A STORY REVISITED AND REVISED
“Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.” Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote.
HAS IT STARTED YET?
Standing on a corner of Lexington Avenue at 60th street she closes her umbrella and sighs beneath the weather. It’s a deep and gradual sigh, heavier than the drear enveloping her. It is surrender—her sighing—masked as relief. The rain has stopped at least. Her battle, the first round that shrouds her, arrests her breathing, provokes her, is finally finished for the day. The repository of affluence called Bloomingdale’s sits to her right. The Subway Inn, battered neon-lit haven of the beery rank and file, tempts her on the left.
Her six-year marriage, a flimsy scaffold unable to bear the weight of cognition, has collapsed. She is barely twenty-seven.
She has just been to see a divorce lawyer. His office is a few blocks south on Lexington, above a storefront psychic reader and advisor, where a marriage that should never have been is now being dismantled. Her lawyer is an eagerly pleasant young man just starting out. Tall and angular, he is still unused to his position behind a desk. The padded shoulders of his suit slide from side to side as his handsome head bobs to the beat of his pitch. As soon as she’d revealed she is an artist he’d spent a greater part of the session talking about his dreams. He’d lamented a domineering mother who had thwarted his artistic aspirations, because an artist wasn’t a professional. She has told her story. He will save her.
Her own soon to be ex-mother-in-law is a haughty pretender. Her son does not escape her dreams for his future as a professional. She buys his clothes and he looks like some old man, an absent-minded professor in baggy suits from Brooks Brothers. As a young man he had once played at anarchy. He wrote poetry and wooed her with the entitlement of the well off to playing at madness and educated eccentricity.
She was divorcing herself from the professional dreamers. She knew about dreaming. She was a project girl who aspired to be a painter.
Peter Kuperstein, her lawyer, wore a fashionably mod shirt, but the kind of suit that indicates he’ll choose success over dreams in the long run. His hair is dark and pulled into a ponytail. She thinks that will change sooner than later. He talks about painters and vision as if they had an understanding. His broad silk tie is patterned with the frenzied swirling nightscape of her favorite painter. As a girl she worshipped Van Gogh. She’d copied the famed Starry Night from a reproduction in a book onto a huge piece of Masonite her father had obligingly lugged home. When she finally got to the Museum of Modern Art, on a high school class trip, she’d seen how much smaller the original was. She’d cried, not from disappointment but from the heart thumping force of it, all that power in such modest space.
But what will she do now? What to do at this very moment? Traffic snarls agitated in the congested street. Traffic lights change and cars barge noisily around delivery vans idling at the loading dock of the department store. She considers shopping, staving off a return to an empty apartment. But Bloomingdale’s is too fine for her now.
It always was. When she was an art student at the high school on Second Avenue a few blocks further east she’d traversed the department store simply to get to her subway line back to Astoria. Never mind. Alexander’s is just down the block, a store more suited to her newly re-discovered penury.
The truth is she has a closet full of clothes hanging with unpleasant recall, expensive outfits from stores like Bergdorf’s and Saks. For six years she was deemed, like her husband, incapable of buying her own clothes; the little unmatched girl who needed a moneyed mother-in-law’s guidance to fit in with the Park Avenue dames. She’d suffered the ministrations of his unfamiliar uncles who had done well in the garment industry. They’d draped her in silk coats trimmed in silver raccoon and fitted her with the sample outfits the models wore. She’d balked at underwear but brokered no peaceful resolutions. It was properly expensive underwear that no one would see except her husband and, perhaps the driver who might accidentally run her down.
A few beers at the Subway Inn tempt her. Why not? How many afternoons had she dug her father out of the darkened cave of lost men? How many times had she entered a nondescript doorway and passed under the inviting guileless smile in the framed black and white photograph of Marilyn Monroe. This was the same approachable beauty she had seen laughing easily with the counter girls in the cosmetics department of Bloomingdales as she cut through the main floor of the store after school. But that was over ten years ago. Marilyn was dead. Her marriage was dead.
It is far too early for a beer, even for her. She tucks a wet, mouse brown tendril behind her ear. Farah Fawcett’s whipped silver main was replicated on the heads of young women everywhere, a style her straight brown hair would never be wrestled into. And she cannot go into a bar dressed as she is. Her linen dress boxes her in. She is a poor man’s Audrey Hepburn. And the dress is yellow, too yellow. Her mother-in-law insisted on color, when she was happiest in somber hues. She thought the fashionable dress would buck her up, help her to appear surer of herself when she met her lawyer for the first time. But it is all wrong, and she’d had to spend some time, too much of his time, explaining herself, trying to make him understand she was not the kind of woman who wore yellow linen. “My mother-in-law bought it for me,” she’d mumbled at what she guessed was his dismissive appraisal.
A wardrobe coup is in order but she doesn’t actually have a lot of her own money to underwrite a drastic transformation. Her lawyer will take much of it. Until he left for Cambridge, her husband had lived with her in a sunny upper eastside apartment a few blocks from the medical institution where he’d gotten his doctorate. It was a comfortable life for the Harvard bound. It was too comfortable among friends who were graduate students with lesser means. Her father-in-law had devised a way to support them and he gave her more money than her contrived clerical job for his psychiatric practice was worth. But it was meant to pay the rent and leave his son free of mundane financial concerns while he was in graduate school. It was a way around taxes. She sometimes kept some of it back for herself, especially as the marriage deteriorated. When her father-in-law had prescribed a strong antidepressant to keep her quiet about her unhappy marriage to his son she never filled the prescriptions and pretended she had and just stopped complaining. Her father-in-law, believing himself omnipotent, celebrated his victory over her, giving her more money.
Heading toward Third Avenue she passes the original building, the bit of movie preserved as a reminder of where the two Bloomingdale brothers began their enduring venture. At least they had something to show for it.
She’d met her husband in a helter skelter era of anti war protests. She was an eager apprentice to her husband’s political activism. Counter culture was new to her vocabulary. College campuses were battlefields where a well-meant flower placed in the barrel of an army rifle got you shot. Violence had murky fingerprints and the offender was often someone who one would least suspect and then did. Their shaky venture carried them through Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, assassinated within months of each other. Then came the walk on the moon. While they watched Neil Armstrong take his small step, she and her husband were getting stoned with his Uncle Maury on a king-sized bed suffocated by designer pillows in an apartment on the Upper East Side ostentatiously decorated to its nouveau riche teeth.
Woodstock followed. In the spacious Central Park West apartment of a childhood friend of her husband’s whose father was a well-known labor lawyer they had sat around smoking pot, listening to traffic reports on the radio and planning their trip to Yasgur’s Farm. They were still sitting around when Arlo Guthrie announced from the stage: “The New York State Freeway is closed man. Far out!”
They had gotten stoned, and they had missed it.
She scans the busy avenue ahead. Where is the best place to hide? In a darkened movie theater, of course, where a yellow linen dress has no effect. Whatever is playing, at the Baronet or the Coronet Theater next door, will do. Deliberate strides take her across the broad avenue.
Both theaters are fixed with the same title in black letters on their marquees: Eraserhead. It is a film by a controversial new filmmaker, one who is getting mixed, but heated, reviews and she hesitates because she has read something about this movie, something off putting. She reconsiders. There is the Queensboro Bridge if she was feeling groovier. She’d walked across that bridge to high school many times and whenever she got to the Manhattan side she’d felt like she could do anything. Although the rain had stopped, the summer afternoon air is dingy and cloying. The film will start in half an hour. She buys a ticket and enters an empty theater.
Relishing the cool air in a semi-darkened interior, she slides down into a velvet-upholstered seat at the back. A questioning voice distracts her from rummaging in her bag for her book. “Has it started yet?” Standing at her side in the aisle, hardly bigger than the large container of popcorn he cradles against his chest, the tiny man asks again: “Has the film started yet?” His voice, a breathy lisp, is like that of a child. But he is an older man. A black cap tips over his brow. He is wearing one of those pea soup green British military sweaters with patched elbows.
Gazing up at the writer she smiles, suppressing a startled recognition of the infamous celebrity, and then turns toward the front of the theater, indicating to the empty screen. He looks away, as if in a trance, and prances lightly down the aisle to take a front row seat. The theater lights go down. The film begins. They are the only two in the audience.
When the house lights go on she is alone in the theater. “Who can blame him?” she thinks, feeling slightly unsettled herself. But she’d stuck it out, intrigued by the surreal horror story unfolding in black and white on the screen.
The afternoon has lightened and there are hollows of blue in the feeble clouds. She wants to forget about the disconcerting film for the moment and instead think about the writer with the popcorn. She’d devoured everything the very famous author had written—from a Manhattan fairy tale with its dark corners to the profoundly darker and murderous events in the bedrooms of a Kansas family called the Clutters in a town called Holcomb. As she heads uptown she ticks off characters in her head.
The struggle for attention starts with the unimaginative naming of the child. She wishes she had been named Holly. It has a nice ring to it. A name is everything. Her parents, no literary lions, went for the obvious. The most popular girl’s name in 1947, the year she was born, was a hit song. Her sister, born a year later, suffered an even more ignominious fate and was named after Gene Tierney’s character in a film shown years earlier. Truth is she’s not the waif that Audrey Hepburn was. She wasn’t an eager young woman in New York for the first time, having come here to live out her dreams. She was a native, a project girl. She was born too early to be a Holly, but why not a Celeste, or a Bette? Why not an angry, dangerously self-aware smoker who knew just what she wanted? No, her parents handily plucked her name from the radio airwaves. “When I go to sleep, I never count sheep, I count all my dreams about….”
She will soon shed the alien surname she has been lumbered with for the duration of her short marriage. She will keep the apartment. Real estate was changing and a rent-controlled apartment was something to hold onto. Her attorney will see her through. He’ll get her a monthly stipend for a year. Of course he was right. Burgeoning feminist principles aside, she needs to live. Find her footing again.
At 74th Street and Third Avenue she pauses under the ivy green awning at J.G. Melon where society knocks knees under café tables. She catches a glimpse of a young woman in a yellow linen dress reflected in the darkened window. Dresses like hers are spotted as interlopers in a place like this. She has a job interview in a week, an entry-level graphic position at a community newspaper. The yellow dress will be long gone by then. She steps closer to the window and whispers to the watery image: “Has my life started yet?”
HAS IT STARTED YET? is an original short story by Linda Danz
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299