By: Linda Springhorn Gunther
As a senior in high school, at just sixteen years old, I wasn’t really excited about traditional learning anymore. Even after skipping grades, I was bored. The subject content seemed too repetitive for me which led to me feeling confused, distracted, unable to sufficiently concentrate. I was working part-time at Flair, a French boutique on 34th Street in Manhattan to make money to afford to buy clothes and at a generous discount. I hoped to keep the boutique job after graduation because they paid a good sales commission, I loved fashion, and was able to practice my conversational French with the boutique’s manager, a language I had spent over four years studying.
So, I opted to attend Manhattan Community College, a two-year college, a disappointment to my single mother but which enabled me to continue to work part-time at the boutique plus add another part-time gig in Grand Central Station where I performed consumer testing of products like frozen pizza and instant coffee. I loved offering passersby a quick free snack in exchange for answering a few survey questions while I documented their ratings and responses.
At Manhattan Community my schedule of first year classes included Sociology 101, Psychology 101, Anthropology 101 and American Lit. And that’s when I began to get excited about academia. Concepts seemed to link up, cross disciplines and energize me. How cultures developed, the similarities and differences between people across continents, and how the human brain works; these things all connected. I was learning something new every day.
The community college campus was located in the heart of the city, just a couple of streets away from world-famous Broadway. My friend Valerie from Taft High School in the Bronx was in most of my college classes. We were often able to get last minute cheap tickets to shows like Hair and Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. We’d rush off to a theater down the block or around the corner on a long break between classes, and then spend time studying at the 42nd Street Public Library. And, I’m not totally sure how I squeezed it in, but I was also a cheerleader for the college basketball team. I remember Valerie and I jumping on our favorite basketball players’ motorcycles on any given day for a ride down Riverside Drive or through Central Park or across the bridge for lunch in Brooklyn. It was an insanely full life immersed in the borough of Manhattan and with Valerie as my closest friend it was a steady stream of shared fun. She was the portrait of high fashion. Her father owned a junior petite clothing line and would have Valerie and I model in the Car show at the coliseum or at fashion shows at Bloomingdale’s where we’d get paid.
In the first year at Manhattan Community College, I aced all my classes. Mrs. Aronson, the academic advisor called me into her office in late May and encouraged me to apply to Queens College, City University of New York, go onto a four-year degree, basically transfer a year ahead of schedule. I was excited but couldn’t imagine not seeing my best friend Valerie each day who wasn’t moving onto university. She planned to spend a second year at Manhattan Community.
My Mom had become more obsessive compulsive and controlling over the years. I had seen her extreme behaviors take a toll on my Nana who grew quieter in the evenings holding back her usual banter with Mom about TV programs and the gossip of the day.
I was accepted to Queens College which delighted Mom and triggered her to move me, my brother and my younger sister from the Bronx to a one-bedroom apartment in Rego Park, Queens even though she could barely afford it. We had lived most of my entire childhood with Nana in her one-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx.
The move was to another one-bedroom apartment but with much more square footage than the tiny quarters we had in the Bronx. I still would have to share a bedroom with Mom and Pammy but we each had our own single bed, a luxury, while my brother Ronnie had his own space on the rollout couch in the living room.
After we settled in Rego Park, and I started to attend Queens College classes in September I was about to turn eighteen and landed a higher paying part-time job in Manhattan at a call center selling magazines on the phone to residents in Greenwich Village and around NYU. Four days a week after my classes, I took the train into the city to work four hours where I sat side by side with other young people from every walk of life.
I had started dating Craig, who was CCNY student I met at a fraternity party. He was gentle, two years older than me, wrote poetry and was of Italian heritage from a huge family who lived on Long Island, in a town called Bayside. His parents welcomed me every Sunday afternoon, my only day off for their extravagant and very traditional extended family Italian dinner. But my Mom despised Craig, talked down about his Italian background, which seemed dyslexic to me since she complained vehemently about the Jewish boy I had dated for over two years in high school. When she invited Craig to dinner, I was cautiously pleased that she was getting used to us as a couple. Craig sat next to my brother at our dinner table. My little sister Pammy sat across from Craig, staring at him. I knew she had a crush.
It was the look Mom gave me that caught my attention just as Craig cut into his mushroom sauce-covered chicken she had just dished out on his plate; her narrowed eyes and the furtive glance she gave him as he took his first bite. Craig’s eyes seemed to suddenly bulge. He dropped his fork on the plate and tried to hold what was left in his mouth but looked about to burst. Quickly rising from his chair he glanced over at me, his mouth like a giant bubble.
“Bathroom?” I said and pointed behind us to the left.
He nodded, and ran off. The bathroom door slammed shut, then the sounds of spitting and gagging and running water.
Mom grinned and slowly shook her head. “Next time, I’ll knock him out or worse,” she said and stabbed into two string beans on her plate.
“What did you do?” I shouted. “What?”
She raised her shoulders. “Maybe a little too much cayenne in his bluck bluck,” she said. Then, in a Betty Boop-ish voice she added, “Oops, my mistake. I guess!”
“My chicken’s good,” Ronnie blurted. He pulled off a second hunk of chicken and pushed it into his mouth. “Mom, did you poison her boyfriend?”
Mom puckered up her lips, her eyes wide with innocence. “Not this time,” she whispered, then looked down at her plate as if she didn’t say it. I was disgusted. Somehow, I had to get away from this woman. How could she even be my flesh and blood?
“Wow,” Ronnie responded.
Pammy’s eyes opened wide. “But Craig’s nice. I like him,” she said.
I got up, threw my napkin on the table and rushed to the bathroom door and gently knocked. I heard the toilet flush. The door cracked open. Craig peeked out, his face pale, his brown curly hair disheveled. “Guess your Mom doesn’t like me.” He swallowed hard, his hand on his throat. “What was that? Chili pepper?”
I rolled my eyes. “I think so. Let’s get out of here,” I said. “How about a Big Mac? On me!”
“Escape, yes. The Big Mac – uh….”
I giggled. “God, I’m so sorry about this.”
I took his hand and led him out past the dining room area to the front door. Mom was already in the kitchen at the sink running water over the casserole dish, her head down. I grabbed my purse from the entryway and rushed us out of the apartment.
When I returned home that night, after making several apologies to Craig, my friend Valerie phoned me from the Bronx, our standard nightly check-in call. I told her what happened at dinner and that I was thinking about maybe cooling it for a while with Craig, for his own safety. Valerie sympathized and commiserated on my need to somehow escape my mother. I noticed that she sounded down and talked about how much she missed her boyfriend, Gary who was stationed in the Army somewhere in Vietnam.
That past Saturday Val and I had mailed off a care package full of candy bars, t-shirts and several magazines mostly MAD and Rolling Stone, to the Army address for her boyfriend Gary. He was drafted six months before, was sent to Basic Training in New Jersey and then was deployed to Vietnam as a medic. Gary was a true pot-smoking hippie college dropout whom Valerie met on summer vacation in Rockaway. When her ritzy parents caught her making out with him behind their beach bungalow she was forbidden to ever see Gary again. Of course, she disobeyed whenever she got the chance and hung out with him under the boardwalk in the dark. I stayed with her and her family for a couple of weeks in Rockaway and met Gary. He seemed sweet, sincere, laid back and was a Bob Dylan fan but also adored the Beach Boys, which made me respect him for his breadth in music appreciation. When Val’s parents were gone on one of their date nights, Valerie invited Gary over. The three of us hung out in her bedroom, cross-legged on the shag carpet and listened over and over to the latest Beach Boy’s single In My Room. We sang along to it probably more than thirty times. Valerie and Gary shared a joint, which I declined, having never smoked pot despite my brother Ronnie who rolled his own, smoking pot every day. I was likely the only hold out against drugs amongst most of the college kids I knew. Thinking back, it may have been the only similar principle I shared with my uptight mother. No drugs!
Two weeks after the disastrous dinner my mother made for Craig, I came home from a long day of classes and from a long train ride from my part-time job in the city. It was almost ten at night when I walked in the door. The bedroom door was closed and the hallway lights off. My mother and sister had likely gone to bed. There was no sign of my brother in the living room. I sat down at the dining room table with a glass of ginger ale and picked up the newspaper. The front page featured a photo of Mayor Lindsey, the headline WILL HE MAKE IT TO A SECOND TERM? I turned the page to check out the announced Vietnam war news which listed New York City casualties once a week. My eyes scrolled down the list. And there it was: Gary Spader, Rockaway New York. My head dropped back against the wicker-backed chair. My mouth fell open in shock. I could hear a loud thump inside my head. I stared at Gary’s name on the page. Valerie’s boyfriend. Crap, did she already know? I shoved the newspaper off the table, the pages sprawled out on the wood floor.
The phone rang.
Valerie spoke fast about something funny that happened in her Bio lab that day. “You remember, Carlos Ramirez, right? she said. “You should have seen him dancing around holding the plastic bag with the frog we dissected today. I mean it was hilarious. He named his frog Napoleon. You know after the Animal Farm character.” She laughed. “Oh my God.”
“That’s funny,” I said. “ I-I…”
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “You break up with Craig?”
“N-no,” I said.
“Then, what’s up? You sound upset.”
“Did you see the newspaper today?” I asked. I could hear water running at her end. Sounded like her mom arguing with her dad in the background.
“No, why?” she said.
“Can you talk in a more private place?” I asked. “Call me back from your room maybe.”
“Just tell me what’s going on,” she insisted.
I felt flustered but whispered meekly into the phone. “It’s Gary. He’s on the list in the newspaper.”
Silence except for her parents bickering. “I don’t want to visit your sister this weekend,” I heard her dad say.
“But you never want to go,” her Mom yelled at him.
“Too long a drive,” he shouted back.
“On what list?” Valerie said. I could hear her breathing hard. “What list are you talking about?”
“Weekly casualties,” I said. “Gary’s dead.”
I glanced at the clock on my kitchen wall. It was 10:30 p.m. I wanted to travel through the phone lines from my chipped dining room table in Queens to Valerie in the Bronx; hold her close, cry with her. But instead, my closest friend whispered into the phone. “I’m hanging up now.” It was a cold whisper.
“Call me,” I said. “Please. I-I…”
I heard the click. She had ended the call but I couldn’t hang up. I listened to the dial tone until it turned to a screech that hurt my ear. My mother opened the bedroom door. “Your brother’s not home yet?”
I wiped my eyes and shook my head.
“Time for you to be in bed.”
“I have an Anthro test tomorrow. I need to study,” I said.
She shrugged. “Your sister’s asleep, so be quiet when you come in here,” she said and shut the door.
I shouldn’t have been the one to tell Valerie. What was I thinking? I screamed in my head. It was too late to call her back. Her parents would be angry.
I opened our front door to pull the long phone cord into the outer hallway and dialed Craig’s number. I hadn’t seen him for three days since the night Mom tried to poison him.
“Hello,” he said, sounding tired.
“I’m sorry to call so late but…”
“What’s wrong? Tell me.”
I gave him the details of the newspaper list and my call with Valerie.
“I’ll be at your door in ten minutes,” he said. “I’ll tap lightly.”
“You don’t have to…”
“I love you,” he said. “You need me.” The words rushed over me. He had never used the word “love” before.
Fifteen minutes later, we sat huddled together, our legs crossed on the gray carpet adjacent to my third-floor elevator. I leaned my head on his shoulder and sobbed. “She’ll probably never forgive me for being the one to say those words.”
“Words?” he asked.
“Gary’s dead. That’s what I said to my best friend about the boy she loved.”
Craig had a small book in his hand. It was Kahil Gibran’s THE PROPHET. I heard about it but hadn’t read it.
“She’ll forgive you,” Craig said. He thumbed through the book. I noticed some pages were dog-eared at top right-hand corners.
“What Gibran writes here might be of some comfort,” he said. “Okay if I read a few passages aloud?”
He opened to somewhere in the middle of the book and read softly.
“The timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness. And knows that yesterday is
but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.”
He placed his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. “Valerie will have a timeless memory of Gary but she’ll be happy again. It will just take time. She knows you had to tell her once you knew.”
“Maybe you’re right but I could have not used that word. Dead.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. I think she’ll forgive you.” He turned to another page in the book and read again.
“Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even
as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”
His deep voice soothed me. I could see how much he cared. We married eighteen months later.
Linda S. Gunther is the author of six suspense novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, Dream Beach and Death Is A Great Disguiser. Her essays and short stories have been featured in a variety of literary publications.