By: Steve Slavin
Almost everything I know about women I learned from Bonnie. Although she was just 21 – two years my junior – she already knew more than most people learn in a lifetime.
Bonnie was kind of pretty, but you still might not give her a second look. When my friend Eddie gave me her phone number, it came with the guaranty that she was great in the sack. That was all the introduction I needed, so I called and made a date with her.
I think she was even less impressed with me than I was with her. At the time, I was living in a tenement near the Bowery and planning to go to law school. Bonnie was working temp jobs and probably would be for the rest of her life. She had a ton of interests, but seemed to go from one enthusiasm to next. As Gertrude Stein had so aptly put it, “There’s no there there.”
I decided that even though I might get laid, it just wasn’t worth the bother. But I was having a party in a couple of weeks, so I invited her. We could always use another girl.
My parties consisted mainly of my friends from high school and college, and whoever else they invited. Two of my oldest friends, Bob and Chuck, were the first to arrive. “Where are all the girls?”
“Bob, it’s only 8 o’clock. I’d be amazed if any girls show up for at least half an hour. For some reason, girls hate to be the first ones in the door. Go figure.”
“Well, now that we’re here,” said Chuck, the girls won’t have to worry about that. So Hank, is that your bar over there?”
“Yeah, please guys, help yourselves.”
Bob, Chuck, and I had played ball, hung out, and triple-dated since we were in high school. And we’d probably gone to more than a hundred parties. We had a longstanding pact that if one of us met a girl, the other two would not try to put the moves on her. And that deal had worked out quite well for all these years.
Bob had worked part-time while in college doing data entry, and he was now doing something in computers – which he claimed was the field of the future. After working as a copy writer at an advertising agency for about a year, Chuck went to Officers Training School, and was assigned to a destroyer based in Japan.
Soon my apartment began to fill up – with more guys. But at 8:30 on the dot, a couple of girls walked in and the party finally got started. A little later Bonnie showed up, and she immediately hit it off with Chuck. Later, when he and Bonnie started making out, I began to feel pangs of jealousy. That was pretty strange. I mean, I hadn’t even been that attracted to her.
Well, I suppose the grass is always greener in somebody else’s yard. And when they left together towards the end of the party, I had a full blown case of jealousy. Perhaps the one saving grace was the non-compete pact that Chuck, Bob, and I had observed all these years.
After the last guests left, I cleaned up and went to bed. It was almost 2 am, and tomorrow was a work day for most of my guests. Thankfully, I could sleep in, since I didn’t have a regular job. But sleep did not come easy, as I kept going over what had happened – or rather, not happened, between Bonnie and me.
Just as it was getting light outside, I heard my phone. Shit!
“Am I speaking to Henry Wilner?”
“I am the mother of Ensign Charles Stickney.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Stickney. What can I do for you?”
“Charles attended your party last night, did he not?”
“Yes, Mrs. Stickney.”
“It’s seven in the morning, and he has not yet come home. Is he with you?”
”No, he’s not.”
“I am worried sick over him. Can you please tell me where he is? If not, I will have to call the police.”
I had to think fast. “Mrs. Stickney, you know how Chuck will occasionally have a drink?”
“Regretfully, I have observed this behavior.”
“Well, he felt that it would be better if he did not try to go home on the subway. So my neighbor, David Bayes, agreed to put him up for the night.”
“Please give me Mr. Bayes’ phone number.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Stickney, but David doesn’t have a phone. If you’d like, I can walk over there in a few minutes and ask Chuck to call you. I’m sure he’s fine.”
“That would be satisfactory. And thank you for your help.”
Now what? It’s bad enough that I’m feeling so jealous, but now I have to be the mediator between Chuck and his mother. So I waited half an hour, called Bonnie, and asked her to put Chuck on. I told him that his mother was on the warpath, and he said he’ll call her. I warned him to use a payphone and to stick to the cover story I had made up.
“Hank, my mom thinks I’m still a virgin.”
“Well, I guess you’re not anymore.”
“Certainly not after last night! OK, thanks for covering for me. I owe you.”
For the next week, Chuck was with Bonnie every night. I don’t know how he explained things to his mother, but I was very thankful to be off the hook. The only problem was that I was painfully aware of what a big mistake I had made. But I had had my chance and I blew it.
The night before he shipped out, Chuck invited Bob and me to what he termed, “our last supper.” We could not be sure when we would see each other again. The war in Vietnam was heating up, and Chuck’s ship could be sent there. And there was a possibility that Bob and I might be drafted. Bob was probably safe, since he was the sole support of his family, and I was hoping for a student deferment when I began law school.
Chuck confessed that he was leaving without having done the one thing he had always wanted to do.
“You mean that stupid thing in a bar?”
“That’s right, Bob. And it almost happened in some pub in Hawaii..”
“You mean that thing with the stool?” I asked.
“Yeah! And would you believe, I actually got my chance?”
“So what happened?”
“Well, Bob, this other Naval officer and I got into a fight with three or four Marine assholes. And you guys both remember how I always wanted to smash a bar mirror with a stool. So I picked a stool, had a clear shot, and flung it right at the mirror.”
“And missed?” asked Bob.
“I was so fuckin’ drunk, I missed the mirror completely and hit a row of bottles lined up behind the bar.”
“You know, Chuck: your mom’s right. Just last week she told me you were an irredeemable alcoholic.”
“Shut up, Hank! Oh, yeah! That reminds me, I wanted to update you guys on my social life.” Bob and I were now all ears.
Chuck gave us a blow-by-blow account of his fling with Bonnie, and then said something that really got our attention. They would write to each other, but who really knew when they’d see each other again.
“Now the three of us have this informal pact about girls, right?”
Bob and I just nodded.
“So let me make myself perfectly clear: Please do not have any compunctions about putting the make on Bonnie while I’m gone.”
“How does she feel about you?”
“Who knows? So like I just told you, Hank, feel free to call her. And the same goes for you, Bob. Look, I’m going to be 8,000 miles away from here, and I don’t expect to be back for at least another six months.”
“This sounds completely crazy!” said Bob.
“I know, I know! The thing is, yeah, I like her and everything, but I don’t have any monopoly on her. And I also don’t have to remind you guys how hard it is to get laid .So why not spread the wealth? I mean, what are friends for?”
“You’re actually serious?” I asked.
“You’re damn straight I’m serious! We’ve been friends a long time. So please, I really mean this: I don’t want to stand in your way. And besides, who knows if I’ll ever see her again. Six months is a long time.”
A week later I got a call from Bonnie. She wanted to get together. “Sure! I’d love to. Would you like to have dinner?”
Maybe I did have a chance after all. And I certainly didn’t have to feel guilty, considering what Chuck had said.
A couple of nights later, we went to a very cheap and homey restaurant in Little Italy. Before I could make my move, Bonnie told me that she had a confession to make.
“I’m not a priest.”
“And I’m not a Catholic.”
“In that case, I think it balances out.”
“Are you ready, Hank?”
Bonnie reached across the table and placed her hand on mine. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Her hand felt warm and she looked into my eyes. She was smiling. Then she took a deep breath.
“Hank, I think I’m in love with your friend, Chuck.”
I was stunned. I felt like everything that I had ever wanted was suddenly snatched away. In just a few seconds my mood plunged from the highest cloud to the lowest depth. She saw the look on my face, but didn’t know what to make of it.
“I wanted you to know. And I wanted to thank you for inviting me to your party. If it weren’t for you, Chuck and I never would have met.”
Wow! She didn’t have a clue that I had fallen for her. And why should she? I never gave her the slightest hint of how I felt. And now I was caught in the middle, considering what Chuck had told us. I wondered if Bob had already hit on her.
“Bonnie, you’re welcome! I’m sorry that Chuck is so far away.”
“Me too. But we’re writing to each other, and I want to meet his closest friends. So tomorrow night, I’m having dinner with Bob.”
“You guys are quite a crew! You must have gotten all the girls at college.”
“Well, maybe not all of them.”
A week later I called Bob to check in with him. He seemed troubled about something, but I knew better than to ask him outright. Soon he just blurted it out, “Hank, she’s in love with me.”
She? Oh no! “Bonnie?”
“What about Chuck?”
“Well, she called me and said she wanted to get together because she wanted to get to know Chuck’s friends.”
“Do you need me to draw you a road map?”
“Bob, I had dinner with her about a week ago. She told me she was in love with Chuck.”
“I know. She told me the same thing. But you remember what Chuck told us?”
“Sure. So then you put the make on her?”
“No, she made the first move.”
“Wait a second, Bob. Let’s see if I’ve got this right. She tells you she’s in love with Chuck. And then she comes on to you?”
“Well I have to tell you, she so fuckin seductive, I didn’t really have any choice.”
“I’m not blaming you, Bob. I’m just trying to understand this chick.”
“She’s nuts: pure and simple.”
“So how do you feel about her?”
“Like I just told you: she’s nuts!”
“Is that good?”
“Maybe for getting laid. But certainly not good for anything long-term.”
“Wow! That’s amazing! You know, I was really getting to like her.”
“Please, Hank, don’t let me stand in your way.”
“Well, there is the small matter that she’s in love with you.”
“She told me that she loved the two of us.”
Every so often, Bonnie and I would get together. One afternoon, as we were walking along Second Avenue, she spotted a guy she knew. The three of us chatted for a couple of minutes, and later I asked how she knew him. She said she had lived with him last summer.
“Really? The two of you were so casual, it’s hard for me to believe you were involved with him.”
“Involved? Are you kidding? I lived with about ten different guys that summer. I was waiting for a sublet, and in the meantime, I needed places to stay.”
“Did you know these guys before you moved in with them?”
“Maybe one or two. The others I met here and there.”
I was amazed. And then I realized that perhaps nothing she would tell me could surprise me. Little did I know….
One day I got a call from her. “I have a new phone number, but it’s good only during the day.”
“Oh, did you get a new job?”
“No, I moved. I live on the upper Eastside.”
I learned not to ask too many questions. Besides, it really wasn’t any of my business. A few weeks later, I got together with Bob.
“Hank, I think she’s really going off the deep end.”
“Well, did you know she moved back in with an old boyfriend? His name is Brad, and I think he works for an insurance company.”
“Well, I go over there sometimes during the week – in the daytime. They’re in this apartment on the top floor of a doorman building on Third Avenue in the seventies.”
“So you see her when her boyfriend’s at work.”
“Well that’s the idea. But yesterday, she wanted me to stay later.”
“To meet him?”
“No, dummy! I guess she just couldn’t let me go.”
“So what happened?”
“You won’t believe this! The apartment is on the 17th floor. I’m finally leaving – and this guy, Brad – is due back any minute. So we get into one of the elevators – there’s another one right next to it – and she presses 16. And we’re making out in the elevator.
“OK, we’re in there three minutes, four minutes, maybe five minutes, making out like crazy. And then, suddenly, the door opens, and there’s this kind of short guy standing there. Bonnie looks at him, and cool as a cucumber, she says to him, ‘Brad, I want you to close the door and go up to the apartment. I’ll be up in a minute.’”
“What did he do?”
“He hesitated for a few seconds, kind of shook his head, and then went upstairs to wait for her.”
“That is unbelievable! She’s got some pair of balls!”
“You’re telling me! I think that was the most awkward moment of my life.”
“It must have been just as awkward for that poor guy.”
“Yeah, I was a lot more embarrassed for him than I was for me.”
“Well yeah. But what’s wrong with her? I mean, she put both of you guys into that situation. What was she thinking?”
“I really don’t even want to know, Hank. Anyway, I’m probably going to bow out very soon.”
“Say, just out of curiosity, do you think she and Chuck are still writing to each other?”
“Actually, they are. He never writes me, so the only news I get is secondhand through Bonnie.”
“Is he OK?”
“Yeah, as far as I know.”
One morning Bonnie pushed Brad too far. She told him that he was too possessive. And Brad must have finally felt that enough was enough. He told her to pack up her things and be gone when he got back from work.
I don’t know if I was the first person she called – or the last. We piled her stuff into a couple of cabs and headed downtown. Now the woman I loved was actually living with me. The only problem was that she loved two of my closest friends. What was I thinking?
I knew that she certainly would have preferred to live with Bob, but that couldn’t work. Aside from any reservations that Bob might have, the fact that he lived in a three-room apartment with his mother and younger brother was definitely a drawback. Bob’s mother, a recent widow, was still very fragile. He was supporting her and his brother, who was finishing high school
A few days later, Bob told me he had broken off with Bonnie. “Man, she was draining my psychic energy. And besides, Hank, I know how you feel about her. So now, except for our nautical friend, you’ve got a clear shot. Good luck!”
I was definitely going into this with my eyes wide open. Given her history with guys, she would probably break my heart. But on the upside, I would now have what we used to call, “a steady piece.” Even romantics need to get laid.
Bonnie put me off the first few nights, but we were sleeping in the same bed, and that was really nice. Still, when we finally did it, her post mortem was brutal. Did I have any idea what women liked? Couldn’t I be more sensitive? And didn’t I realize that women wanted to be made love to, and not just fucked?
It took me some time, but the lessons were a whole lot of fun. After about a week she paid me the highest compliment she would ever give me: “Hank, I think you’ll do.”
Whatever else, I’m a pretty good listener, and Bonnie loved to tell stories. I didn’t mind that the stories usually involved other guys. Mercifully, she hardly ever mentioned Chuck – and never said a word about Bob.
Bonnie had grown up in a small suburb west of Chicago. Having nothing better to do after high school, she enlisted in the Waves. “Join the Navy and see the world.” But after just a few weeks Bonnie had seen enough and desperately wanted out. When she applied for a discharge, she was reminded that she had a legal obligation to remain in the Navy for three years – not just three weeks. So she befriended a Jewish chaplain, who, of course, fell in love with her. Within a month, he had managed to help her get discharged. He never heard from her again.
Not yet 18, Bonnie realized she had very limited prospects. But a boring suburban life was not one of them. She moved in with a friend who was living in Chicago and quickly found temp work as a typist. Although she was extremely bright, college was never an option, perhaps because, as her teachers had often observed, “Bonnie never applies herself.”
She didn’t have a regular occupation, but one of the things she did do – Why did this not surprise me? – was to work as a prostitute at business conventions. The astounding thing about this work, was that nearly all the men she met wanted to talk to her even more than they wanted to sleep with her. She sensed that they were often very lonely, so she just let them talk. “I felt that I was much more a psychiatrist than a prostitute.”
I asked her how she decided to live in New York. She smiled, hugged me, and said that she would save that story for another time.
On weekdays I studied for the Law Boards, and weekends I earned $5 an hour – great money in the early 1960s – working off the books for a company called “Budget Movers.” That kind of work either gets you into great shape, or it kills you. Somehow, I survived.
Bonnie worked sporadically, but she never gave me a penny of what she earned. I figured that maybe she was saving up for another apartment. Which was OK with me. Because, even though I loved her, I knew that I’d never be able to hold on to her. And I doubted that any guy ever would.
I often wondered if she and Chuck were still corresponding. But that seemed less and less likely. How could he keep up with Bonnie’s changing addresses? And then, completely out of the blue, a letter arrived – addressed to me!”
It’s been awhile. I heard from Bob that Bonnie moved in with you. Good luck! I think the two of you will be great for each other!
I have some really exciting news. Would you believe that next week I’m getting married? Oh, I know the two questions you’re too polite to ask.
Yes to both of them. Hoshimi (starlight) is indeed Japanese, and yes, she is with child. If you’re wondering what it’s like to be with her, do you remember the scene in South Pacific when they sang “Happy, happy, happy, happy talk”?
As you can imagine, my mom is less than pleased, but she and my dad will be here for the wedding. I wish you and Bob could be here too, but hopefully the next time we get together, you guys will meet my new family.
Lt. Charles J. Stickney
There was no point in showing the letter to Bonnie, because it might have really upset her. At least that’s what I told myself.
Often Bonnie and I would go for walks through Little Italy, the Village, Chinatown, and other lower Manhattan neighborhoods. Sometimes she’d stop to talk to seemingly random people, but they almost always turned out to be very friendly. She would tell me that I needed to be open to new experiences. Right, I thought. Bonnie’s all the new experience I can handle right now.
One evening, after we had made love, she decided to tell me how she why she moved to New York. She had gotten pregnant, but she had no intention of marring the guy. In fact, she had met someone else, and they were soon engaged. They made arrangements to come to New York.
He would come first, and move into his friends’ large apartment, and then she would soon follow. The apartment was in The Apthorp, an ornate old building that occupied a square block on the upper Westside. Her fiancé’s friends, a brother and sister in their mid-twenties, had grown up in the apartment. Their parents, who had moved to Hawaii, were still paying the rent.
Then she started to cry. I put my arms her and could feel her shaking. I held her tighter and kissed her cheeks, her forehead, her eyes, again and again and again. Finally, after several minutes, she was able to stop crying.
“Are you OK?”
“I’m sorry, Hank. Please, could you just hold me? I’ll tell you the rest of the story tomorrow.”
The next day she was fine. I wasn’t sure if or when she would continue the story. But a couple of nights later, she said that she wanted to tell me what had happened. We were lying in bed with our arms around each other. I was braced for another crying jag, but I was also very anxious to hear the rest of the story.
Her fiance’s name was Frank. They had packed up his car and a U-Haul and he would drive to New York. Bonnie would come by bus a few days later. She still had some last minute things to do. A few hours after Frank left, Bonnie heard on the news about a heavy snowstorm somewhere in Pennsylvania. But she didn’t worry too much because he would still be in Ohio by dark, when he planned to stop at a motel. He had said that he didn’t feel comfortable pulling that big U-Haul at night.
I could almost sense what was coming next. Again the tears started to flow. But she was determined to finish the story.
I stroked her hair. She took a deep breath and continued. “I got a phone call at 11 that night from a Pennsylvania State trooper. There had been a terrible accident on Route 80. Frank’s car and the U-Haul had jack-knifed and skidded off the highway. He was killed instantly.
The tears were streaming down her cheeks. She stopped to gather herself, and then, after a few minutes, she went on. “I didn’t know what to do. I was eight months pregnant, the love of my life was suddenly taken from me, and I had no place to live.”
“So what did you do?”
“I decided that I would come to New York. Frank had told me so much about the brother and sister we would be staying with, that I felt as though I practically knew them. They were very kind. They actually begged me to come to New York and stay with them.
“I loved Frank more than anyone in my life. He was my life. He made me laugh. He could read my moods. Even when I was mad at him, all he had to do was smile and I just melted. And when he touched me….”
I waited until it was clear that she would not continue, “That is all so sad. To suddenly lose someone like that…. So what did you do?”
“I really had no other place to go. All I had was a bus ticket to New York, so I came two days later. When I got to their apartment, they took me in their arms and just held me. Later they told me that I was now their only connection to Frank, and that they would love me just as they loved him.”
“They sound like wonderful people.”
“So you stayed with them until the baby was born?”
“Well, it gets a little more complicated.”
I had a premonition: “Wait! Don’t tell me…..”
She nodded. “That’s right! The brother.”
“But you were so depressed.”
“I was. I barely got out of bed for the whole time that I stayed with them. The last four weeks before I gave birth… well, it had become a very difficult pregnancy. The only times I left the apartment were to go to their doctor. He was very worried about me, but in the end I did give birth to a very healthy little baby girl.”
“And the brother?”
“Well, you guessed it, Hank. He had fallen in love with me. In fact he even proposed. If I married him, the three of us could raise the baby together.”
“But you didn’t love him.”
“Oh, he was very sweet, but I was not at all attracted to him. His sister was also very nice – I mean, look, the two of them had been extremely kind to me.
“And besides, I was in mourning. In fact, I suppose I’m still mourning Frank. He was such an unbelievable guy.”
“So what happened after you had the baby?”
“Well, I knew that I’d never be able to take care of her. At least not at that stage of my life. So without telling the brother and sister, I gave her up for adoption.”
“What did you say when you told them? They must have been very upset.”
“Actually, I never told them. While I was in the hospital, I met this young doctor. So instead of going back to the apartment, I moved in with him.”
“I know, Hank. But I just couldn’t face them. Especially the brother.”
“So you just left them hanging?”
“No, I did send them a note thanking them for their kindness. But I didn’t say anything about the baby, or where I was living.”
At that moment I realized that it would end with us, and probably in the not too distant future. I still loved her, but deep down I knew that she could never love me back. So I decided to just try to enjoy things while they lasted.
In a few weeks I’d be taking the Law Boards. I spent most of my time studying, and occasionally Bonnie would quiz me. I kidded her that she was the one who should be taking the exam.
On a gray winter morning I walked over to New York University. Bonnie was still asleep when I left. I kissed her forehead and heard her murmur without waking. Once the proctor commanded us to open the seal with our Number 2 pencils and begin the exam, I had put her completely out of my mind.
When we finally staggered out of the exam hours later, a bunch of us decided to go for pizza. None of us had met before, but the shared experience of going through this ordeal made us instant friends. As we took our seats around a large table, a woman sat down next to me and introduced herself. I don’t think I had ever met anyone so attractive. She was really smart, very funny, and I loved how she would touch my arm for emphasis when she was making a point. I felt as though I could sit there for hours talking to her, looking at her, and wanting to put my arm around her so we could snuggle.
Should I tell her that I’m living with someone? Or should I do what Bonnie probably would have done? Leave with her, go back to her place, and hop into bed?
I felt completely torn. No matter what I did, it seemed I would have regrets. I wished that I didn’t have to make a decision. That somehow everything would become very clear, and that the right choice would be made for me.
And then it was time to go. My instant friends would quickly fade away, because it was time to go back to our real lives. We all got up, and as we were leaving, she handed me a slip of paper, looked at me with her beautiful big blue yes, and mouthed the words, “Call me.”
Everyone else left, and the two of us were left standing there. I knew that if I just opened my arms, she would step right into them. But I didn’t. And then, just as she was about to walk away – to walk out of my life – I touched her cheek. She smiled, and said, “I’ll talk to you soon.” And then I watched her walk down the street. I kept hoping that she would glance back. But she didn’t. I felt a tremendous impulse to run after her. But I just stood there. And then, after she disappeared around the corner, I put her number in my pocket. It was time to go home.
I half-expected Bonnie to still be sleeping, even though it was mid-afternoon. But she was out somewhere. When I opened the closet to hang up my jacket, I saw that all her clothes were gone. Then I noticed that there were empty spaces on the book shelves, and that she had even taken her tooth brush. In the kitchen, instead of finding a note on the table, I saw the strip of pictures we had taken just a week ago in a photo booth near Times Square.
I would never see her again. She must have met someone else. I mean, isn’t that the story of her life? In the photos, she was sitting on my lap and we were smiling at the camera. Bonnie probably already knew where she would be living and when she would move.
Suddenly, everything became very clear to me. I began to laugh. Now that I realized what had happened, it really was quite funny. I wished that I could see Bonnie just one more time to congratulate her. And to apologize for so greatly underestimating her. Chuck, Bob, and I had been actors in a play that Bonnie had been writing for years. The play would go on, but she had arranged for each of us to take his bow and leave the stage.
I was still smiling as I reached into my pocket, walked into the bedroom, and picked up the phone.