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Authors: Ellen Feldman

The Unwitting (5 page)

BOOK: The Unwitting

We were sitting up in bed with the room service tray between us. A striped tie hung down his bare chest. I was wearing my imitation pearls, matching earrings, and nothing else. We had decided to dress for dinner.

“Am I your current cause?” he asked as he poured the bottle of wine he’d brought because it would be cheaper than room service.

“What do you mean?”

“The first time I saw you, you were picketing with the NAACP.”

I thought about that for a moment. By then I had picked up a few words from him.

“I could ask you the same question. Am I your forbidden fruit? Your shiksa?”

We laughed and let it go, but I wondered if he was worried that he was a passing phase or if I should worry that I was.

A few weeks later, we ended up in the honeymoon suite of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The incident wasn’t as sexy as it sounds, though it was romantic, at least for me.

The National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions had organized a conference to promote peace, goodwill, and understanding between Western artists and intellectuals and their counterparts from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. In the years to
come, meetings like that would multiply like rabbits, but this was the first I attended.

Charlie’s thesis adviser, who was a founding member of a group called Americans for Intellectual Freedom, had come down with the flu and asked Charlie to deliver some papers to one of the organizers of the conference. Charlie asked if I wanted to go along. He grinned when he invited me because he knew wild horses couldn’t have kept me away.

We took the subway to Fiftieth Street and made our way east through the sooty slush. Above us, skyscrapers pierced the low battleship-gray sky. When we reached Park Avenue, I noticed a crowd outside the hotel entrance on the far side of the street. At first I thought it was the crush of delegates waiting to get in. Then I spotted the signs people were carrying. As we got closer, I made out the words on them.



The men carrying the signs wore dark overcoats, well-brushed hats, and grim expressions; the women were equally well dressed and even more dour. As they circled in front of the entrance, their galoshes crunched on the salt the hotel had spread to keep guests from slipping.

To get to the revolving door, we had to walk a gauntlet of kneeling nuns in black habits praying for our souls. I couldn’t help thinking of the salt grinding into their knees.

The lobby was all sinuous art deco swirl and opulent smooth surfaces. I had been inside the hotel twice before. The first time was when my mother persuaded Mr. Richardson to take us to tea the day before I was inducted into the WACs; the second was the previous
year, when the college newspaper had sent me to cover a press conference to introduce the new long-playing records. Now, workmen rushed back and forth, carrying flowers, lugging chairs, and checking microphones. We crossed to the front desk, and Charlie asked for Mr. Sidney Hook’s room.

“Ten forty-two,” the clerk said. “The honeymoon suite.”

“If I’d known we were going to the honeymoon suite,” I whispered as the elevator glided upward, “I would have come prepared.”

Charlie rang the bell to the suite. A man wearing a hat answered it. Behind him, the room was so dense with smoke that it might have been on fire. A dozen or so men and women were talking into telephones. The lines lay tangled on the pale blue carpet like a nest of snakes. Other men and women were arguing and barking orders. Overflowing ashtrays and plates of half-eaten hamburgers, club sandwiches, and steaks littered every surface, their metal covers scattered on tables, chairs, and the floor. Beyond the open door to a bathroom, a girl was standing over a mimeograph machine. Another girl sat on a closed toilet seat taking dictation from a man perched on the sink. I recognized a few of the faces. Mary McCarthy was typing furiously. Elizabeth Hardwick was talking into a phone. Robert Lowell sat in the middle of the chaos, sipping a drink and looking as if he was in another world.

While Charlie made his way to the bedroom to find Mr. Hook, I stood in the midst of the pandemonium, spellbound. I was so transfixed that it didn’t occur to me to wonder who was ponying up the money for the honeymoon suite at a plush hotel, the multitude of phones, the mimeograph machine, and all that room service. All I knew was that this was where I was meant to be. And one more thing: Charlie had brought me here. I was still young enough to believe that people fell in love for shared interests, common principles, and other logical rationalizations. I hadn’t an inkling of the more primitive needs that drove them together. I’m not talking about sex,
though of course that was part of it. I mean the hungers our pasts hollow out of our souls.

following our visit to the Waldorf, I found myself thinking about the conversation we’d had the weekend we’d checked into that other shabbier hotel, when Charlie had asked if he was my current cause, and I’d wondered if I was his rebellion. I still couldn’t figure out if he was worried or if I ought to be. The fear that I might turn out to be as bad a judge of character as my mother haunted me. Then, a week before his graduation, we had another conversation, and I knew.

He had found an inexpensive boardinghouse on the East End of Long Island. On Saturday morning, we took a train from Pennsylvania Station, and when it came to the end of the line, we got off and walked the few blocks to the house. Even before we climbed to the room, wallpapered with oversize cabbage roses and cluttered with crocheted doilies, seashells, and china cats, I knew something was not quite right between us. He had been uncharacteristically silent on the train. The less he had said, the more I had chattered. Our timing was off. Even in bed.

Things did not improve at dinner. He insisted we have lobster. I wanted to tell him to stop trying so hard. When the waitress tied the paper bib around my neck, I felt foolish. When I cracked a claw and got lobster juice all over my good linen dress, I was despondent. I told myself it was only a stain, but as I dipped my napkin in my water glass and rubbed, I knew the spot would never come out.

After the waitress took away our plates, the bowl of shells, and our crumpled bibs, he leaned back in his chair, looked at me, then glanced away. The word
came to mind. It reminded me of the way Mr. Richardson and his predecessors used to say goodbye to my mother. Something about getting ready to walk out the door made them unable to meet her eye.

“I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t sure until a few days ago,” he began.

I stared at the stain on my dress and knew he was leaving.

“But now it’s set. I have a job at
.” He was still staring somewhere over my shoulder. “They got a grant to go from a quarterly to a monthly. That’s why they can hire me.” He met my eyes finally. “It was a close call. I was sure I was going to end up toiling for the greater glory of
Cattleman’s Monthly

“Cattleman’s Monthly?”

“A trade magazine, as if you couldn’t guess. I would have had to cover auctions on horseback.”

“Can you ride?”

“How many Jewish cowboys do you know?” He tried a smile, but it didn’t quite come off; then he looked past my shoulder again.

“The problem is
Cattleman’s Monthly
pays better than
. Hell, just about everything pays better than
, except maybe sanitation work. Come to think of it, that probably pays better too. Garbagemen have a union.” He dragged his eyes back to me. “What I’m trying to say is I won’t be making much money. We’ll never be rich, but we won’t starve.”

Perhaps I was not such a bad judge of character after all.

, on a clement June afternoon three days after I had graduated, when a cloudless blue sky stretched over us and the air was as soft as down—surely those were omens—we took the subway to the city clerk’s office. I wore a white linen suit and a straw hat with a wide floppy brim. Charlie had a white carnation in his lapel. His parents stood behind us, looking slightly embarrassed, as if they should have been able to muster more of a crowd for the occasion. My mother cried.

not supposed to work. Mixed marriages never do, or so people said. In the heat of anger, one partner always turns
on the other with accusations of running true to type. But neither of us was a believer, and we did not have to worry about family. My mother had gone to church only when the current man in her life was spending Sunday with his family. Charlie’s parents were not religious. They had met at a socialist rally in Budapest, running fast and hard from their own devoutly observant parents, come to America, and never looked back. The Nazi attempt to purify Europe that had begun three decades later and wiped out the relatives they’d left behind did nothing to reignite their faith. The only thing that mattered was that Charlie marry and begin having children. They were less concerned, he teased me after he took me home to meet them, about my religious affiliation than about my narrow hips.

“They may not mind, but what about you?” my roommate, Natalie, had asked. “How are you going to feel walking around with a Jewish name?”

“Nell?” I asked.

“Very funny. Look, I’m not prejudiced—”

“Of course not.”

“—but it’ll make a difference.”

“Being married to Charlie? I should say so.”

“I suppose you know you’re his passport.”

“To what?”

“Becoming a real American.”

“Charlie was born here.”

“You know what I mean.”

I did, but I wasn’t going to argue with her.

“I just don’t want to see you make a mistake,” she said.

The statement was not entirely accurate. Natalie was known as a sympathetic ear for girls with romantic, academic, or parental problems. In other words, she thrived on other people’s miseries.

found a quirky one-bedroom apartment in a brownstone on West Eighty-Ninth Street. The climb to the fifth floor left us
breathless, and when we were in the kitchen at the same time, we could not help bumping into each other. But the bedroom, which had once been a greenhouse, was made entirely of small panes of glass. We lay in bed at night watching clouds snag on the moon, and snow fall silent as sleep, and planes glide through the stars on their way to and from Idlewild Airport. On fine mornings, the sun pried open our eyes. When it was stormy, rain pounded the glass. It was like making love inside a waterfall. When I padded into the kitchen to make coffee, I wore Charlie’s bathrobe or sometimes the shirt he had taken off the night before. He had five inches and forty pounds on me, but his clothes fit me like a glove.

I got a job as a secretary in a publishing house for forty-five dollars a week, the occasional pilfered book, and the chance to write reader’s reports on manuscripts from the slush pile. I thought I was lucky they let me do it. Charlie got books at the magazine, too, and sometimes tickets to plays. There were author parties at the publishing house and celebrations at the magazine where we plucked martinis and manhattans from the trays of circling waiters, made dinners of angels on horseback and pigs in blankets, and afterward climbed home to our apartment clutching each other, to tumble into bed and make raucous love as our own private moon swooned overhead.

Each morning we took the subway to our offices together, and sometimes, when Charlie wasn’t working late, we met at the Forty-Second Street station and went home together in the evening. As I sat beside him, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, thigh to thigh, our good fortune frightened me. Around us headlines screamed of war in Korea, upheaval in Africa, and injustice and malfeasance at home, all of it unraveling in the long shadow of total nuclear annihilation. Two months after we’d married, the Russians had successfully exploded their own atomic bomb. Diplomats lurched from crisis to crisis. Armies stood ready to match devastation for devastation. Even our little cerebral corner of the universe was rent by warring factions. Communist-front organizations spread propaganda in the
guise of information. The CIA, the State Department, and other less official groups put out their own versions of the truth. Plots hatched and conspiracies simmered. Books were banned from American libraries overseas, sales of suspect writers like Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright were subverted, and reputations were destroyed. It was called the Cold War, and as in any war, both sides played dirty. Surely, Charlie and I had no right to be so happy in the middle of it.

I do not mean to make us sound like fugitives from one of those sunny television sitcoms. Charlie was no Ozzie, and I was no Harriet. We did not embody the zeitgeist of Togetherness as touted in
Ladies’ Home Journal
. We were two strong-minded articulate people, of different sexes to boot, living cheek by jowl. We found plenty to fight about. Here is a partial list of recurring arguments from those early years together. Toilet seats; old girlfriends—or rather his unwillingness to talk about them; his refusal to straighten the mess on his desk; my straightening the mess on his desk; my irresponsibility in putting his Irish fisherman’s sweater in the washing machine so it came out fitting me; his failed attempt to fix the toaster, which wasn’t broken in the first place, you just had to know how to use it; Frank Tucker; Tintoretto; my erratic coffee; his refusal to make the coffee; Henry James’s sentences; the starch I could not keep the laundry from putting in his shirts; my Manichaean view of the world; his willingness to see a silver lining where there was only smoke and mirrors.

Let me give you an example of the last. One morning on the subway, I called his attention to an article on the front page of the paper. A photograph showed a crowd of citizens, eyes bulging, mouths howling, faces deformed by rage. They were heckling and harassing a negro family who had managed to rent an apartment in a white neighborhood of Cicero, Illinois.

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