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Authors: Ellen Feldman

The Unwitting (4 page)

BOOK: The Unwitting
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“I don’t understand,” he said.

“You know, the G.I. Bill of Rights. It pays tuition and …”

He grinned. His mouth was ungenerous, but the smile was anything but stingy. It was wide and a little crooked, the way vulnerable
smiles often are. “I know what it is. What I don’t understand is how you’re on it.”

“This is going to come as a shock to you. Heaven knows the government tried to keep it a secret. The information about female vets being eligible was buried somewhere in the small print.”

“You were in the service?”

“I wasn’t exactly at the front. Unless you call a sweltering vermin-infested office on a sickeningly bigoted base in Alabama the front.”

“You were a WAC?” I heard the incredulity in his voice. He was trying to put this new piece of information together with the Peck & Peck label.

“It was one way to get away from home,” I explained, and didn’t add that the idea had not been entirely my own. That was a secret I didn’t give away so easily. Instead, I asked about his family.

“Dress British, think Yiddish is my motto.” He was trying to get that out of the way as soon as possible too.

He went to the bar and returned with two fresh drinks.

“I knew I’d seen you around,” he said as he slid back into the booth across from me, “and I just figured out where.”

“It’s a small campus.”

“No, not around here. It was in midtown. The Republic Theatre. You were picketing
Birth of a Nation
.”

“I didn’t see you in the picket line.”

“I wasn’t there. I just happened to be walking by.”

“Fifteen million Americans are second-class citizens, and you walk by?”

He held up both hands, palms toward me. “Mea culpa. I probably had a paper due or something.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“You’re right. Next time you picket, let me know, and I’ll go with you.”

“It’s not funny.”

“You’ve got a conscience like a G.I. asleep in a foxhole. Make the slightest noise and it comes out shooting.”

“Tell me it’s cute, and you’re going to have a drink in your lap.”

“Cute is one thing I would never call you.”

I started to reach for my coat. “This wasn’t a good idea.”

He put his hand on my arm. “Actually, it was. But just for the record, I’m sorry about ‘The Rich Boy’ comment. It was patronizing.”

“Oh, no, I love being lectured on the American canon.”

“So I noticed.”

“Was I that obvious?”

“Your face is an open book.”

“And what’s the story now?”

“The plot thickens. You’re less angry at me than you were a few minutes ago, but you don’t want to admit it. In fact, you’re beginning to like me.”

“You have to get over that excessive modesty.”

“You’re drawn to diffident men?”

I had to smile, finally. “No.”

“I didn’t think so.”

We were still sparring, but something else was going on beneath. Not innuendo. It was more primitive than that. He reached across the table to stub out his cigarette, and his tweed jacket and shirt cuff pulled back from his wrist. I noticed the dusting of fine dark hair that curled around his leather watchband. Woody had been as smooth and hairless as a baby. I went on staring at his wrist. It struck me as grown-up; as more than grown-up, as virile.

He asked if I wanted another drink. I looked at my watch and reminded him of the dorm curfew.

“I thought you said you were a vet.”

“There’s no housing for women vets. All you men and your wives have taken it.”

“Don’t blame me. No wife in sight.” He hesitated. “You could
take an overnight. I have a room in a boardinghouse on a Hundred and Twenty-First Street.”

The suggestion was impossible. I had just gotten my period. I had just gotten my period! I still could not believe my luck. Besides, I knew what he was thinking. A girl who had been in the service had been around. He was wrong about that. The officers who were shipping out had reeked of desperation. The ones who were staying behind were on vacation from their real lives. I had been careful to steer clear.

I told him I had to get back to the dorm and watched him take in the answer.

“Now you’re the one with the telltale face,” I said.

“You see heartbreak, right?”

“I see you-can’t-blame-a-guy-for-trying.”

Outside the bar, a new front had come through and the sky had cleared. He reached an arm around my shoulders. It seemed only civil to fit myself into the curve it made. Besides, a wind had come up, and the temperature had dropped.

In front of the dormitory, several couples clung together in the glare of the lights that were supposed to be as sex-repressing as the saltpeter rumored to be in the Women’s Army Corps mess food, and were just as ineffective. He let go of my shoulders and turned to face me. We stood that way for a moment, only inches apart, as oblivious to the other couples as the couples were to us. I was waiting for what came next. He surprised me. With both hands, he opened his trench coat wide, as if he were holding a blanket, and wrapped it around me. I was engulfed.

He bent his face to mine. His tongue tasted of bourbon and peanuts. The flavor was not unpleasant, even secondhand. I could feel his erection through his flannel trousers and my coat and woolen skirt and girdle. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a question floated aimlessly. What kind of a girl starts the day in love with one man and ends it inside the coat of another?

Two

I
THOUGHT I HAD
learned my lesson with Woody, but I had learned nothing. If I wasn’t careful, I would turn into my mother, who had bet her life on a string of unreliable men, starting with my father, who’d disappeared before I was born, though they had married. I hadn’t taken her word for it but had gotten a copy of my birth certificate. I never told her that. Most kids keep secrets to protect themselves. I’d done my share of that, but I’d also kept them to protect her. It wasn’t altruism, only self-interest. Distraught was my mother’s natural state. I didn’t want to push her over the line into despair.

Don’t misunderstand me. She was not a terrible mother. Lying about my age and dressing me in clothes that were a few years too young for me to make her look younger was not a life-threatening crime. Parking me in movie theaters for hours at a time when Mr. Richardson or one of his predecessors came to visit was not even a scarring misdemeanor. Eventually it turned out to be a blessing, because once I was old enough to find my way around town, and after a man sat next to me in a movie and put a raincoat on his lap—I didn’t know what he was doing, but I knew it wasn’t pretty—I discovered that libraries were a safer haven. I might have been
de trop
—a phrase I learned from my reading—at home, but in the light-filled reading room of the Epiphany Branch Library, Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet, and Daisy Buchanan were always happy to see me.

And the one time my mother suspected I was in danger, she figured out a way to protect me. When I graduated from high school, she suggested that I enlist in the Women’s Army Corps. The idea was timely and practical. I would be helping the war effort. I would be earning a living. And I would not be rattling around the apartment. She had seen the way Mr. Richardson, who paid for the apartment a stone’s throw from Stuyvesant Square—thanks to him, we had moved up in the world—had begun to follow me with his eyes.

As it turned out, I was grateful to my mother for urging me to enlist. As long as I’d lived at home, I was a misfit in the world. My mother was not like other mothers. My father was nonexistent. In the Army, my parents did not matter. I stood or fell on my own. The experience had given me confidence. It had also given me, as I’d told Charlie, the G.I. Bill. Without it, and without those long afternoons in the library, I never would have gone to any college, let alone to one of the Seven Sisters. I still marveled at my good luck, despite the fact that Barnard had turned me back into a misfit.

I was different from the other girls, even from my roommate, Natalie, who was supposed to be my best friend. Secretly, I prided myself on the fact. It was partly my past—I was a couple of years older and had been in the service—but it was also my future. They had their lives mapped out. I had plenty of aspirations, but few plans. In late-night talks, their scrubbed faces, framed with freshly shampooed hair set in metal clips, glowed as they spoke of their prospective husbands, some already being reeled in, others still in the fantasy stage. Those men were sure to do well. I was more interested in finding someone who was going to do good, though I wasn’t stupid enough to tell them that. They thought I was odd enough as it was, with my picketing and political passions and negro boyfriend.

Then there was the bartering. Those girls in their innocent cotton pajamas with embroidered monograms over their hearts were as crafty as the most seasoned seller in a Middle Eastern souk. A handful of sweatered breast for a fraternity pin. Bare flesh for a promise
of marriage. Under-the-skirt privileges for a blue-white diamond on the third finger of the left hand. But I had neither the head nor the heart for haggling. I was reckless. That was what had gotten me in trouble with Woody. That was what would get me in trouble with Charlie. A month after that first night when I refused to go to his room, I went.

Like everything else having to do with sex, the forbidden climb to the fourth floor of his boardinghouse was riskier for me than for him. If we were caught, he might be evicted. I could be expelled. As I said, I was reckless.

I was also, in the weeks since I’d met Charlie, in a state. I was raw with sensation. In class or at the library, I could not sit still. My mind wandered, my senses throbbed. One night when Natalie went home for the weekend and I returned to the deserted room still aching from the thwarted pleasure of being with Charlie, I managed to gratify myself in the privacy of my narrow dormitory cot, but it was no good. I wanted the real thing. By the time I went to his room, nothing short of a natural disaster could have kept me away.

We were quick and furtive as cat burglars on the worn sloping stairs. By the time we reached his room, our breath was coming in gasps, partly from excitement, partly from the race up the steps. He opened the door, pushed me inside, and closed it behind us. We stood for a moment facing each other, just long enough for the potential disasters to begin going off in my head like fireworks. Expulsion. Pregnancy. Abandonment. Then he took a step toward me. I’d like to say that I met him halfway, but I have the feeling I went beyond that.

THE NEXT MORNING
, we sat across from each other at a table in Bickford’s, addled by physical proximity, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, gulping orange juice and coffee and downing eggs and bacon and toast. Sex had made us ravenous. Black smudges underlined his
eyes; secret glee was smeared on his mouth like jam. I wanted to lick it off.

Now and then, I glanced around at the other people in the eye-achingly bright restaurant. Loners sat reading newspapers or staring morosely into stacks of pancakes. Couples carried on desultory conversations. My swollen heart ached for the whole benighted bunch of them. They knew nothing of joy. They were bereft of wonder.

Nonetheless, I was determined to be responsible. I had not been irresponsible with Woody. If there was one thing you learned about in the military, it was condoms. The women weren’t bombarded with booklets, films, and kits as the men were—we were expected to be chaste; the men only had to be careful—but you couldn’t possibly live in that world without picking up some practical information. Nonetheless, the terror of that false alarm still haunted me. A few days after my first night with Charlie, who had been prepared, I made an appointment with a woman doctor in the Village. I had heard about her from another girl in the dorm, but unlike the other girl, I did not buy a dime store wedding band for my appointment. Even while I was acting responsibly, I could not stop thumbing my nose.

When I left the doctor’s office, I went straight to the library. At that time of day Charlie would be in his usual carrel. He was so engrossed in his book that he didn’t notice me until I was standing beside him. Then he looked up.

“I bought you a present,” I said and put the brown-paper-wrapped package down on the desk. “But I wouldn’t open it here if I were you.” My grin gave me away.

We made it from the library to his room in record time.

WE DID NOT
always court danger in the rooming house. One weekend, an old Navy buddy lent Charlie his car and a shack on a lake in Connecticut. Nobody would have called the place romantic. Early
Miss Havisham, we agreed, was a more accurate description. But the lake came almost to the door, and no other houses were in sight. On Friday night, we made a terrible racket on the springs of the old iron bed. On Saturday morning, we went skinny-dipping in a lake so icy it sent us back to bed to warm each other beneath the musty blankets.

Twice more that spring, when he was feeling flush, we went away. The first time, we checked into the Marlton hotel on West Eighth Street on a Saturday afternoon and lived on room service and each other until checkout time on Sunday. That was the weekend of our perplexing conversation.

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