June 10, 1953
I thought that I had finally been able to break free from Mother’s hawk-eye vigilance and now I feel as though she is always with me, her voice woven into the fabric of my own thoughts. She had told me not to get my hopes up. I think she was afraid that once I left, I would never come back.
I know that greatness lies beyond suburbia. My destiny, my purpose, is bigger than sustaining a spotless house and cooking meals for a brood of rambunctious brats. I told myself that I didn’t care whether or not I was chosen for guest editor at Mademoiselle. But when the letter came, I felt dizzy with satisfaction, all insecurities burned to ash. That thin piece of paper meant that all of those silly poems and sentimental short stories and the crumpled rejection slips were not a glaring testament to my literary failure. I thought of all the places I would go and all of the men I could meet, men who kissed you goodnight and didn’t expect a quick favor in the backseat, men who did not confuse respect with ownership, men who embraced sophistication, cultured men who could match my desperate ache for knowledge, for books, for words, for the meaning of life. When I initially arrived in New York, it was as though everything was coated in Technicolor, dripping with the temptation of the unknown, the poison of excess posing as a siren song. I told myself that I loved everything about this city, forced myself to believe in the fantasy of urban enlightenment. Everything was bathed in this surreal magic, even the crowded concrete streets that shuttled the hordes of bodies, the stink that sputtered up from the sewers, the heat that made your head pound and the sweat creep down the back of your neck. But I loved it all, blind to the city’s flaws.
I felt as though the wheels were finally beginning to turn, chugging to life like a great, big, hulking steam engine. One thing I do know is that I am so grateful to have befriended Anne. I had been dreading meeting her. She had been assigned as my roommate and so I assumed that we wouldn’t get along, that with my luck, she would be some blond lollipop-of-a-girl, imported straight from Kansas equipped with matching sweater sets and polished white shoes. Sometimes I hate meeting new people. It’s so exhausting. I always feel as though there’s a different Sylvia that I put on for the world, like I can hear myself speaking as though I were reciting lines. I realize how stilted and rehearsed I must sound; some people mistake my eagerness to please as awkwardness at best or as snobbishness at worst. But right away, I knew that Anne understood me, that she was in pursuit of the same kind of terrifying happiness that I wanted. She knows that to be a woman in this world demands the kind of limber tight-rope walking act that can drain one’s creative reservoir. I think that she has made me realize that I am tired of being a “good girl.” I don’t know if I have the maternal instinct, but it makes me sick to think that a woman must give up a part of herself when she gets married. Why must we sacrifice our desires in order to preserve our femininity?
Last week, Anne and I befriended two Yale men as they were driving down Madison Avenue in a black Cadillac. Anne hopped into the car and I had no choice but to follow. Those men never stood a chance. She fluttered her lashes and they fell under her witchy spell.
Anne’s talent is immense and sometimes I feel my mouth twist with sarcasm because I am so jealous of her ability to wretch the humanity from the heart of her darkness and wrestle it onto the page. She is slim and guarded by a sense of dry, world-weary humor and an aura of wounded pride. She is like a beautiful lioness ready to fight to the death. With her dark hair and heavy brows, she reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor.
She is not from New York. Anne is from Massachusetts like me, but she knows that she must push herself to near destruction for the legacy of her art. She’s engaged to a family friend back home (some Class President type with a widow’s peak, she said, inhaling on her cigarette as though it were an oxygen mask), but she ripped off that precious chunk of diamond the moment that we settled in our room. Before we had even started unpacking, she was rooting in her leather pocketbook for a cigarette. She offered me one and though I’m not much of a smoker, I accepted. We were silent for a moment and then suddenly Anne started talking, a mixture of raw confessions and observations bursting from her lips like the gush of water from a dam. She said that what Walter doesn’t know won’t hurt him and besides, this is merely a test of love as well as faith. It’s not just her that has to “be good” while she’s off in the city.
She thinks that she loves Walter but how is she to know for sure if she’s never been kissed by anyone else? How is it love if it only exists in this one form, this token of childhood tenderness? Maybe it’s the summer heat or maybe New York really is infused with some sort of voodoo. Anne and I have spent the beginnings of many blurry nights huddled in the back of every smoke-filled bar within a five mile radius of our hotel.
Last night, we went to a bar in the Village. I wore a new dress that Anne had convinced me to buy. It was a shade of buttercup yellow and I thought it wouldn’t look too flattering with my hair color, but it fit like a dream. Anne and I both ordered the standard evening starter—vodka and soda on the rocks. Less than five minutes later, Anne was swept up in the arms of some disheveled looking man who could’ve passed as Clark Gable’s older brother. I sat at the bar and tried to flirt with the bartender, but I was stonewalled by equal parts pity and blue-eyed impatience.
I guzzled my vodka soda and just as I was about to order another, a barrel-chested man sat down next to me. He was not as physically arresting as Anne’s dance partner, but he was smiling at me and I couldn’t ignore the pangs of loneliness that amplified with each delicate sip of alcohol. He looked like someone who took the care to iron and dry-clean his clothes. Even sitting down, it was obvious that he was tall. I’m always attracted to tall men—sometimes I feel too tall for a woman and that men are more attracted to a woman who is a tiny ballerina pixie, some prim and proper china doll they can protect like a princess locked in a tower.
What’s your name, doll? He asked. A Rolex encircled his wrist. His skin was a lovely shade of light caramel, toasted by the sun. He was not the type of man you would ever find in Boston. I knew that he had to be someone who was used to getting what he wanted.
Sylvia, I replied and reached for my empty drink. I needed a prop, something, anything, which would serve as a distraction from the waves of nervous energy that radiated from my body.
What’re you drinking? He wondered, nodding his chin at the glass.
Vodka and soda, I said.
Without asking, he promptly ordered another and a whiskey sour for himself.
Time rushed forward and like a crack of lightening, I suddenly realized that I was no longer in the bar but the man and I were stumbling down the street to another bar, dipping in and out of the honey colored lights of street lamps, holding hands like old lovers. His black sport coat was draped around my shoulders like a matador cape and I couldn’t stop grinning. I felt like I could fly right off the top of the Empire State Building.
Oh, where’s Anne? I murmured. The man smirked. I didn’t like what it did to his face. It erased any trace of sweetness, his features contorted by cruelty.
She’s inside, darling, he assured. I couldn’t tell if he was lying. He pulled me into an alleyway next to the bar and we started kissing. He was a selfish kisser and his lips were dry. I was too alcohol-soaked to protest when his hands slipped down my waist, down my hips. In that moment, I didn’t mind being someone’s plaything because I did not even feel human. I did not feel real and I knew that it would all be over soon.
When he finally let me go, I went into the bar and was surprised to find Anne. Her cheeks were flushed and even drunk she looked as though she were made of moonbeams, all silver light and air, her eyes half-shut.
Where’s your beau? She demanded, poking me in the chest with a manicured finger.
I don’t know. Get me drink, I said.
When we finally got back to the hotel, Anne and I collapsed on my unmade bed, the fabric of our dresses spilling over the edge of the mattress.
Did you have fun tonight? Anne asked.
Yes, I dutifully replied, as though I were a lady-in-waiting appeasing her temperamental queen.
I’m surprised you didn’t go home with Jim, she said.
The fella at the bar. The one with the Rolex. Said he was a professor at Columbia, though who knows if that’s true or not, she laughed.
Oh. So that was his name.
Anne let out a hoarse laugh.
Oh Sylvia, you’re going to set the world on fire. Don’t be like me. Don’t get married. Girls like you suffocate when you belong to someone else, she advised.
I don’t know why, but I reached for her hand. Her skin was soft and I felt my heart sputter and stop, sputter and stop.
And then she kissed me. It was nicer than any kiss I’ve gotten from the boys back home.
In the morning, we woke up in our separate twin beds. Anne didn’t mention anything about last night.
There’s nothing more heartbreaking than the fleeting promise of a beginning.
By Vanessa Willoughby, Contributing Writer ; www.wintertangerine.com
Art by Molly.