You think nostalgia a cold woman? Nostalgia is Odysseus in Calypso’s arms yearning for Penelope in their oak bed at home. What else could nostalgia be? None other than Eros in disguise fighting time, distance, betrayal and desire, the joyful recollection of the rapture and happiness of pain, the awakening of desire’s wound in an adolescent midsummer New York City night to the sound of humming air conditioners in the streets, lovesickness surrendering to terrestrial Venus in the frenetic impulse to escape loneliness in the quest for another’s embrace in the union of souls amidst rumors of teen-age girls engaged in forbidden carnal practices of which well-bred young ladies I thought were incapable.
She remains nameless because you might recognize her if I say her name or tell you what she looked like in case you knew her then or someone like her and wonder where she is now because your paths once crossed and you might wonder what ineffable qualities I saw in someone whose feelings and thoughts were so hard to discern beneath the cheerful exterior of her sibylline presence. Or you might remember her as hope’s effigy, the nude in bed whose features you cannot make out in the penumbra of Bonnard’s 1900 bedroom portrait of a man and woman and then remember her as someone else you never saw again.
That summer night she is completely clothed on her bed in a lavender-scented room full of stuffed animals overtaken with the urge to see him not me. She was too young to go out alone at night. Her father would disapprove. When she was sure her father had fallen asleep, she asked herself who she could trust to take her to her lover, escape detection and be faithless at the same time.
At the very thought of me, my summer muse smiles. That summer, I have been sending her love letters and poetry, stalk her on the telephone, wait outside her apartment building hoping she will come to her second-floor window. She knew how I longed to please her untouchable person. Trusting me not to betray her, she telephones me.
“Can you take me somewhere tonight?”
“I’ll tell you when you get here. It isn’t far.”
I walked down to her Park Avenue apartment building. The uniformed doorman called her from the entrance and she came downstairs. A kiss on the cheek to reward me for my obedience.
“Where are we going?” I asked, groping and praying for a long evening in her company and as much time as I could have without having to say goodnight.
“We’re going to a men’s residence in the neighborhood,”
“A YMCA in this neighborhood? I didn’t know such a place existed. Are women allowed to visit in the evening?”
“It isn’t exactly a YMCA. We can visit only in the common areas.”
“Who are you going to see?”
“You’ll like him. I told him about you.”
We walked another few blocks to an old mansion, a French medieval structure brought over stone by stone by Cornelius Vanderbilt during the Gilded Age. It had turrets and crenellated edging around the roof. I recognized the building. I had made deliveries through the service entrance for a neighborhood florist. The building has long since been demolished.
We rang. A gentleman in a dark suit appeared at the door. She asked for her friend. The gentleman nodded and ushered us into an oak-paneled sitting room lined with bookcases. A few young men sat around smoking, reading and watching a baseball game on a black and white television set in a distant corner. It was like a men’s club for teen-age boys. Other than the low volume of the television set, there wasn’t a sound. After a few minutes, an affable young man appeared. She introduced us. We had never met. Yet his name and the august setting were enough to identify him and his late great-grandfather. Status and looks conspired to make him even more handsome and heroic in my eyes. He was planning to go away in the Fall to a place of learning where ivy grows on walls and where generations of his ancestors had gone before. Unmindful that I was without prospects, the conversation shifted to private school networks. Did I know such and such?
“I’m taking a year off. I’m working,” I said.
He could have asked me where. Fortunately, he did not. I was a working stiff operating the orange juice machine at Nedicks Hot Dog stand on 42nd Street. I did not amount to anything.
He took her by the hand and they left the common area. She did not look back.
I had to keep busy while waiting. I moved over to one of the chairs by the television to join the knights in the castle keep in Brooks Brothers shirts, blue jeans and tassel loafers. On my way over so as not to appear empty-handed and not to have crossed the room for nothing if they did not talk to me, I went to the bookcase and picked out a book at random. An early edition of John Peale Bishop’s poetry fell open to a poem entitled Fiametta, Boccaccio’s muse, the little flame who inspired pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti to celebrate the flawless young body of Jane Morris, William Morris’ wife, in one of his paintings. We think of someone else we know to fit the portrait of someone we don’t know. Bishop was thinking of someone he loved - not Jane Morris. Bishop imagines Jane with “small breasts shining through the silken stuff.” Rossetti’s adulterous portrait of Jane Morris, his Fiametta and the Fiametta of Bishop’s poem are in no way alike and look nothing like my beloved whose body I could only imagine. One of the young gentlemen turned and gestured an invitation to me join them.
“This must be a nice place to spend the summer,” I said.
“I’m only here during the week when I’m interning on Wall Street. On the weekend, I take the Hampton Jitney to Sag Harbor. This is nice enough. Can we offer you something to drink?”
I shook my head.
Another young man, in a voice not to be overheard, said, “If you are waiting to take her home, they lock up at midnight. And they relax the rules for visitors in summer. If you leave after midnight, press the hidden button over the door in the foyer. It opens a panel to get out through the servants’ entrance. I’ll show you.” He directs me to the entrance and points to the secret button above a wooden panel.
I thank him, thinking if we could not get out through the servant’s entrance, we would spend the night locked in the sitting room and I would be late for my morning shift. I wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the secret button. I looked around for a chair or stool I could stand on. I could not very well put my feet on the tapestry upholstered fauteuils. There was a short ladder used to reach for books in the bookcases. I just might be able to reach that magic button. It wasn’t necessary to reach higher. She returned alone to the common room before midnight in an aura of joy mixed with sadness you could see in her eyes.
I never saw him again.
I did not ask her if she was happy or sad because my being had been reduced to an instrument of assignation with another and her disappearance earlier before my very eyes triggered the deep wound of jealousy. At the same time, I experienced the bliss of knowing my unrequited love must have made her happy.
When you love, make allowances for your humiliation to please your beloved because she is goodness incarnate, a Goddess who can do no wrong. Never let your mind venture beyond the threshold across which the couple disappears. You are never crossing that threshold if you are not college-bound.
Time takes time and the moment comes when it becomes a story of the telling of a friend’s erotic adventures when they are willing to share them. A half century later over a candlelit supper before the fireplace at her country house when no harm could be done she makes her confession for posterity. There was nothing to confess and though she had forgotten it was me who escorted her that night, I said nothing.
“I waited until my father was asleep to sneak out of the apartment,” she said. “When we were in his room, we removed our clothes and kissed and talked and looked at each other and touched. We agreed to wait,” she said.
In their chaste relationship, in the divine union of their two bodies, they did nothing forbidden. Waiting was eternal testimony to the sincerity of their love.
We know what became of him. He went to college, then to Vietnam and never returned. It never dawned on me the night we met for the first and last time that war would break out, that he would become a decorated war hero and I would survive. We, the cowardly souls of discretion, never die. I have been dying to tell this story ever since - wishing the Prince were alive.