. As usual, I couldn’t think of anything to write. So I typed Vicki Vicki Vicki; two lines of Vicki. Then I poured a Beefeater on the rocks and my holiday celebration began. It was 1961 before I realized I hadn’t shaved. I woke with a hangover that made me feel 100, not twenty. My joints were stiff. I’d been wearing the same socks and underpants for a week. When I looked in the mirror I saw a guy who’d been on a bender. It wasn’t my first or my last. I looked like an empty wine bottle in the gutter.
There were six more class meetings before the semester ended. Ralph had dropped out. Laurie had given up on me. Denny was fully transcendental; he’d stopped drinking beer. Me, I had to get something done. So I reworked a piece about automobile racing I’d written in ’59. It was a yarn, not a story – I didn’t know shit about grand prix drivers – but a good yarn notwithstanding. I handed it to Kunitz at the end of class. I’d already turned to go when he said, “Heard from Vicki?” She’d developed a relationship with Kunitz; they were the two adults in class. “She called me,” he said. She hadn’t called me; that stung. “The day after Christmas.”
“From Gstaad?” I said.
“No, she was home.”
“She was – home? The day after Christmas?” That seemed impossible.
“She didn’t care for Switzerland. Whatever she’d hoped to find wasn’t there. I gather it didn’t go well. And she’s had to withdraw from the class. Something about her son.”
It was too much to take at one gulp. I couldn’t say anything.
“Pity, really. She wrote a good story,” he said. “And that image of wet pages stuck to the backs of her legs. It stays with you.”
I was hurt, confused. Outraged, really. For a month I pursued her. She wouldn’t see me. I was desperate. What had I said? What had I done? When I telephoned, she’d say almost gently, “I can’t talk now.” When I’d ask her to lunch, she’d claim a producer meeting or a doctor’s appointment or a trip out of town. Whenever I stopped by The Dakota, the doorman said she was out. It would be thirty-seven years before I discovered what had crashed headlong into Vicki on the slopes of Gstaad, the epiphany that ended her hopes and our affair.
My magical term with Kunitz had opened like a field of wildflower-promises; it withered under January slush. But wasn’t the end the love story. That kind of goodbye – the sudden, unforeseen (unsaid) goodbye – is like a death in the family. One moment you feel it. Next moment you grasp it. Then you spend an eternity in negotiation. First you beg a pardon; when one doesn’t come, you plead for commutation, even a reprieve. At least a stay of execution. But the Governor doesn’t telephone. Victoria’s messenger disdains to appear. In solitary confinement you creep through stages from devastation to denial to anger to resignation. But you never quite reach acceptance. I didn’t. I haven’t.
I didn’t write that play. But my brush with Broadway had floated my boat. Pilotless, it drifted toward television. I was 25 when my collection of stories appeared; it earned princely reviews and meager royalties, nothing approaching what I needed to support a new wife and daughter. The Morris Office snagged me a job writing breakdowns on As The World Turns. I was good at it. Way led to way. By age 35, I’d shrugged off my family and become a Vice President of the CBS Television Network. I wore bespoke suits and shirts, elegant haberdashery and English shoes. I had a name. One evening in 1976, Ralph invited me to join him for a rib eye at Manny Wolf’s. He was hosting an out-of-town client, a hail-fellow-well-met who owned a gypsum plant in Arizona. The biggie was sixty, gruff, a brawler with rings on his fingers, an ugly mouth and a clutch of cigars in his pocket. To get through dinner, I took a third martini as an anesthetic. Afterward, we stood on the corner of 49th and Lex as the biggie’s limo yawed to the curb, black as a hearse and massive as the Starship Enterprise. While the chauffeur came round to open the door Ralph asked where the biggie was staying. That brought a smirk to his ugly mouth. He had “a crazy bitch he bunked with,” so he said. She lived on the West Side and had “big tits, legs up to here and an ass that won’t quit.” When he pronounced Vicki’s name Ralph started. I caught his elbow. In silence we watched the starship roar away. “Tough one,” Ralph said. It was.
They say time heals all wounds. Don’t believe it. Time winnows away the sleights and snide remarks, the cuts, the barbs, even the odd faux pas. It does nothing for wounds. Wounds throb and smart and point to themselves and at you. They dress you up in a clown suit. They make you run naked through streets in your dreams. They never say, “I love you.” Nineteen years had passed since that ugly dinner at Manny Wolf’s. By 1995, Stanley Kunitz no longer taught at Columbia; he divided his time between Provincetown and Greenwich Village. Of my classmates, Denny had simply vanished. Someone said he was living in Canada, in Nova Scotia where winters are long and brutal. Laurie was on her sixth book and teaching at Stanford. She’d won a Pulitzer and would soon be anointed Poet Laureate of the United States. Ralph was dead. Jackie Daniel had screwed him. And he hadn’t married. Mme. Recamier’s long arm never let go.
Me, I‘d published one book plus a gaggle of stories. Meanwhile, I’d clawed my way up to President of Columbia Pictures. One August morning, a red-haired flack turned up in my office to brief me for a coffee-talk I was obliged to give that afternoon. Like every studio, Columbia made a grant to the Motion Picture Country Home. Each September, one studio head put in an appearance, chatted about the year in movies, and received a thank-you. It was Columbia’s turn.
The Home’s director, Mrs. Carmichael, met me in the driveway. Her companion, Dr. Carlton Woo, was chief of geriatric medicine. They showed me inside, toured me through the wards, the rehab’ center, the ‘Commissary,’ and the ‘The Back Lot’ garden. It was all well-tended; soft lawns, benches in the shade. Still, not the place I’d choose to die. Then we went into the lounge they called ‘The Green Room.’
There were two score or more awaiting us, gray old people in clothes grown too large, some at tables, many with walkers, some in wheelchairs with oxygen tanks lashed to the frame. They couldn’t follow my arithmetic as I ticked through last year’s grosses. They didn’t recognize the names of this fall’s new releases. But on that venal, unforgiving plantation called Hollywood, mine was a sacred duty: assuring the discarded and forgotten that they were not nameless, but still honored citizens of a world alive and vibrant. Some smiled at me, some scowled. Some fidgeted. I was warm, patient, brief. When I had done, Mrs. Carmichael thanked me, then led applause. While the patients dispersed I chatted with Dr. Woo. A nurse approached us wheeling an elderly resident in a chair.
“That was a lovely talk you gave us,” the nurse said. “Thank you so much for coming.” We shook hands. Then she smiled at her charge. “Vicki, say thank you to Mr. Sohmer.”
I stared at the tiny woman in the wheelchair. Her legs were wrapped in a plaid blanket. Plastic tubing looped over her ears and into her nostrils. Her hair, no longer blonde, was silver-gilt, the color of old tableware. Illness had savaged her. I whispered, “Vicki...?”
She raised her face and peered at me. “Do I know you?”
I drew a chair and sat beside her. I took her hand. “Vicki, It’s...” Decades of longing welled, clogging my throat. “It’s–-I’m Stevie.”
“Stevie?” Her eyes lost focus. “I knew a boy named Stevie.” She smiled that inner smile. “He was beautiful. And gentle. He loved me once.” She looked up at her nurse. “Did you know that?”
“Yes,” nurse said. “You’ve told me.”
I couldn’t speak. Vicki’s eyes fastened on me. They were gray as ashes. “He was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen. I was lost. And he adored me. Stevie, Stevie,” she murmured. “My Stevie.” She sighed and laid her other hand on mine. It rested on the crystal of the watch she’d given me in 1960. I was about to speak when she said, “What became of him, do you suppose? Did he write something wonderful?” I heard my cue. I made my exit. She remembered him. She’d never met me.
In the driveway Mrs. Carmichael asked me to thank my colleagues at Sony. I said I would. “Were you that boy?” she asked. “Were you her Stevie?”
It was too late. Too complicated. “No,” I said. “That wasn’t me.”
Love, so I have learned, has no dimensions. It simply is. Unexpected and unseen, it can strike like a raptor out of the sun. Once its talons have you, it never lets go. Years pass. You may marry and divorce, marry and divorce. The world turns, your hair thins, you get sick, you get well, you grow fat or poor, you grow wise or just old. But love endures, like footprints in the ashes of an extinct volcano, indifferent to rain, indifferent to wind, indifferent to it all. The footprints will still be there when a stranger ladles you into an urn.
My second wife – we married in 1997 – was a television star. Vicki was gone by then. This girl had dusky eyebrows and shimmering blonde hair. When she turned forty, predictably, her career plateaued. Predictably, her hair got blonder. She began to shave her mons. As it had been with Vicki, that seemed private; I asked no questions. Eventually, my wife used wax. Then electrolysis. She plucked her eyebrows daily. One night in the dark, I remembered waking on that morning after my twentieth birthday with Vicki snuggled to my chest. I remembered looking down at her calm face resting on my arm. By the light of a lilac-scented candle I had seen it and touched it but hadn’t grasped it. In her eyebrow, one silver hair. I was fifty-six when the truth dawned on me-–when I finally understood why Vicki shaved-–why she couldn’t let that hair grow back, not even stubble. Her body wouldn’t lie for her any more. She couldn't play the part any more. She couldn’t play thirty; not in life. That’s what Vicki had collided with on the slopes of Gstaad, what she’d seen in Billy Wilder’s eyes and Audrey Hepburn’s. And she knew every day thereafter she’d be waiting and watching for the same cast in her Stevie’s eyes. She couldn’t face that. Now that I understand, I wouldn’t have wanted her to.
On April Fool’s Day 1996, the driver who met me at LAX handed me a folder of production reports and a Los Angeles Times. In the back seat, on a deep-inside page I read that “a proven stage actress who suffered through a series of banal Hollywood films before decamping to Broadway died over the weekend at the Motion Picture Country Home. She was 77 and suffered from emphysema. She had arrived in Los Angeles in 1939 after a brief, successful stage career in San Francisco. Here she languished until she summoned the courage to confront producer Samuel Goldwyn in his home. He promised her a screen test but the only immediate result was her being selected for the annual trophy sponsored by the ‘Physical Culture Foundation of Hollywood’ for having the best legs in the film industry. In the few interviews she granted over the years, she liked to remember there wasn’t even a trophy. The photographer taking her picture handed her a cup he had won playing golf, and she had to return it to him.” I’d been a supernumerary in Vicki’s life. She’d played a starring role in mine. I wish I’d told her that her notices were raves. I did try to write something wonderful for her. This was the best I could do. Her obit contained no photo.