The First Husband
By: Alice Elman
Walking in the city I run in to Letty T. Actually, she doesn’t see me. I stop at the light and spy her from a safe distance on 16th Street. She is alone, heading towards Union Square, a bottle of wine, like a rolled up newspaper, tucked under her arm. I haven’t seen her in over thirty years, but the sight of her turns my stomach and I’m afraid I’m going to throw up. You don’t forget your husband’s mistress. Dressed in jeans and a jeans jacket, a little heavier in the jowls, she could’ve stepped out of a freeze-frame from the last time I saw her in the mid 70’s. Same dark brown hair, though most certainly dyed now, same hairdo, parted on the side and tied back into a bun, same aura, the dogged gait, furrowed brow, withdrawn, pinched expression, as if she were recounting the injustices committed against her. Things about her I’d forgotten come back to me – she was a young girl when her mother died, she was estranged from her rabbi father, divorced. Thirty-year-old details extracted from Ian in late-night interrogations emerge from a storage room in my brain marked “survival threatened,” and I’m reminded how the sense of well being I take for granted in my life may be a fragile illusion. The light changes. For a moment, I forget where I’m going. The air is blackened with exhaust from a bus. Then I remember. My daughter is coming for brunch. Murray’s, she says, makes the best bagels and I walk towards 6th..
It was 1966, I was 17 and commuting by subway from the Bronx to Washington Square when I met Ian, a professor of Sociology, my first semester at NYU.
Cute, with longish blond hair, blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, Ian walked into the classroom wearing a Navy jacket from World War II, ( I later found out had belonged to his father), that accentuated his boyishness, the too-long sleeves sliding past his wrists where its frayed cuffs came down almost to the knuckles of his hands. He removed his jacket and took out a roll book from his briefcase, and jotted something down as he called out our names. Then he lectured, referring occasionally to the yellow legal pages of his notes, asking an occasional question, and scribbling ‘NORMS’ and “VALUES’ on the blackboard with such force that the chalk splintered, sending white flakes flying like sparks. When he spoke the words, “BAD,” or “DIRTY,” he giggled slightly, making little quotation mark signs with the index and middle fingers on each hand, leaving a space for us to imagine the letters suspended in air like invisible sky-writing.
After class, I waited in the hallway, pretending to be interested in the postings on the bulletin board for roommates wanted or motorcycles for sale, hoping not to appear too obvious that I was looking for an excuse to chat. Though my intellect was immature and undeveloped at the time, other parts of me had been ripe and throbbing. In high school, I’d been crazy for John, a graduate student in Astronomy who I’d met folk dancing, Sunday nights at Columbia. We had spent nine months in a prelude of waltzing and dancing the polka, my heart pounding; in between the syncopated rhythms of Macedonian and Serbian line dances, we stole sweaty kisses on the fire escape, or groped each other’s hardness and wetness in the dark cavity behind the stairwell of Earl Hall. We made love shortly before he left New York for his first teaching job. I was miserable without him and desperate to replace him with someone else to love.
The first few times of waiting for Ian, he nodded hello as he passed me by. Then, I skipped a week and the next time I waited, I had my cello with me.
I could sense him walking out behind me, and a familiar tingling sensation as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
That’s a cello isn’t it? Is it yours? He smiled, the pinkish glow of a blush spreading to his cheeks.
I guess that’s kind of obvious. His awkwardness made me feel less intimidated and I told him I was going to audition for the school orchestra later in the afternoon.
I envy you, he said. I always wanted to play an instrument. Regretted never learning as a child.
We rode down the elevator together. I could use a cup of coffee, he said. My throat is always dry after lecturing.
I told him I had an hour before the audition and we headed for the Chock Full O Nuts.
Ian telephoned soon after the semester ended.
My mother picked up. It’s for you, she said.
Who is it?
I don’t know. No one I know. He didn’t say. Make it short. You’re not dressed yet. We were going to the airport to meet my older brother Ross.
I had no privacy and waited for my mother to leave the hallway vestibule. What was I thinking going to college living at home? I wished I’d listened to Ross and had applied to more than one out- of- town school.
Alice…It’s Ian. Ian Wirth. My heart thumped and it seemed like I could hear the blood swishing up into my ears. I was hoping you’d like to get together some time, he said. Maybe, catch a movie.
Sure. I’d love to. I rushed, choking with eagerness. We made a date for the middle of the week.
Have you recuperated from finals? He asked.
I wanted to hang up so I could squeal and give way to my excitement. Just barely, I said. It’s all a blur now. One exam on the heels of another. But I guess I survived my first semester.
First semester. I had no idea you were a freshman. I thought you were a senior, a junior at least.
My mother appeared fully dressed in a linen coatdress, a topaz pin on one black lapel. Time, she mouthed, opening wide and then pressing her lips together, to exaggerate the “M” sound.
I turned my back to her.
By the way, he said. You did well on the exam, a solid B, and uh, averaged in with the mid-term, your final grade was B.
I‘d wanted to excel for him. That test was rough, I said. I never took that kind of exam before with all of those ‘multiple-multiple’ choice questions where you had to circle all the right answers. I didn’t say I barely had time to finish the essays.
I know they’re difficult questions. They’re hard to make up, too. ‘B’ is a very respectable grade, he reassured me.
How were the grades in general?
Evenly distributed in a bell-shaped curve.
Susan Walsh got an ‘A’ didn’t she, I said. I’d befriended the pretty blond girl who sat next to me. She’d transferred from Swarthmore, she told me later, because she’d had a nervous breakdown. She was living at home. Her father was a Dean at the school.
Miss Walsh? Yes. She did very well.
I wondered if he’d asked her out. Maybe she turned him down and he was working his way through the curve. I couldn’t decide if I respected him for asking out a ‘B’ student.
My father emerged from his study and made a “T” with his hands. You’re not dressed yet, he said.
How did that cello audition go?
Fine, I’m in. They needed cellos. We’re playing a contemporary piece and the time signature changes every couple of measures. I’m terrified I’m going to come in too soon and be the only one playing.
That might prove embarrassing, he agreed. After I hung up I chastised myself. Why couldn’t I just let him think I was really good at something?
Our first date was supposed to be our last.
We met on a bench by the seal pool at Central Park Zoo. I was so excited, I couldn’t believe this was happening. I thought I’d never see him again. It was a miracle when he telephoned. And here he was sitting beside me, his knee close to mine, hands resting on his thighs. I loved looking at his hands. There was something so masculine about them and his fingers too, the square line where his nails met the cuticle.
Almost immediately, he plunged into a speech that he had obviously rehearsed.
I didn’t want to say this over the phone, Alice, but I don’t think it would be wise to see each other. When I called you, I had no idea you were so young.
Not see each other? I couldn’t let him disappointment me. With John gone, I’d been so eager to be swept away with a new love.
You are obviously very mature, self-contained, he said. I just misjudged. I mean the age difference doesn’t bother me, I like talking to you, it’s just, well, I’m a grown man, Alice and you’re, you’re a…it’s just I don’t think I’m the right kind of guy you need at this time in your life.
I struggled to hide my disappointment. What kind of man do you think I need? I asked. I mean, what’s wrong with you? I knew he thought I was a virgin, but if I made him spell it out, if I could keep him talking, maybe I’d be able to figure out a way around this.
You don’t understand. He smiled a little patient smile. I have much more experience than you have. You need someone younger, closer to your age.
I needed to reassure him. I looked up at the seals swimming in pairs. One seal couple lay all over each other on the rocks.
Ian said, I just don’t want you to get hurt, that’s all. His chin was buried in his chest, as if to hide his tender feelings and I felt his sincerity. I’m a mature man, he said. And when I’m attracted to someone, I want to have sex with them.
I could feel his eyes on me and brush past my cheek like a tender breeze.
Naturally, I wouldn’t want to pressure you into doing anything you wouldn’t want to do, he said.
Naturally, I echoed.
The first time you have sex with someone should be special, with someone you’ve known for a long time. He seemed apologetic. Frankly, I just don’t want that responsibility; he seemed a little ashamed of himself. I don’t want to be the first, he said.
You won’t be. I tried to look casual, shrugging my shoulders, and hiding the gaping hole John had left in my life. I’d have followed him to the antipodes if only he had asked me to.
You’re not a virgin?
No. I had been holding my breath and smiled, exhaling slowly as if to blow smoke in his face, trying to seem mischievous.
Ian told me that he had married the first girl he had sex with and caused everybody a lot of pain two years later when he realized he’d made a terrible mistake.
How old were you?
Twenty-two. Just out of college.
What happened to your wife?
She married an Iranian a year after we split. She has three kids now, he said. I can’t imagine having three children.
Neither can I. We sat for a bit, as if we were contemplating how far we each were from being ready to settle down, marry, and have a family.
What do you say we go back to my place, he said. Figure out what we want to do. I have a newspaper; we can see what’s playing, get a bite to eat….
Ian’s apartment was on Bleecker Street, a five flight walk up to a railroad flat with a bathtub in the kitchen, and a hot plate which he used instead of the stove. The front room was his study, bookshelves made of cinderblocks and wooden boards. The fire-escape was outside his bedroom window.
As soon as we walked in he hastened to make his bed, –a box spring on the floor and a mattress covered with a grayish –white sheet, a stack of Evergreen Reviewsbeside it. I leafed through one while he apologized for the unmade bed.
I guess you weren’t planning to have company.
A sheepish smile, he arranged an attractive beige wool blanket, a bold fuchsia stripe decorating its borders.
Except for a kitchen chair, there was only the bed to sit on. I stood awkwardly, holding an Evergreen. He seemed both familiar and strange. I felt I knew him because I’d observed him over the course of a semester, knew the way he moved, his gestures, his voice, his hands; even recognized the sports jacket and tie slipped over the back of the chair, and the slacks that inched down to his hips. He came over and kissed me, unbuttoned my blouse. You’re beautiful, he said. He kissed my breasts, and moved behind me to unhook my bra.
The afternoon light seemed too bright for seduction. I feel silly, I said. I wish we could dim the lights.
I love looking at you, he said. I unbuttoned his shirt. His chest was smooth, boyish.
After we made love he went to the bathroom to dispose of the condom.
It’ll be better the next time, he said when he returned.
I thought it was pretty good myself, I said, feeling insulted. What was wrong?
Well, nothing. Except you didn’t have an orgasm.
I don’t know what I had, but whatever it was, it felt good to me.
You’re so sweet, don’t you feel frustrated?
No. But I am feeling a little thirsty.
He brought me some orange juice. It was warm in the apartment and he opened a window but there was no breeze. I took the flat sheet to soak up the perspiration between my breasts, and flipped my long hair up off my neck to be cooler.
You’ll have to tell me what makes you feel good, he said.
Okay…. Nothing comes to mind at the moment. I really did enjoy myself so please don’t worry about it. Even after years of experience, giving instructions in bed never worked very well for me. ‘A little to the left, a little to the right,’…as soon as the words left my mouth some kind of spell was broken. I discovered that I liked to be on top, and would come to request oral sex, but the pleasures of intimacy for me were never only about my orgasm.
This is an exotic-looking blanket, I said, to change the subject. It had an uneven texture. Where does it come from?
It comes from Brazil.
Have you been?
No. I had a girlfriend who was born in Brazil and she brought it back for me once when she went there to visit.
I wondered if he was sentimental. Didn’t he think of her every time he made the bed? Did you know each other a long time? I asked.
Over a year.
We weren’t really compatible. He refilled his glass with juice.
Do you really want to know about these things? He was leery but I tried to reassure him with a smile.
Yes. If you don’t mind. I really knew so little about him. He sat cross-legged on the bed next to me, naked except for his glasses.
Well. We brought out the worst in each other, in some ways. It was a very stormy relationship. Leonora would get hysterical. Once I had to slap her to get her out of it. I used to get very angry, too. Once, I put my fist through a door. And neither of us were ever like that with anyone else.
I hadn’t felt even a hint of violence about him. Even during our love-making. I felt very safe with him. What did you fight about? I’d rarely argued with John. I couldn’t imagine letting myself go like that.
He took another swallow of juice, and then emptied the glass, leaving a residue of orange pulp at the bottom.
Leonora would get frustrated if she didn’t have an orgasm, he said, and in order to have one, she said that she needed me to keep talking to her the whole time we were having sex.
Talk? This was so curious. I regressed to a pre-verbal evolutionary state during sex, making tiny animal noises. What did she want you to say?
He avoided my eyes with his gaze. Oh, you know, whisper in her ear romantic things about how desirable she was and things like that, and it got to be really tiresome after awhile because I mean, she really wanted this non-stop endless flow of words so that it just became a chore; he stared at the white bathtub resting, just beyond me, on four, claw-like feet. Then, she’d get very angry if it didn’t work, he said, and we’d both feel bitter.
And the thing is, he turned and looked at me, I mean I really want to be a good lover, he said. It’s important to me, but I just couldn’t take it and I felt terrible about that.
His openness was touching, and I was amused by this picture he’d just painted of this wound up girl needing to be talked into an orgasm while he labored, running out of things to say.
Spontaneity is important too, I said.
I think so, he said. I don’t know, lately I’ve been feeling like such a jerk.
Are you hungry? He asked. Want something to nibble on?
Now that you mention it, I am kind of hungry. He brought out a plate of Genoa salami and cheese and placed it down on the bed between us.
So why are you feeling like a jerk?
Why don’t we talk about you? He said. What’s been happening to you lately?
Nothing. Nothing’s been happening to me. My life was pedestrian. So tell me why are you feeling like a jerk?
I lost my roll book, …and one of my students found it…she was very upset when she returned it to me.
I don’t get it, why was she upset? Did she see her final grade? Was she upset about it?
No. She saw something that wasn’t meant for anybody to see. I have so many students I couldn’t remember their names, so I jotted down a word or two, you know something descriptive that would help me remember each one.
You mean you gave everyone nicknames?
I guess so.
And she saw her name?
Yes. She was very insulted. I felt terrible.
Oh my god, what was it? It can’t be that bad.
It was pretty bad. Why, of all people, did she have to be the one to find it!
I can’t stand the suspense. What did you call her?
I said she was, ‘weird.’
Weird? I bit my lip and started to laugh. I’m sorry. I know it must’ve been terrible. But it could’ve been worse. I mean, ‘weird’s’ not so bad. It could even be construed as a compliment, you know, like, ‘far out’ or something. What did you do? Did you try and make it sound good?
This girl was not ‘far out.’ She was just plain strange, kind of goofy and out of it, and there was no way I could’ve possibly convinced her otherwise. It was awful. She was crying and I felt like crawling into some hole to hide. All I could do was apologize. I’ve learned my lesson though, I’ll tell you. I’m never going to do that again.
Poor Ian. I hugged him. I’m so sorry. There you were trying to be a good teacher and learn your students’ names and the whole thing backfired on you.
I just never thought anyone but me would see it! I was so stupid to think that too, because I’m always losing things.
Now, you’ve made me curious. What other kinds of names did you have? Did you do that for my class?”
I did it for all my classes.
I began to feel nervous. What was Susan Walsh’s name? I thought of her pretty blond hair, and fair white skin. And she was so smart, too. He used to say things like, yes exactly, when she answered his questions.
Miss Walsh? …Uptight.
Gee. You certainly were accurate. I didn’t think it showed so much. I thought you liked her. I know she liked you.
I liked her. She was very smart. I didn’t have anything against her. She just seemed very uptight, that’s all, and I used the word to help me associate it with her name.
My heart pounding. Okay, what was my name?
Guess, he said. A big sweet smile transformed his face.
I can’t, don’t have the faintest idea. Come on, tell me.
It’s not bad. Come on, guess.
Honestly, I can’t. I can’t think of a thing. Tell me!
Okay, okay, take it easy, he laughed. I called you, The Bod.
Bod? What’s that? I had no idea what he was talking about.
Aw come on, you know….
I swear I don’t—what is it?
You know, Bod, it’s short for Body.
You called me, The Body? God, how embarrassing! It was winter! There wasn’t even a place to hang up our coats and I just sat there bundled up half the time. How could you notice?
What can I tell you, I noticed.