By: Steve Slavin
Helene knew for sure that there was not someone for everyone. She could even prove it.
Helene does not remember much about her parents. An automobile accident left her orphaned when she was just four year old. What she does remember is a sequence of foster homes – some bad, some not so bad; — and that she would go through life unwanted and unloved.
And then, one day, she reached the age of eighteen. Suddenly, she was on her own. But in a way, she was still a ward of the state – in this case, the state of Michigan. She had won a full academic scholarship to the University of Michigan.
As it turned out, the school would be her home for the next six years. She was a theater major, and before her junior year, she had a whole new family. In fact, it was the first real family she had ever had. The theater majors were a tight-knit group. Some had been acting since childhood, while others were happy working behind the scenes – mainly designing them.
By the end of her sophomore year, Helene had found herself drawn to Greg, who was a year ahead of her. They were polar opposites. He was a bear of a man, with a bushy beard, long dark hair, and an outgoing personality. He had no pretensions of ever acting, and longed to one day become a great director.
Helene was tall, slim, blonde, and extremely introverted. She could act, but once off-stage she would clam up. One day, Greg walked over to her, knelt before her, and asked her for a date. She burst out laughing.
“Is that a ‘yes’?” he asked.
It was. They soon became “an item.” When Greg graduated, he decided to stay on at Michigan, so that he could be with Helene. A year later, she joined him in the Theater Department’s MFA program.
The department’s grad students called themselves the Michigan Mafia, perhaps just for the alliteration. But the name stuck. Years and years later, they still referred to themselves by the initials – the MM. And they laughed when someone overhead them and offered them some M & Ms.
Helene had decided that she was much better suited to working behind the scenes, so she and Greg co-directed a few plays. If you thought there was room for only one big ego, you’d be right. But they truly complemented each other.
Greg would supply the cheerleading and the enthusiasm, but also the all-too-public criticism. Helene would quietly put out the fires he started, smooth the ruffled feathers, and give the needed individual help and encouragement. He provided the inspiration; she provided the love.
Together they were a team. Just a minute before one of their plays opened, they would proclaim to the cast: Look out off-off-Broadway, here we come!”
There was just one problem – Vietnam. Greg had been able to count on receiving deferments as long as he stayed enrolled as a full-time student. But things did not work out as planned. As the war escalated, his local draft board needed more bodies, and Greg began to smell like fresh meat.
So Helene and Greg went to Plan B. They both were accepted into the Peace Corps. They would soon be teaching their craft to “the natives.” They got married at Ann Arbor City Hall, and invited the entire Michigan Mafia to a dinner at the greasy spoon where they often dined.
Just a few months later, after undergoing a rigorous training program, Helene and Greg were sent to Bolivia, along with two assistants – a carpenter and an artist. They settled in a remote village, recruited a local cast, and put on a show. But not in a barn. The show would be staged outdoors.
The main reason they had been sent to Bolivia was probably that the four of them were fluent in Spanish. That was essential: they would be putting on a production of Fiddler on the Roof – in Spanish.
One might think that the cultural barriers alone would make this enterprise impossible, and indeed, hundreds of Peace Corps projects did not work out as planned. How can you get a cast of South American peasants to empathize with the people in a tiny Jewish shtetl in Czarist Russia?
But as they all worked together, Helene and Greg learned just how much in common the people in this village high in the Andes had with their Jewish counterparts – the happy times, the hardships, the celebrations, and the isolation from the outside world. Still, unlike the cast of the Broadway production, not one of these villagers had ever acted before.
Neither Greg nor Helene had ever seen an actual production of Fiddler on the Roof. Or even the movie, which actually came out a few weeks after they had arrived in Bolivia. But as they watched their own production begin to come together, Greg suddenly had a great insight.
“Helene, do you realize what this play is?”
She just shook her head “no.”
“It’s the Jewish Oklahoma!”
How did all it work out? Helene and Greg will always remember opening night. They had several bedsheets sewn together for the curtain. And behind the curtain, there was a phonograph powered by a generator. To make sure that the fiddler in the opening number could be heard, they managed to partially muffle the noise from the generator.
The show began. A few minutes later, when Helene heard the teenage sisters singing “Match-maker, match-maker, make me a match,” she looked at Greg. They both had tears in their eyes. As they peeked out from behind the curtain, they saw that many people in the audience were wiping their eyes. Some were openly crying.
Greg and Helene hugged. They had actually pulled this off! Back in Michigan, they had directed plays that made people laugh. But now they actually made people cry. In fact, they were so happy, they couldn’t stop crying.
Years later, when they would tell friends about that moment, the tears would return. It had been the happiest time of their lives.
They would remain in Bolivia, and later in Peru, for nearly five years. Towards the end, Helene began to sense that she and Greg were beginning to grow apart. Always a big man, Greg gradually put on more and more weight. She remembered reading somewhere that when someone did that, he was pushing other people away.
Anyway, she knew for sure there couldn’t be another woman, because there just were no secrets where they were. And while their sex was still good, it slowly became less and less frequent.
They decided that a change of scene might be all they needed, and anyway, their Peace Corps contract was ending. Rather than move back to Ann Arbor, they decided to seek their fortunes in New York.
When they got there, they found a nice three-room apartment that they could afford on the Upper Eastside. In fact, it was so far up, it was practically in Spanish Harlem.
They both quickly found jobs teaching English as a second language to Spanish-speakers, and began looking for work in the theater. As the months went by, nothing much changed in their sex life, but Greg began to lose weight. And then he took up running.
They lived just a few blocks from Central Park, and he would get up most mornings at six a.m. to get in a run. Helene was hoping that this new interest in physical fitness was Greg’s attempt to make himself more attractive to her.
As things turned out, she was half right. One day, as they were having dinner, Greg put down his fork and just stared at her. She knew something was the matter – and that it was pretty serious.
“Honey, I just don’t know how to tell you this.”
“You’ve met someone else.”
He just bowed his head.
They sat there like that, neither one saying anything.
They both knew it was over. Greg packed his things, and by the weekend he had moved out. He gave Helene a phone number and an address, and she knew that it must be her apartment.
For a few weeks, Helene thought she was dealing with everything pretty well. But she grew more and more depressed. Then she got a call from Harold, an old friend from the MM. He was moving to New York. Could he stay with them a little while, till he found his own place?
Helene did not tell Harold that Greg had left her until he had moved in. Harold quickly realized that Helene was very seriously depressed. She and Greg had been very understanding when Harold had “come out” during his freshman year. As grad students, they often took the younger students under their wing, so to speak.
Within a week of his arrival, Helene stopped working, and began sleeping well into the afternoon. Harold cooked, shopped, and never once mentioned anything about “getting help.” He knew, instinctively, that given time, things would work their way out without whatever so-called help “trained professionals” could provide.
It took almost six months. One day, Helene went back to work. A few weeks later, she started going to parties. And before long, she was even dating. In the meanwhile, Harold found an apartment in the building.
The only thing that changed was that, aside from occasionally going to plays, she had lost her passion for the theater. She would never direct again – not even Fiddler on the Roof.
Helene confided in Harold in a way she never had with anyone else – even Greg. He was a good listener, but what advice could he give?
Despite all her progress, he wondered if she would ever get involved with another guy – let alone remarry. Still, if he ever got the chance, he would certainly try to help things along.
But before he could, Helene came to him in a panic. Had he heard that a bunch of the MMs were coming to New York for a couple of days, and there would be a get-together?
“Are you asking me to be your date?”
“Actually, yes. I know Greg will be there with his … his…”
“Yes, his roommate!”
“Well, then, m’lady, will you do me the honor of accompanying you to this splendid affair?”
They had a leisurely late lunch on a weekday afternoon at Sardi’s, with a long table all to themselves. Some of the MMs were there with their spouses and significant others. It must have been a little strange to some of the old-timers seeing Greg with another woman, and of course, even stranger seeing Helene and Harold together. The two of them smiled at each other, happy to keep the others guessing. Even Greg would occasionally glance over at them, trying figure out what, if anything, was going on between the two of them.
Perhaps to arouse their curiosity even further, Harold and Helene said their good-byes, and left before any of the others. As they walked past the window and made their way up Seventh Avenue, they were holding hands.
A week later, a letter arrived addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Miller. It was from some PR hack at the Peace Corps headquarters. Inside was what appeared to be a form letter and a clipping from a newspaper in La Paz, the Bolivian capital. This was the lead: For three weeks every June, a small village in the shadow of the Andes puts on a full-scale production of the famed Broadway play, Fiddler on the Roof.
Helene had to stop reading and grab a box of tissues. When Harold got home he took one look at her and just shook his head. She had been doing so well, and now this! She had apparently gone through dozens of tissues, and her eyes were red.
“Harold! I know you’re not going to believe this, but I’ve never been happier in my life!”
“If this is you happy…”
“Here, look at this clipping!”
Harold glanced at it, and then reminded her that he didn’t know the lingo.
“Harold. Remember that Greg and I did Fiddler on the Roof in Bolivia?”
“Would you believe that the people in that village have continued doing the play?”
“You’ve gotta be kidding!”
“That is amazing! Does Greg know?”
“Not yet. But I’m going to send him this clipping.
“But wait! There’s more! The director played the oldest daughter when we put it on seven years ago. And next month, she is adding a second play to their repertoire.”
She burst out laughing as she shouted, “Oklahoma!”
Harold had a theory about Helene. He knew there were tons of great guys out there who would be attracted to her, and that maybe she’d like one of them. But having been “abandoned” not just by her parents, but by her husband, Helene could certainly be expected to be gun-shy. And he had a pretty good idea how she would react if it did happen a third time. She would need a guy who could never leave her.
Then, a great opportunity presented itself, but he knew it was a longshot. A guy he knew from the neighborhood had made some not-so-discreet inquiries as to whether Helene was available. And if he could he call her?
Ken was not the best-looking guy in the world, and he was pretty much of a schmuck. He was so neurotic, that it was a miracle he could manage to hold a job. In fact, he was always in trouble at work because he was late half the time. Fortunately, he did not perform any vital services, but he was extremely bright, and sometimes quite funny. So, they kept him around.
Once, when Ken and Harold were with a group of friends at a small restaurant, Harold desperately needed to use the men’s room, but it was occupied. He told Ken he was going to use the women’s room. When Harold returned to our table, Ken stood up, shook his hand, and announced to their dining companions that Harold had “gone who no man had ever gone before.”
Harold found Ken very likeable, but he told story after story about his being rejected by women. Even if Helene did start dating again, Harold seriously doubted if she would even give Ken a chance. Still, he thought, who am I to stand in their way?
With Helene’s permission, Harold gave him her number. But Ken never called. As he explained to Harold, he couldn’t make the call, because if he asked Helene to go to dinner, she might think he was being chauvinistic by making plans without consulting her. On the other hand, if he left it up to her, then she might think he was a wimp.
“Ken, you are a wimp, so what difference would it make?”
“All the difference in the world! Look, you know I’m a wimp, and I know I’m a wimp. But she doesn’t! If she got to know me a little better, maybe we could get past that.”
Yeah, right, thought Harold. And how are we going to get past that if you won’t even pick up the phone to call her?
Harold knew that it would take extraordinary measures to get Ken to make even the first move. There was a party he had been invited to, and he asked Helene if she would like to go. After she agreed, he called the hostess and asked if Ken could come.
“That neurotic schmuck? Are you nuts?”
“Not as nuts as he is! But if you do me this favor, I will owe you big time.”
“Harold, if I didn’t love you as much as I do, I’d tell you…”
“To go fuck myself.”
The party was somewhere out in Queens. It was well underway when they got there. Ken had not yet arrived. Harold and Helene had another party to go to, and soon he began to wonder if having Ken invited was such a great idea. Then, just as they were about to leave, Ken arrived. When he saw Helene, he made a beeline for her.
Harold decided they might as well stay awhile, to give Ken a chance to make his move. After half an hour, he pulled Helene aside, and found out that all Ken was doing was making conversation.
“Let me ask you a simple question.”
“Are you attracted to him?”
“No, but buried somewhere under that pile of neuroses, there lurks a really first-rate mind.”
“Oh, he’s smart alright. Maybe too smart.”
“Harold, I don’t think anyone can be too smart.”
“So, you think you might really like him?”
“Yeah, but it’s sure hard to tell, because he seems to be hiding under so many layers. And I’m sure you know, Harold, that in some ways, Ken is still a little boy.”
“And you find that attractive?”
“I do. Especially when that little boy puns in Latin.”
“Well, Ken’s been pestering me about setting the two of you up.”
“Really? I never would have guessed it.”
Harold got their coats, and when Ken saw them leaving, he rushed over to them.
“Where are you guys going?”
“We have another party.”
Suddenly, Harold had a wicked thought. “Helene, where do you live?”
“What kind of a dumb question is that? You live in the same building.”
Helene shot him a look. “I live on East 93rd Street.”
“Really! Between which Avenues?” asked Ken.
Harold laughed to himself, watching how excited Ken was getting.
“I live between Second and Third.”
“I can’t believe it! I live on East 94th between First and Second!”
“We’re neighbors, Ken.”
“We are! Could I have your number?”
As they drove to the next party, Helene asked, “Did I miss something back there?”
“Care to explain what I missed?”
“OK, Helene. A little background on Ken. I told you he had been pestering me for months for your number.”
“Yeah, and I said it was OK if he called me. But he never did.”
“That’s right. You can see that he’s a little disturbed.”
“OK, I’ll come clean. I knew there was one thing in the world that excited him about women more than anything else.”
“And what might that be?”
“Where they live.”
“So, why is where I live so exciting? You live there. Do you find it exciting?”
“No, I don’t. It was, of course, exciting to live with you. But no, I didn’t find the block that exciting.”
“So why does Ken?”
“Well, you see, he parks on the street. He’s much too cheap to spring for a garage.”
“Yes. So where is this going?”
“If you lived on the Westside or downtown, in order to go out on a date with you, Ken would have to give up his parking spot, drive to your neighborhood, and find another parking space. And then, when he went home, he might have to drive around for an hour looking for another spot.”
“Oh, I get it, Harold…”
“If he went out with you, he wouldn’t have to move his car!”
Miraculously, just a few months later they got married and Ken moved in with her. Theirs was a match made in heaven. Helene would never worry about Ken ever leaving her. After all, who else would want him?
And Ken? He knew that he would never have to look for another parking space.