My favorite is acting, putting on a different persona. An upper classman, Derek, selects me and a freshman guy for his independent directing project. The lines are nothing but I love you exchanged between a man and a woman as they fall in love and break up. Actors sit back to back on stools wearing black turtlenecks and black pants. A single spot lights us from above.
Script in a nutshell:
Him - I love you (realization)
Her - I love you (thrill)
Him - I love you (scared, don’t you feel it anymore)
Her - I love you (annoyed, don’t be so clingy)
Him - I love you (desperate to keep her)
Her - I love you (sorry to hurt him)
Him - I love you (walks off stage)
Her – silence (left alone in the light)
Technically Neil Mankiewicz is still my boyfriend, but it’s an eight hour bus ride from Utica, New York to New Haven, Connecticut. Columbus Day weekend I make my first pilgrimage to Yale. Neil meets me at the Greyhound station at six PM. We scurry through the dark chill towards a neon sign flashing Pizza. Across the street stands a veritable castle. High stone walls stretch for blocks. Street lights accent arched windows and tall towers. Yale lacks nothing save a portcullis and a moat. Neil escorts me through an iron gate.
We stroll across a starlit green to Neil’s portion of the stronghold, Jonathan Edwards Residential College. We climb narrow stairs to a suite he shares with roommates.
A tall, slender man leaves his desk, “Hey, Mankiewicz, still on for The City tomorrow?”
Neil places me in front of him, “Sure. Nathan, this is my girlfriend, Ann.”
“Nathan Morgenstern at your service.” He offers a boney handshake.
A shorter, rounder guy steps out of the third bedroom. “Hughie Neuman. I’ll be your chauffeur.”
I nod. “So where are we going?”
“New York.” Neil moves me towards his bedroom and closes the door. “Thought we’d visit Webster and take in a few sights.”
I plunk my suitcase on the floor. “Fred Webster, from high school?”
“Yeah, he’s at Columbia.” Neil pats the bed. “I really missed you.”
When we head out the door for breakfast, we bump into a guy in khakis and a navy V-neck sweater. “Hi, Neil.” He sweeps his ash blonde hair off his forehead and hurries up the stairs.
Neil calls after him, “Hi, Chris.” Then to me, “You know who that was? The son of William F. Buckley, Jr., host of Firing Line.”
“Oh, that guy on PBS who does the weird thing with his tongue?”
Neil looks disappointed that I’m not more impressed. I am wowed, however, when I set foot in The Commons. It looks more like a cathedral than a dining hall. Leaded glass windows rise two stories. Carved beams support heavy chandeliers. An army of massive tables and chairs fill the floor, but we never sit down. Neil wraps two bagels with cream cheese in a paper napkin, and we’re out the door.
Nathan and Hughie are waiting by a rusty red Volkswagen with a dark haired girl I’ve never seen. I feel her eyes fasten on me. Then a quick shift to Neil. Hughie hops in the driver’s seat. Long-legged Nathan pulls the front seat forward so Neil, mystery woman, and I can squish in the back. Neil enters first. Madam X sits next to him. I have to crawl over her legs and hunch on Neil’s lap.
“This is Sharon,” Neil’s voice seems to stick in his throat, “my friend.”
Sharon presses her lips together, biting back a smile. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
I haven’t heard anything about her.
She runs her fingers through squiggly curls. “Neil and I are lab partners in organic chemistry.”
Neil squirms beneath me. “We’re both pre-med.”
Nathan blurts, “Me too.”
Hughie looks in the rear view, “I’m poli-sci.”
Sharon leans forward. “What’s your major?”
My guidance counselor, suggested journalism, but I’ve already dropped my first reporting class, in favor of second semester modern dance. I don’t feel like telling her that.
Neil answers for me, “Journalism.”
Sharon continues, “What did you think of the Op-Ed in The Times this morning.”
I never read the New York Times. I don’t feel like telling her that either.
Sharon swipes some cream cheese from the side of Neil’s bagel. “Where are you going to school again, Attica?”
Neil laughs, “Utica.”
I crank down the window.
Hughie pulls onto a tree-arched parkway. “I’m taking the Merritt if no one has a better idea.”
I have no idea how to get there. A black Porsche rushes by. A tangerine Karmann Ghia passes. I haven’t seen a single truck. Maybe they’re not allowed. We zip under stone bridges, around curves, through tunnels until I see the Manhattan skyline. The traffic clogs as we approach a bridge that descends into the urban gorge. Our VW is dwarfed by skyscrapers. We race with a herd of husky yellow cabs that screech to a stop at every light and rev to the next. When a blue mustang pulls out of a parking spot, Hughie lurches to the right and snags the space. Everybody out. Sharon watches Neil take my hand. I don’t think I imagine that, and we step onto the sidewalk in front of a sign reading Sam Goody.
Neil wanders the vast aisles of the music store, collecting albums. He’s into Charlie Parker, now. I follow him into a listening booth and put on headphones. We’re listening to “Old Flame” when Nathan opens the door. “You guys hungry?”
“Yeah, starving.” I answer before Neil has a chance to speak.
Nathan grins. “Let’s hit a deli and show this shiksa some real Jewish food.” Sharon laughs behind him.
I’ve never heard the word shiksa spoken to my face, but that’s what Neil’s mom calls me behind my back, a not especially complimentary term for a Gentile girl involved with a Jewish boy. Nothing personal, Neil assures. Just every Jewish mother’s nightmare.
Right now I’m so hungry, I don’t care. We hurtle through concrete canyons landing at a kind of diner. The aromas pull me inside like a dog on a leash. Neil orders me a hot pastrami sandwich. A waiter brings me the chubbiest sandwich I’ve ever seen. Slices of fragrant rye stacked with spicy pink beef. I can’t believe I eat the whole thing, and the blueberry, cheese blintz Neil orders for dessert. Nathan treats us, and we wedge rolly-polly back into the Beetle.
Neil puts his hand on Hughie’s shoulder. “How about the Guggenheim? It’s between us and Columbia.”
“Great idea.” Hughie launches into traffic.
In the distance I see a building coiled like a giant collapsible travel cup, the kind I used to take to Girl Scout camp. “What’s that?”
Hughie nods. “That’s it!
We end up parking blocks away. Big city blocks. Neil takes my hand, but the flow of pedestrians from the opposite direction makes it easier to walk behind him. We enter the museum through a glass door, and ascend the ramp that swirls ever closer to the skylight dome. Neil points out geometric Paul Klees, long-faced Modiglianis, dreamy Marc Chagall angels, and more. I linger over each painting. How hard can it be to make modern art? I study the composition, color, texture, technique. The masters make it look easy, as if they’ve simply poured their personality onto the canvas. I ache to express myself, to create something splendid of my own.
Neil calls. Sharon stands beside him at the elevator. He pushes the down button, and we head for Columbia. Fred’s room in a word is dingy. In another bare. He invites us to smoke a few joints on a gray rug covered with slug-like burns. I’m glad it’s not long before he mentions, “Thelonius Monk is playing up in Harlem. Wanna go?”
Neil grabs his coat off the floor. I know from the morning’s album covers that Monk accompanied Charlie Bird Parker on piano. We add Fred to our space capsule and rocket to a smoky, dimly lit club with a low ceiling. An old man slumps over the ivories wearing a beret and sunglasses. I shut my eyes and feel the broken chords of “Misterioso.”
After the second set, and another joint in the men’s room, Fred says, “Anyone up for Chinese? I know the best restaurant in China Town?”
We zoom to a table sticky with rice and dirty dishes. A bus boy clears. A waiter takes our order, and somehow squid lands on my plate. I pick at the snow peas on the side as Nathan and Sharon dare me to take a bite. The monstrous tentacles turn out to be rubbery, and as bland as the thin, slick sauce made with chicken broth and cornstarch. I wash down my triumph with tea served in a glass.
It’s four in the morning before we drive back to Yale. Both Sharon and I are asleep on Neil’s shoulders in an instant. It’s almost dawn when we walk back across the green.
My face feels gritty, my eyes scratchy, my hair in an untidy braid as Neil escorts me back through the iron gate for the ten AM return trip to Utica.
I’m breathing in diesel exhaust when he mentions, “I’m sleeping with Sharon, but it doesn’t mean anything. You’re so far away. She’s here. It’s logical, but I love you.”
I know the script calls for a reciprocal I love you, but the stage directions are clear. (Enter bus. Leave Neil in silence.)
At the time, I didn’t know Neil’s residential college, Jonathan Edwards, was named after a fire and brimstone preacher. I didn’t know that brimstone is another name for sulfur, a rock that burns, found often at the mouth of volcanoes. I didn’t know that Jesus alone quenches God’s wrath towards those entangled in humiliating sin. I didn’t know getting an A wasn’t enough, not nearly enough.
Spotlight on girl in bus window –burning bright.