Martha said over the phone, "I think it's about time you came to New York, if you still want to."
"Why this sudden change of mind?" I asked.
"Sudden? I've been thinking about it for months. I figured you could handle the shock of New York by now."
I chided her, "Listen, that typewriter you sent me -- I promise to use it 'till I wear it out, but...it's a very expensive present. I can't let you pay for it. I owe you."
She said she'd purchased it in New York at a low price that I could never match in Memphis. She said that, if I really wanted, I could make up for the cost of the typewriter. "I tried to save some party money for your visit, but it's impossible. You have enough on your own to make it a real vacation instead of a trek. And you can pay me back for your present by treating me too, now and then."
"And promise me, Steven...while you're here...be my friend."
I had no idea what she was getting at. Lack of space in her pad? Too much activity, too many things to see? "Okay," I said.
"Don't say okay, if you don't mean it."
Getting to New York required planning, and some tricky politics with Tony. At first he refused to allow me to spend my money on the trip. He grumbled, "If that friend of yours wants to see you so much, why don't she come home and visit her own folks, and you -- with her own money?" Despondent, I called Martha a few days later and explained the problem.
She was disappointed. "I see you two still have problems getting along," she said over the phone. "I wish I'd known about that. But don't get into total warfare with him. From what you're saying, I think you really need to be away from those problems for a while. Don't worry, Steven, just be patient. We'll find a way."
I was so angered at Tony's refusal to let me at my own money that I sat at my desk one evening and wrote a long list of the many things I hated about him, citing a detailed history of his "criminal" acts against me. It was a scathing document that I hid in my desk.
Unfortunately, I was dumb enough to not destroy it after venting my spleen. My mother found my invective while cleaning my room.
One day when I came home from school she entered my room wearing a darkly reproachful look and sat with me on my bed. We had our very first -- and last -- long, intimate chat together.
She urged me to be more understanding of Tony. He didn't really hate me. He grew up in a large and very poor Italian family in a poverty zone in Memphis and literally had to fight his brothers and sisters for food. He worked long and hard, he moved us out of the housing project, and he sacrificed his own needs to pay my tuition at Christian Brothers instead of sending me to a public school with inferior academic and social standards.
Then she told me the truth about my own father, Steven senior. When he was in training in 1943 in Tucson, Arizona, he lived with another woman. He wrote home saying that he wanted a divorce and that he didn't want to have anything to do with me. When I was 18 months old my Mom and Daddy Joe brought me to Tucson. They urged my dad to live up to his responsibilities and to wait at least until the War was over to see if he still wanted to dissolve the marriage. They reminded him that as a Catholic he was morally bound to try to work things out. My father relented. He came back to Memphis on his way to the European front and made Mom pregnant with my sister. Months later, he wrote a letter the night before his fatal bombing mission, saying that he feared he was going to die because he had been volunteering for too many dangerous assignments in order to complete his tour more quickly. He realized that his behavior had been a death wish; he did not want to return to raise his son and daughter.
As she told me this I sat rigid and silent. After she left me alone in my room, I wept. The model on whom I had based my own resistance against my stepdad had been destroyed forever. And so had the trust I'd placed in relatives who had spoken so highly of Steven senior. But this did little to reconcile with me with Tony. I disliked him as much as I ever did, especially after his refusal to allow me to visit Martha.
A few days later at breakfast, after Tony left for work, Mom perked up and said, "Guess what? Tony's gonna let you spend a week in New York. But you have to promise not to spend every dime you've saved."
I stared at her, surprised and happy and confused. "But why did he change his mind?"
"Martha Jane called me and we had a talk about how seeing New York would be good for you. She asked if she could talk to Tony about it, and I said yes. So..." she concluded, breaking into laughter for the first time in many months, "your old girlfriend sweet-talked him into it!"
I thanked her. I was not crazy about the idea that I was unable to negotiate with Tony on my own, but I thanked her. I actually gave her a quick hug. And when Tony came home that night, I gave him a somewhat more subdued thanks that included a perfunctory handshake. But these gestures were the maximum that I was willing to concede to either of my parents.
I spent the rest of that summer planning the trip and working at my three jobs to stash away more travel money. Finally, on Friday, August 16, my folks drove me to Memphis Municipal Airport to meet my flight to New York. Accustomed to hiding my feelings, I concealed my nearly unbearable excitement and anticipation behind a mask of calm and reticence as my luggage was tagged and loaded at the ticket counter.
I had not expected the departure committee that met us at the airport. In those days, an airplane trip to New York was as exotic an event for my family as a trans-Atlantic cruise. Aunt Frances, Uncle Johnny, Mama Rose, Josephine Louise, several aunts and uncles, a dozen cousins and other kin from both the Ricci and Lobianco families had come to see me off, occupying an entire section of the waiting room.
Aunt Frances had no conception of airline travel. As everyone chat- tered and waited, Aunt Frances sat dabbing at her eyes with a hankie as tears ran down her face. When asked why was crying, she pointed out the window at one of the airliners parked near the terminal building.
She sobbed, "Your daddy was killed in one of those!"
Uncle Johnny swore quietly, "Hell, Frances," and spent most of his time comforting her.
My stepdad said, "You don't look very excited about goin', Speedy."
My mother laughed and told him, "I know he doesn't look all that excited, but I bet he is. Look at him; whenever he looks like he's not thinkin' about anything, it means his mind is goin' a mile a minute."
Soon it was time to embark. At the boarding gate I had so many relatives to kiss and hug that Josephine Louise had to remind everyone, "Stop all this kissing or he'll miss his plane!"
I kissed Aunt Frances, who was still crying. The last person I hugged and kissed was Josephine Louise. She whispered into my ear, "Be careful. And don't lose your virtue in the big bad city!" I grinned at her and thought: if she only knew! Waving a last goodbye, I slung my borrowed flight bag over my shoulder and headed for the plane, with Aunt Frances wailing pitifully behind me and Uncle Johnny grumbling, "Shit, Frances. Cut it out."
I found my window seat, removed and folded the suit jacket I wore, and loosened my tie. As the prop-driven plane roared off the ground I wondered how my father felt when his B-17 climbed into the air. But most of my thoughts were about Martha. Should I let her see me wearing my glasses? I thought not. I removed them and hid them in my spectacle wallet. I worried about the few brownish adolescent pimples that I'd tried for two weeks to eradicate. Maybe she wouldn't notice. After a while the pilot announced that we were cruising at a few hundred miles per hour. Hell, I thought, couldn't we go faster?
Three long hours later, I was confronted with the unimaginable bustle of LaGuardia Airport. I walked out of the airplane and into a huge, crowded, pandemonious arrival area. I craned my neck in all directions searching for Martha. How would I ever find her in a crowd like this? I considered putting on my glasses, but I didn't want Martha to see them.
She was standing on the ledge of one of the panoramic viewing win- dows, her head several inches above the crowd. When I spotted her she'd just caught sight of me and was beaming at me and waving both arms. When our eyes met she yelled "Steven! Stay there!" She hopped to the floor, disappearing into a roiling ocean of heads and shoulders and elbows.
Then she was rushing toward me with outstretched arms. Her auburn hair was pinned back, her face clear and stretched into a wide, happy smile. She wore a white, starched, open-collared blouse, a dark red pleated skirt, and matching heels. She looked as fresh and clean as new snow. And her hazel eyes, bright, electric, eager and happy, had me in a state of instant nuclear meltdown. Almost knocking me down, she hugged me fiercely and squealed, "I'm so happy to *see* you!"
My eyes moistened.
Breaking our furious clinch with a cheerful grunt, she held me at arms length and looked me over. "None of that, young man! That's no way to start a vacation -- save all that until you find yourself on your way back to dreary ol' Memphis! Stop, now, let me see you. Stand still. *LOOK* at you! And look at those shoulders! Steven, you're gorgeous!"
Regaining my composure, I placed my hands around her slim, belted waist. I said, "A few hours a week at Liberty Cash Grocery Number 23 was all it took."
"Well!" she said, robustly pulling me against her, "You forget all about that. You're on vacation, hon." She gave me a loud smooch on one cheek. "No delivery bikes here. Just noise and buildings and --" she chuckled -- "trash and muggers. Oh, my, look at you! I can't get over this!"
She hustled me into the baggage area. "This is the New York art of waiting for your luggage," she announced sarcastically. "No matter what you do or where you go in New York, expect a waiting line." After claiming my two suitcases she rushed me outside so we could take our place in a long, snaking line of people at the taxi stand. "And this is the art," she announced, "of waiting for a taxi back to town."
"We're not in the city yet?" I asked, overpowered by the sight of so many people and so many cars and so much noise and movement.
"You're in Queens, Steven. Queens is populated by cousins. Everyone who lives in New York has a cousin in Queens." While we waited, she pointed at everything and explained what was going on. I stood gaping.
As we climbed inside a taxi she cautioned me, "Grab anything you can, and hold on tight!" Before I knew it, doors slammed shut around us and I was compressed against the back seat as our taxi screeched away with neck-wrenching speed and soared down the exit drive. "This is a New York City taxi," she explained, lurching about in the seat beside me. "Hold onto that strap over the door before you fly through a window. The first thing a New York taxi driver learns is to maintain a certain state of rage that helps cut through traffic."
We zoomed through so many exits and around so many curves that I lost all sense of direction. Soon, far ahead of us, I saw a long line of massive skyscrapers that stretched for miles across the horizon. The city. Manhattan. I stared at it. I listened to it. I gasped.
Martha was pointing. "That's the Chrysler Building, the slender one with the art deco, scallop-like stuff on top. And that's the Empire State Building, the one with the tall antenna. And all that along the end, on the left, is Wall Street...And you see that dark brown steeple straight ahead? The one that's in the middle of that big cluster of buildings, directly ahead of us? That's St. Patrick's."
My eyes and brain reeled. The city and the careening taxi was one thing, but Martha was yet another. Her profile and her softly parted lipsticked lips captivated me. After she pointed out the skyline she relaxed into the seat and smiled warmly at me. With a supreme effort, I talked myself out of leaping onto her. She asked, "Wanna go grocery shopping with me? I had no idea what to get for food, so I waited until you got here. All I have in my frig is some cottage cheese that died."
I stared at her.
She said, "You changed. And yet you didn't."
"You changed," I said, mesmerized. "For the better."
She laughed. "Wait until you find out what a total neurotic New York has made me. When we get home I'll take you to the supermarket. You'll get your first lesson in coping with multiple nervous breakdowns."
The taxi crossed the East River at the 59th Street Bridge, zigzagged for several more blocks, then screeched to a stop in front of her apart- ment building, which indeed looked like a one hundred year old tenement. It was on a clean but old and congested block of East 87th. Martha paid the driver and told him to keep the change. As we rushed to gather our luggage on the sidewalk, she spouted a constant stream of instructions and explanations.
"You MUST learn to tip while you're here," she said, grabbing a suit- case. "Tipping is part art, part inexact science. It all depends on whether you liked the service. If you do, you give a good tip. If not, be stingy. Either way, you get a drop-dead look, no matter how much you tip. If you don't tip at all you might get shot, but at the very least you'll hear cursing in many exotic languages. Here are the keys to this place...I made copies for you. There's the main key to the front door, the mail box key, two keys for the two locks on my apartment door, and a key to the laundry room. If you lose any one of these keys, you're dead; no one will help you and it's impossible for anyone except a professional burglar to break in through a window. Here's the entrance, now, and of course there's never any room in here, and here's the mailboxes. Here's the intercom -- a real luxury in an old building like this. You never, NEVER buzz anyone in, unless they identify themselves over the intercom; when we get upstairs I'll show you how the buzzer works. This is the first floor, and I live up there on three. There's no elevator, you have to be an Olympic climber to get up these stairs. Be Careful, now! Don't bang your luggage against the walls! I know there's no room for your elbows, but there's never any spare room anywhere in New York, and every noise you make is recorded in detail by the tenants, and they remember it for MONTHS! This is the second floor, this is where Ronnie has her apartment in number 2C, but she won't be home until later tonight and she wants to meet you. Don't let her frighten you, she's just another, typical, hard-pressed, totally insane New Yorker. The guy next to her looks really nice and is very quiet, but Ronnie insists he's a mass murderer on weekends. Now, here's the third floor, and we make a hard right, all the way to the end of the hall -- god, this suitcase is heavy, what'd you pack in here? -- and this is my gorgeous penthouse apartment, right here, number 3C, right above Ronnie's place. And here's the key for the bottom lock...there, and here's the key for the top lock... and, if you don't mind the awful squeak in the door... here's my humble cave."
We shoved my luggage inside and she closed the door behind us. We were both out of breath.
I asked, "Why are we rushing all the time?"
"Everybody rushes in New York."
"Nobody knows." She stepped into the middle of the tiny living room. "This is the living room. The toilet's over there, that's a closet over there. The bedroom is the same size as the living room, which means no room, period. This is the -- ahem -- dining alcove, Steven. Isn't that marvelous? I have my own dining alcove, just barely enough for one table and two people. And that's the kitchen, and that atrocity over there with the plastic drape across the front of it is the shower." She took a deep breath and paused with her hands on her hips. "Whew! There! The full tour. The place is so small, you don't even have to walk around to see it all."
"Well," I uttered, my brain swarming with instructions and informa- tion. "It is small. But it's cute. I hope I don't get in your way."
"You will," she said, heading straightaway for a small cupboard door in the kitchen wall, "there's no avoiding it. But we're used to each other, so it won't matter. Now...here's a couple of paper shopping bags from Macy's. Protect these shopping bags with your life! You cannot SURVIVE in Manhattan without good shopping bags, and what Manhattan is mainly about is not the enjoyment of life, it's about surviving. Most of the bags you get are so shoddy they fall to pieces immediately. There's no more heartrending sight than a New Yorker stuck on the street in the rain with a ripped shopping bag, standing there sobbing while their whole life gets strewn on the sidewalk. Oh -- Steven, aren't you going to give your Mom a call?"
I shrugged. "Whenever we get to it."
"What?" she said, scowling at me. "Hon, what do you mean? You aren't going to call home?"
"They never worry about me."
"Of course they do. Call her. The phone's over there."
Halfheartedly, I dialed my Mom in Memphis. While I talked, Martha gathered and folded a couple of shopping bags, frowning at me now and then. When I finally hung up, she said, "Steven, what a tacky way to treat your folks. You know, they didn't have to let you visit me."
"Okay, I called them and said thanks again, and...there."
"Well, I see we're going to have a little talk about this...Oh, forget it, you handle it the way you want to. We have to get going anyway, so...here, take these --" she handed me two shopping bags and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek -- "and here are my keys, and here's my purse... and let's go before the Friday rush hits the market."
The supermarket was five blocks away on Third Avenue. I had difficulty keeping up with her as she strode quickly down the street. I asked again, "Why are we in such a hurry?" She answered, "Because. You get trampled if you don't stay ahead of traffic." I said, "But there isn't any traffic," and she laughed and said, "Don't worry -- the minute you slow down, they catch up with you."
The supermarket was well stocked but unbearably cramped. The few shoppers who were there spent most of their time trying to avoid colli- sions with each other. Like an experienced bird dog, Martha wheeled our cart quickly from aisle to narrow aisle and introduced me to packaged foods I'd never seen in Memphis -- all of it stacked around us from floor to ceiling with hardly a spare inch of open space anywhere.
"Always check the eggs," she cautioned as she opened an egg carton. "Check every single one of them. The stockboys handle them as if they thought eggs were made of stainless steel." She found two broken eggs in that carton and went through four others before she was satisfied. Then she rushed into the short cashier's line, then we rushed out of the store, and rushed back to her block, rushed up the stairs, rushed into her apartment, and rushed to put away the groceries.
"There!" she proclaimed at last. "Now we can relax!"
We stood in the tiny kitchen, with me surveying the tiny room quickly to see where everything was placed.
"Well," she sighed with a tired little smile. "What do you think of it?"
I gazed at her. She gazed at me. There she stood, five-foot-five, sophisticated, grownup and lovely. The average teenager who once felt ugly next to her older sister now made Evelyn look dumpy. I gathered the courage to ask, "Can I kiss you hello?"
"Do," she said.
I touched her waist and bent to give her a shy, tentative kiss. Suddenly we embraced. I kissed her -- actually kissed her, full-mouthed and deeply -- a shattering development, considering that Martha and I had romantically kissed in that way on only two occasions during our entire relationship.
At the end of it she pulled away from me. "We've never acted this way before."
Her eyes were eager, but somewhere behind her gaze I thought I saw apprehension, misgiving. Then she took my hand and led me from the kitchen. "Follow me."
Within a few minutes we were naked in the small, dimly lit bedroom, standing and holding each other tightly. I skimmed my lips along her smooth shoulders and she pulled away and looked at me and ran her hands slowly over every part of me.
"Look at you," she breathed. "Look at how you grew. So smooth and firm. You're beautiful, Steven."
"Sorry I didn't grow taller."
"I don't care about that. Look. Look at this beautiful cock. It's so right. Just the right size and shape. And so hard."
I had often visualized our reunion as prolonged and tender, a heavenly chorus lolling in the background as we tenderly relearned each other. But now, overwhelmed, I immediately urged her toward the bed. Quickly she reclined and opened her legs. I lay on her and she raised her knees to accept me. I kissed her again, hotly, as my blind cock found her portal and slowly entered, parting her ready and welcoming outer lips, flexing in her, feeling the warm tight depth of her. She sighed and looked up at me. Her cunt hugged me. I pulled out a little and then we both sighed again as I slowly reentered. She was tight and slick and had already started contracting. She wrapped her legs around mine. I entered more deeply. Immediately, my mind burst with amazement and pleasure at the astounding results of the past two years of my physical development: my cock was incredibly firm, filling her totally, and for the first time I felt my tip nudge against the softly nubby, squirming mouth of her womb. Electrified, my balls readily began a familiar, irresistible churning.
Below me, I saw in her eyes the same sense of surprise at the new sensations.
She whispered, "God, Steven."
I panted, "I don't think I'll last long."
"I won't either," she gasped. Watching each other, we both slowed and started cumming. Her lips parted and her eyes fogged and she stiffened. Seconds later I simmered and then gushed profusely and warmly inside her as her contractions swathed the underside of my throbbing shaft. I thought: yes! This is how it should feel. We both came for a long time with her cunt happily convulsing and my cock riding slickly in the hot cum that filled her, and I groaned roughly and heard her whimper. When it ended I nestled my face into her neck. We lay resting for a long while.
I lay on my side with Martha spooned behind me. Gazing out the small window that overlooked East 87th Street, I gradually returned to earth. I was startled at how quickly and completely and mindlessly I had fucked and climaxed. In trying to recall each detail of the past few moments, I felt I'd lost all control and all awareness; I remembered little of it.
Martha slid a hand down my arm and up again, as if learning anew the textures her fingers found there.
She breathed, "I missed cumming like that."
"I'm surprised I remembered what to do," I whispered.
"I hate to say this, but...there's no rest for the weary..."
"Oh, no. What next?"
"We have to grab a little snack. Some of that weird tea we bought at the store should perk us up. Then I'll show you where to put your clothes and things, and we'll dress and meet Ronnie at the Stage Deli when she gets off work. We'd better shower -- Ronnie has radar in her nose and can smell sex a mile away."
Quickly we went about our chores, with Martha going over the schedule for the weekend and the week ahead. She could not get the entire week off; she had meetings Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. But she would leave the office early, by four o'clock. I'd be on my own those three days until she returned. She told me about her neighbors in the four-story building so that I'd know who they were and so they wouldn't think I'd broken into the building if they saw me in the stairway. Then there was a mind-boggling series of details about her part of town and how to get around the city. She gave me subway and bus maps, a tourist guide, and a couple of magazines about New York. She had tickets for "West Side Story" on Monday Night, reservations for Ronnie and us on another night, tickets for an off-Broadway play, tickets for a lecture at Columbia...
"And I want to show you places where you can shop for clothes," she told me as she readied towels and cosmetics for her shower. "And I want to take you to the United Nations, and to Columbia to meet some of the people I work with, and the Museum of Modern Art, and Fire Island. The Museum's a favorite hangout. And Fire Island...well, that'll be very, very special. And then there's a beatnik joint in the East Village..."
After she completed her toilet in the tiny bathroom, I joined her in the cramped shower stall in the kitchen. Under the thin warm spray we stood toe to toe, nipple to nipple, with no room to spare. As if studying a lab specimen, she quickly scanned the face and body she had not seen in two years. She ran her fingers through my hair. "You have yellow highlights," she mused. "It looks very good on you. But while you're here I'll have to teach you how to get the right kind of haircut. Whoever cuts your hair in Memphis has no idea what they're doing." She scowled at a mark on my lower cheek. "What's this scar?"
I told her it was a boil that had been lanced a few months ago.
"Wonderful," she muttered dryly. "Any doctor who lances a facial boil that way would be better off in a butcher shop. Don't ever let anyone do that to you again."
She held my face and kissed my nose. "You've been having a hard time down there, haven't you? But you're still you..." She draped her arms around my shoulders. "If only every guy in New York were so easy to get along with." She kissed my nose again. She looked at me. I looked at her. Again, slowly, she kissed my nose. Her hands cradled my face. Her eyes narrowed as her face tilted and inched closer to mine again. With water splashing and gurgling around us, we kissed, our lips writhing with a lovingly gentle hunger.
Abruptly she pulled away. She closed her eyes, leaning against me with her forehead pressed to my wet chest and her hands loosely atop my shoulders. She took a deep breath.
"Steven," she said, "I'm not used to this."
"I'm not either," I said, and I stroked her temple and kissed her ear.
She began briskly swabbing my chest. "We *must* control ourselves, now. We have a lot to do and I want us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed so you can meet Ronnie."
She looked at me again and seemed ready to say something. Instead, she planted a loud smack on my forehead and continued bathing. We finished our shower, Martha growing quiet and subdued, as if preoccupied. We dried and dressed. Just before five, we left for midtown Manhattan to meet Ronnie at the Stage Deli.
The food at the restaurant was a revelation. I chomped into the corn beef sandwich as if my life depended on that one dish.
"Good?" she asked, amused.
"Delicious!" I growled, my mouth stuffed.
She flicked her cigarette's tip on the corner of her ash tray. "Bet you never had corned beef like that in Memphis."
"Memphis?" I asked. "They serve corned beef out of a can."
"Don't eat yourself into a coma. We still haven't ordered the cheesecake, and Ronnie will be here any minute."
Overcome with gustatory delight, I pushed my plate away so I could pause and catch my breath. Unconsciously, I reached into my shirt pocket and withdrew a cigarette, which I lit without even thinking about it.
"What are you doing?" Martha asked, taken aback. "Steven. I don't believe it. When did you start that?"
"I dunno. Long time ago."
She frowned reprovingly, then she smirked. "Well, I'm not going to sit here with a cigarette in my hand and preach, but I see you're still full of surprises. I hope you don't chain-smoke. Ronnie does now and then, and I can't stand it."
"I have it under control," I lied.
"Do something for me."
"See that sign, the big blue menu sign they have posted on that big mirror over there? By the restroom door on the other side of the room?"
"Tell me what it says."
I squinted at the sign. I could tell from my side of the room that the hand-lettered writing was oversized, but I couldn't decipher the first item in the list. "I think it says, uh...stew. Oyster stew."
"Why aren't you wearing your glasses?" she asked, her face hardening with mild impatience.
I looked at her. "How'd you know I wore glasses? Did my mother tell on me?"
"In your suitcase you had a case with your glasses in it. Why aren't you wearing them?"
"Well...they're just reading glasses."
She took a fast puff off her cigarette and exhaled quickly, leveling her eyes at me. "The lenses are too thick to be reading glasses. And you squint at everything, even when we're just walking down the street. Why don't you wear your glasses?"
"Oh..." I started casually. Her insistence was unsettling. I wished she hadn't seen them in my luggage. Absently, I groped at a pimple on the side of my face.
"Steven, don't do that. Leave your face alone." She flicked her ashes again. Then she gave an axasperated little laugh and shook her head. "Oh, listen to me nag. I'm sorry, Steven, don't let me nag at you like that. But this is so unlike you."
"I know," I said, shifting uneasily in my seat.
"Steven...are you lying to me about those glasses? Was that a tiny, itsy-bitsy, teeny white lie?"
"Please don't do that." Her eyes looked past me and she straightened in her seat and smiled. "Hold onto your hat. Here comes Ronnie."
Ronnie, entering hurriedly in a gray business suit and carrying a purse and a ******** shopping bag on one arm, appeared with a loud clicking of high heels and headed for the chair between Martha and me. "Oh, good!" she said breathlessly, "A chair! Oh, god! Feet, just a few more steps, you can make it. Hello, people, hellohellohello. Oh, please, please let me sit! Let me SIT!" She hastily flung her suit jacket over the back of the chair and sat slowly, with a prolonged wince. "Aaaaaaah! Oh, god! Don't look under the table, Martha. It's just me, slipping my shoes off." She was a young brunette, about Martha's size and age, her medium-length, black hair combed back in loose, fluffy waves. "And this -- this MUST be Steven."
"Ronnie," Martha said, "meet Steven."
"Steven. Yes." She smiled broadly and shyly. "Yesyesyes." She bent toward me earnestly and placed her hand on my arm. Small-mouthed and with a slender, somewhat pointed nose, she had soft, large, sapphire-blue eyes. "Not to worry, Steven, I'm recovering from a week at work that I would like to forget for the rest of my life. Ignore. Do what you were doing."
Martha said, "Steven, if you haven't guessed, this is Ronnie."
"Hi, Steven. Ronnie. It's genetic, nothing helps. Oh, Where's that waiter I always get in here, what's his name? Marco? Is he around? I need coffee desperately."
Ronnie waved a waiter to our table. She ordered coffee. "Black," she said. "And that white wine and vermouth thing you guys make here, know what I mean, Marco? Just fill the glass with ice cold wine, and then *lean* near the glass, you know? With your lips just a few inches away? And whisper 'Vermouth'. Whisper, now. And a hot pastrami with cole slaw. Remember: coffee. Black. If it's left over from this morning, even better. And remember, just whisper the vermouth. Please don't make lemonade out of it. I need the total, mind-altering effect of the juice of one glass of pure white wine with a mere suggestion of ver- mouth. In fact, toots, don't even whisper vermouth, just look at the wine and *hint*. Y'know? Thanks, Marco. You're a doll."
We chatted. Ronnie chain-smoked and did most of the talking. Martha asked Ronnie about Ronnie's date with a guy named Harvey, whom Ronnie met at a party recently. "Harvey? Right. I need Harvey like I need breast cancer. What a jerk. He takes me to this AWFUL movie with Pat Boone, something called 'Bernadine' or whatever . Steven, can you imagine Pat Boone and a bunch of forty year old phonies playing people your age? Oh, Steven, please, don't get upset, I'm not talking about years, I'm talking about a case of arrested mental development. And this silly plot about a sugar-sweet telephone operator? Come on. And Harvey RAVES about it -- 'Better than Gone With the Wind!' he says. Then he gets the idea I'm having such a great time, and he's such an attractive moose, he wants to go someplace where we can be alo-o-one. Hey, won't he even let me finish my popcorn? Come on, he says, we're two adults. I said, no, Harv, we're NOT two adults. We're one adult named Ronnie, and one JERK!"
At dessert time, Ronnie warned me that it was illegal to remain in New York without having a huge slice of the deli's homemade cheesecake. The three of us indulged in servings of the cloying stuff, thick with sour cream and cream cheese on a bed of crunchy vanilla-wafer crust. Martha ate sparingly, finishing only half her slice, while Ronnie and I groaned with each bite. I finished Martha's helping after my own.
By that time, Ronnie's fourth wine had begun its work. "Get Steven an egg cream, Martha!", Ronnie squealed. "Steven, you'll LOVE this. Egg creams! I can't even LOOK at them, I get one after another until I burp foam!" As I enjoyed an egg cream, Ronnie watched merrily and started giggling at everything in sight.
"Ronnie," Martha enjoined her delicately, "maybe you should have egg creams instead of those wine things."
"Martha, don't get me started. They're addictive and fattening. Steven -- Steven, look at this woman. My friend Martha. I'd KILL for the dates she turns down! And she turns down everybody, for godssake! Can you believe this? She has all the gifts, and dates only twice a year. Look. Isn't she gorgeous? A Georgia peach, right? Or a Tennessee peach, or whatever. And so-o-o sweet and smart. I'm so glad I met her, but every time I look at her I say this little prayer: 'God? Why all to her, and so little to me?'"
After we had been there nearly three hours, Ronnie went to the rest- room for the second time. While she was gone, Martha began gathering Ronnie's things and called for the waiter to empty the ash tray, which Ronnie had twice filled with crushed Pall Malls.
"Steven," Martha said quietly, "Ronnie isn't always like this. I think this guy Harvey pushed some buttons. I wish she'd never met him. I'm sorry I brought him up."
"Maybe she's had too many Harvey's, instead of too many gins."
"That's very insightful, Steven. You happen to be correct." She threw a concerned glance toward the lady's room. "Please help me get her out of here when she comes back. Don't force it; she hates to be ordered around. But it's time she had a nice long nap."
After another half hour, Ronnie caught the gist of Martha's many hints and asked us to walk her home. On the sidewalk she tottered on her high heels before leaning on Martha for support. After a couple of blocks, she leaned on me.
"Steven," Ronnie said, patting my back, "you're a nice guy, y'know? Nice. Quiet. Refined. All that easygoing, down home politeness...and all that..." She yawned, and leaned her head on my shoulder. "Oh, Steven. Martha. I'm afraid I'm tipsy. Helluva way to meet somebody, huh?" She giggled. "I promise, you met me at what is euphemistically called a 'bad moment'." Again she leaned her head on my shoulder, with one arm around my waist and the other around Martha as we walked down East 87th. "Mmmmm, Martha... no wonder you two are such buddies. He has such a nice feel to him, doesn't he? Like, you wouldn't know it to look at him, but he just seems to...fit. Something warm and comfy cozy and... so easy to lean on, y'know?"
I blushed. Martha watched warily to ensure that Ronnie didn't stumble and bring all of us to the ground. I gave Martha a wink, to let her know I felt I could manage. Even as she lurched against my shoulder, Ronnie had a lightness about her physically that matched her delicate laugh and voice. Her complements had me wondering how much she knew about me and Martha. Half a block later, Ronnie fell silent and seemed to drift off with her head on my shoulder.
"Hey, you," Martha prompted Ronnie dryly as we stopped at the stairs leading to the front door of her building. "Do we have to carry you up the stairs?"
Ronnie blinked awake, blushing. "Omigod. I was having such a nice nap."
Opening the door with her own key, Ronnie apologized and said she hoped she hadn't embarrassed me. "Martha, you were right about Steven. He's such a honey. So patient." She said she could make it upstairs on her own. After a small battle with the tightly-sprung main door, she started upstairs with her high-heels in one hand. We watched as she dragged herself up to the second floor, then we went back outside.
"It's early," Martha said. "Wanna take a walk? I'll show you the East River. C'mon, we can talk."
Martha told me that Harvey was one of a long line of disastrous dates for Ronnie. I asked why Ronnie seemed to think of herself as un-attractive and told her I thought Ronnie was pretty. Martha said Ronnie had always felt unattractive. A few years earlier, Ronnie lived with a heavy drinker who battered her, and the longer they stayed together the worse the man treated her. That relationship was followed by a similar, though less violent, one. Ronnie blamed herself, feeling things would have been different if she had been more attractive and sexually appealing.
"I've tried again and again to tell her that her focus is only on her imagined shortcomings, and that she deserves better," Martha said, as we strolled downtown to the East 70's and then along a promenade beside the East River. The night was clear and starry. A strong breeze ruffled our hair as we walked along the whispering river, the muffled roar of the city blocked by buildings bounding the promenade.
Martha asked about Memphis, sending us both into a long reminiscence of how we had grown up. We recalled the housing project and the people she'd known and how they had changed or dropped out of sight. She mentioned her memories and her longings and how her work had replaced what had been missing in her early years.
"I could never explain to myself how I grew up to be so disciplined and so proper," she said, "and yet there was such a wicked side to me. So wicked. You're the only one who knows about that. Do you realize that? Not even my few boyfriends knew about that. You're the only one who knows that about me."
She had talked openly and frankly for over an hour. Now she stopped and looked at me, saying plaintively, "Steven, you haven't told me anything about yourself."
"Nothing to tell," I replied, looking out at the swift, gurgling river.
She said flatly, "I won't accept that."
I shrugged, a gesture that made her frown. She gave a long sigh and placed a hand on my arm and squeezed. "Steven, you spent almost three hours with me and Ronnie and didn't say a thing. What's wrong?"
I dodged her question with an apologetic grin. "I was just trying to get used to all this. Everything's so new, so different. And I'm...shy."
"No. There's a difference between being a shy young man and simply hiding out. I saw it and felt it. You were tense and wouldn't even let yourself laugh with Ronnie and me. I meet shy people your age all the time...the ones who hide and hold back the way you do are the frightened ones. The depressed and the angry."
I didn't respond. For one thing, I didn't even know where to begin. All I could do was shrug, and wince, and shuffle my feet uncomfortably.
Martha straightened up and said firmly, "I'm not gonna let you get away with that. Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"Let's go get some goodies."
We walked to a liquor store a few blocks away on East 86th. Inside the store, Martha tapped into my interest in detail by giving me a quick education in wines and the basic wine types and varieties. The change of subject lightened my mood and made me feel, for the time being, that I'd successfully avoided her interrogation of me. Martha was shocked to hear that few members of my huge Italian family served wine at meals when youngsters were present. I told her I didn't even know about Italian foods like canoles or gnocchi; the menus posted on the doors of New York restaurants we passed listed Italian dishes I never heard of. She told me, "You're going to learn so much in New York. I can't wait to see your reaction when we go to Little Italy." She suggested that, if I could afford it, we could buy four representative wines and sample each during the week ahead.
"Most of this stuff is never imported into Memphis. And on the way home we can stop at this fabulous cheese place. An entire store filled with cheese."
When I told her I liked the idea, she bent close to my ear and said in a hushed whisper, "Give me the money for the wine, and wait outside. I forgot, you're not old enough to be in here, but I don't think anyone noticed yet. You look older in your coat and tie and they probably won't even check, but we shouldn't push it."
While she made the purchase I waited outside, smoking a cigarette and watching the human theater that passed on busy 86th Street. New Yorkers impressed me as being energetic, assertive, streetwise -- totally different from the languorous, dawdling people I knew in Memphis. Even the teens I saw seemed to possess a savvy and a wordliness that I knew was far ahead of me. Watching them, I felt like the consummate bumpkin, pimpled, awkward, and slow-witted. And Martha, whom I'd always seen as self-assured and knowledgeable, seemed to have caught up and merged with the best of them. I wanted to shrink into a doorway and disappear. Surely my ignorance and clumsiness and all my other failings must be evident to everyone, including Martha.
On our way back to Martha's we stopped at the cheese shop.
"So how do you like this place?" Martha asked as we entered.
Before me was a wide room that looked like a solid yellow wall of cheese. Cheese in wrappers, in boxes, on shelves and in roped chunks hanging from the ceiling. My mouth fell open. "I never saw so much cheese in my life!"
After leaving the store with a sack of cheeses I never dreamed existed, I felt giddy and overwhelmed. I stayed close to Martha, following her steps and learning how to dodge oncoming traffic along the sidewalk.
Beside me, Martha chuckled. "Steven, don't look so intimidated! You'll get the hang of walking in New York. Just forge ahead."
I gulped. "It's not see easy to see where I'm going when my eyeballs are falling out of my head."
She pulled me close to her and clasped my arm firmly. She said earnestly as we hurried toward her block, "You have to get yourself out of the 'Memphis mode' if you expect to be hanging around with me for the next nine days. You have a lot to learn, hon, but I'll help. Starting right now..."
By ten-fifteen that night we returned to Martha's place and set the tiny dining table with a bottle of wine, three cheeses, and two boxes of imported crackers. We kicked off our shoes. Martha struggled with the corkscrew while I fetched two glasses.
"Begin," she said.
Almost two hours later I was slurring my words and pacing the living room with a cigarette in one hand and a wine glass in the other. I wasn't drunk, but I was "loose" for the first time in my brief life. Little did I suspect that a small amount of wine would extract from me such a detailed two-year autobiography. Defenseless, and listening to my own long, rambling sentences, I felt almost removed from myself, as if I were some one sitting beside Martha, who remained perfectly sober and attentive as she curled lazily on the sofa with her glass and crackers. I told her everything, starting with the dumping of the Black Beauty; my three jobs, undertaken solely to get me to New York while sacrificing everything else; my isolation from my parents and my lack of friends, my efforts and adventures on the delivery bike and the paper route; my withdrawal from activities at school, my distrust of everyone; my refusal to accept my faults, my dislike of my own appearance and even of my way of speaking; my inability to live tolerably with my parents -- all of it tumbled out of me in stolid, dry detail, as if talking about it under the influence of the wine-induced fog made everything seem galaxies away from Memphis and from me. I was so mildly but pleasantly boozed, I felt as if I were describing someone else.
Martha listened calmly and solemnly, asking an occasional question to keep me on track. Just before one o'clock in the morning, I became drowsy and ended my story, settling with a sardonic laugh into a chair across the room from Martha, who smiled sleepily and sympathetically and brushed a stray hair from her forehead.
"It seems so far away," I sighed, looking out the window at the roofs of the sleeping city. "I'm so far away from it now, I wonder if it really happened."
"Maybe you had to physically get away from it," Martha said, "before you could tell me about it."
"No," I said sarcastically, "first you had to get me two thousand miles from home and put a bottle of zinfandel in front of me."
She smiled indulgently. "You're not that drunk. Not on zinfandel. But, yes, I did ply you with liquor, hon. I'm sorry. No -- I'm not sorry. I haven't seen this much of you in a very long time."
We both yawned. Martha suggested, "Let's get our jammies." We did, Martha slipping into a pair of pale blue pajamas while I donned a thin sweatshirt and jockey shorts, in which I usually slept. But as we were putting away the leftovers, Martha said she wouldn't be able to sleep. "I'll make coffee," she said.
I said, "Coffee? At one A.M.?"
"Yes," she said frankly. "I wanna talk to you. Do me a favor while I make the coffee: go put your glasses on."
"Oh, Martha, I hate those damn--"
"Hon, go put your glasses on."
I did, reluctantly. In the kitchen she looked me over and decided that it wasn't the fault of the eyeglasses themselves. I protested, refusing to wear them any longer. She made me promise that I'd go with her to a shop where I could replace the cheap plastic frames with something more attractive. She urged me, "Don't passively accept the bad taste others force onto you, Steven. Your face is fine, you just need decent frames." But she wouldn't force me to would wear them publicly until I accepted myself with glasses.
While we sat at the dining table sipping French coffee, she took control of the conversation. She said:
We grew up without parents. In her case, she had a mother who was willing to be close to her in at least a minimal way, though they had never shared the same values and never would. Martha had at least the memory of a father, whom she described as tall, lean, intelligent, affectionate and independent; he was never very successful, but he was very much a man. He was close to his two daughters and encouraged them to think for themselves. He was killed overseas when Martha was eight. But in my case, she said, things took a different course. Martha saw my mother as a good, conscientious, likeable woman. Martha cautioned me that I should not think my Mom didn't love me; but I should accept the fact that Mom might never be the mother I needed. Nor did I have even the memory of a father, mine having died when I was barely two. In my family circle there were few competent male figures; those that remained were simply worn out, resigned to life as dictated by others. My over- bearing stepdad typified the opposite extreme of heedless masculinity and intolerance. I'd apparently been living in an emotional and intellectual vacuum; I lived surreptitiously, letting others see only those parts of me that I could twist into a mere copy of what they expected.
"I hate all of them," I said glumly, agreeing with her. "I distrust and dislike every one of them."
"No,!" Martha said forcefully. She pounded the table once with a clenched fist. "No, Steven! Don't hate. Understand. They did what they could. They did what they knew to do. It wasn't much, in my humble opinion, but it was the best they could do. And you do owe them respect. But nobody ever said you had to love them. Anyway, I don't think you can -- I don't think I could love most of the people I was involved with, either, not in the way most people usually do."
She said we both grew up as if on a deserted island. We developed our own means of survival, our own ideas, our own view of the world, our own morality. In many ways most children grow up to be like their parents, she said, but in our case we grew up to be more like ourselves, untended, untaught except through our own isolation. "If we feel unloved," she said, "it's not because we weren't loved. It's because we weren't loved for who we are."
The night wore on with neither of us able to stop talking. The subject eventually moved to the unique relationship between us.
"It just happened," Martha said, lighting another cigarette and hugging her knees to her chest, her feet propped on her chair seat. "It's so strange, how it happened. Neither of us had the slightest idea what we were doing. We couldn't trust what others told us, because we'd already learned something different. What they told us made sense only in their lives, not ours. It just happened that way." She knocked the ashes off her cigarette and asked me, "Were you ever afraid you'd die and go to hell?"
I inhaled and blew out with a bitter huff. "There is no hell," I said. I told her I'd never felt that were wrong; it was everyone else who was wrong.
"I was always afraid," she said, looking down as if remembering.
"Afraid of what?"
"I don't know," she said, absently and sadly. She paused. She rubbed her shins and then fiddled with her toenails. "I was afraid of a lot of things. But, then, I tried anyway. I was always afraid I'd never be smart enough to be a teacher. But fearing it, somehow, made me need to do it."
"Working on the delivery bike was like that. Physically, I'm not cut out for it. The other guys have an easier time of it. I came to that job and the first thing I learned was that I couldn't do it. All it did was make me want it."
She made a wry little smile. "You don't belong there. You belong in the theater. You belong in creating and in doing. I wish you didn't want so much to be like everyone else. You're not like everyone else, Steven. You can't be and you shouldn't be. You can't be someone else and neither can I, despite how others might demand it and regardless of how much we might want it." She crushed her cigarette. "That's Ronnie's problem. She wants to be me, she wants the same boyfriends others have, she wants to be anyone but herself. I can't be what my mother wanted, and won't be what Mr. Buchanan wanted. I'm not submissive, and I'm not a saint. I'm stubborn and different. I learned to be alone and to see what others do without being involved in what they do. Maybe that's why I could stay friendly with your mother, without feeling guilty about her ignorance of us. I'm different and rebellious and wicked and I can't help it. I suppose you and I could attempt to do and be what others want -- we might even be good at it. But we'd suffocate."
We both yawned, stretching in our chairs and moaning about how late it was. We saw through her living room window that the sky had begun to brighten. Birds chirped outside.
I yawned again. "I hope I can get to sleep."
"After all this? What would keep you awake?"
I thought about it; I was tired, but tense and impatient. "Thinking about all the things we talked about. Worrying, I guess. Wanting it to change, or...wishing it were different."
"You can't change what's happened, hon."
I yawned again. "No. I guess not."
"You're at a disadvantage, not knowing what a father is. I don't know myself what it means to have one, in the way most people do. But I am a teacher, and I did learn things that helped me. I don't know what I can be to you. I certainly can't replace the people you had in your life. But I can teach you...if you promise me something."
I rubbed my swollen eyes. "Another promise? Okay. What's the deal?"
"Promise that you'll accept the fact that you're not stupid, you're not ugly, you're not incompetent. It's just that -- and don't take this the wrong way, hon -- it's just that you have things to learn. Promise you won't just beat yourself over the head for what you can't be."
"Easy for you to say," I told her drily, and reached up to scratch a pimple under my chin.
Martha gently pulled my hand away from my face. "Don't, hon. Don't do that to your face."
"But it itches," I complained, scratching again.
"No!" Again she took my hand, this time holding it firmly and close to her. "Listen to me. If you don't like the way you look, do something about it. I'm going to show you how. This morning I'm sending you to someone at my health club. He might strike you as very eccentric, but I want you to listen to what he has to say. Learn from him. His name is Fiore. He's trains athletes and dancers. Promise you'll listen?"
"Oh, okay," I said petulantly.
"Don't say okay unless you mean it."
"Okay," I said, halfheartedly.
"You think I have a nineteen inch waist because I mailed in enough box tops? Fiore showed me how, and I want him to show you how to get rid of those damn things by the end of this week. Promise me you'll listen to him."
"And work hard."
"Okay, okay, promise."
"Don't pout, Steven."
"What's the sense of it? Seems like such a hopeless case."
"Jeez, where in the world did you latch onto such a low opinion of yourself?"
"I just...learned to face facts, that's all. I'm not pretty, I'm not anybody. I'm not very smart, I'm clumsy, I sink into a hole in the ground when I'm around people, and I -- "
"Oh, hon!" she said, her voice heavy with anger and disappointment. She gripped my hand tightly, frowned at me, and then dropped my hand onto the table. "Steven, what's happened to you?". Groaning with frustration, she rose from her chair and walked to the living room window, sighing distressfully three or four times. She leaned against the window frame, folding her arms and gazing outside.
"I'm sorry..." I began.
"Please...be quiet while I get this together."
"I didn't mean to make you--"
"Stop, Steven. I won't let you trick me into feeling sorry for you. And I won't let you feel sorry for yourself, either. It won't get you anywhere and you need more than that. Please be quiet a minute."
I waited as she gazed out the window, her arms folded tightly as she shifted her feet and frowned thoughtfully for a few moments. Finally, after a deep sigh, she began:
"Hon, I have to tell you something. I wanted to tell you this so many times, but I never knew how. I still don't know how. That last day we were together in Memphis, when we went to the Holiday Inn...just before it was time to leave...I wanted so badly to tell you, it hurt. It physically hurt. But I didn't know how you'd take it. I didn't know how I could possibly make you understand. I once told you that there was some momentous secret I wanted to share with you, and I wanted so much to tell you then. But I couldn't. And I tried to tell you the day my mother was married, and I tried to tell you the day I left Memphis. And there were so many other times I tried. But I was so afraid you wouldn't understand."
She stopped and then breathed heavily, wincing with consternation.
"If it's so hard to do," I said softly, "then forget about it."
"No! Dammit." She rubbed her forehead and gazed out the window. "You need to know this. It's one thing to think no one loves you. but it's another to think you're not lovable. I used to think that way. I know how it feels. I work every day with young people who know that feeling all too well."
"Martha, I've heard all this from the Brothers and the -- "
"No you haven't, Steven, and stop thinking you've guessed what I'm going to say. Please, just stop thinking and just...listen. This is hard enough for me to say as it is."
I opened my mouth to say okay again, but thought better of it. She hugged herself tightly, her hands clinching and unclinching. Thinking she might feel less pressured if I didn't have my eyes on her, I turned away from her in my chair and sat still.
After another pause she said quietly and earnestly, speaking into the warm dark outside the window, "I love you, Steven...I've always loved you. From the first time I saw you, barely waist-high to me, I loved you. You were the sweetest, most unique, most open and loving person I'd ever seen. Your eyes had such a beautiful light...so eager, so trusting and so...so very brave. I fell in love with you, and you were so free and giving that...I simply couldn't resist. I never could. I still can't."
She blinked. She covered her face with her hands for a moment, and then folded her arms again and gazed out the window. "I don't know what kind of love it is...It's not a romantic, Hollywood kind of love, it's not like married love, it's not motherly. Or maybe it's all of those. Maybe it's what philosophers refer to simply as love, the kind you can't define by any known standard, the kind you can't put in a box. Whenever I tried to control my feelings for you or rationalize them away or moralize about what we did over the years, I couldn't. I once went to one of my advisors, to try to describe what I felt, and later I went to a psychologist. But I couldn't even begin to explain it to them, or even to myself. All I heard from them was the same moralizing that I could get from anyone on the street. I don't know what you're going to make of this, or how you explain any of this to yourself, or even if you know what the hell I'm talking about. I don't even know how to describe what happens to me when we're together or why I sometimes feel so primitive, so free, so wonderfully...alive with the pleasure that, for some reason, I know only with you. I tried to justify my actions, but I can't. I tried to condemn them, and I can't do that either. I tried to make plans around it, tried to resist it, tried to analyze it. I can't. It's just there. It's just...just me-with-you, and I can't conceive of it or experience it in any other way."
Again, she sighed and searched for words. "It's just me...and it's just you. It's what you do and it's who you are and it's how you think. I don't think about you all day every day. I don't seem to pine when you're away, not the way I'd miss a boyfriend or a parent. But when I see you in front of me I become a completely different woman...or maybe, I think, I become a secret 'Me' that I can't define or describe. Please understand, hon -- I have no idea what's going to happen to us. Every time I try to control it, it's a little like trying to tell the universe how to change shape. Sometimes I think you'll find someone, and I'd be so happy for you if that happened. I have no desire to own you. I know you'll change with time, and I have no idea what you'll think of me years from now. And I dread...Steven, I dread the day when either of us changes or goes away or moves on with our lives, and I know both of us will. There's nothing that you or I can do to stop that." Her voice cracked a little, and she paused to wipe a tear from one eye. "And, oh, hon -- if I ever did anything to break your heart, I don't know what...I really don't know what I'd do."
Still gazing out the window, she collected herself quickly and went on. "Maybe you're getting some kind of ambivalent message from me. Am I wrong to feel the way I do? Were we wrong to break the rules? Am I expecting something from you I have no right to expect? I've learned so much since I left Memphis. I've seen so much. I've...changed so much. I agonized over whether or not to bring you here and see what I'd become, what I'm becoming. But I do trust you. I've always trusted you, because I believe in what we feel for each other. I see honesty and caring in the way you treat me and in every action you took with me. I could see it and I could feel it."
She shook her head, slowly and sadly. "We were both so innocent, Steven. Innocent, until we come face to face with the other morality that's out there. Their morality. My sister casually slept with men whenever she felt like it. So many, she doesn't remember their names. Not because they wanted her. Because they liked her. And she was so likeable, she fit in so well, so easily. I didn't have that. I had to work and keep trying to change myself. But men didn't like me -- they wanted me. They thought wanting was morality enough. But not you, Stephen. Your touch and your eyes had love in them. You looked into me, not at me. My father had that about him, too. I wanted him very much, my father. I wanted him sexually, too. I don't know that he ever knew what I was thinking. But when he looked at me, and talked to me, and hugged me...oh, I loved him so! He loved me, too, just...just me. He never made me be someone else or be like someone else; he just wanted me to be the best me I could. And it made me want him completely. I never wanted to own or possess him, and I never wanted him to own me. But I did want to have the whole experience of him. And then let him go his way, let him be him. I feel that way about you. Can it go beyond that? Should we cut our wrists and mix blood? What can we do, how can we show someone how much we love, and how we love, how much we want to totally please, without owning? How do we even marry, without owning? Steven, do you know that when I talked to your mother a few years ago, she told me she was shocked to learn that your Aunt Yvonne regularly slept nude with her husband? Your mother was so incensed, so scandalized. She said, 'God knows, I've never let either of my husbands see *me* with nothing on at all'. She's a good, suffering woman, Steven...but how can people live that way? What kind of morality is that? Mr. Buchanan waits until he's worn out with so many women, women he called whores, and then decides to marry my submissive mother so he can settle down and be waited on hand and foot, with a few of his old whores hanging around in the corners. What kind of morality is that? So many wives faking orgasms, getting pregnant so they can say they're respectable with a home in the suburbs and a new Chevrolet every two years. But without love, without joy, what kind of respectability is that? We pray to God to keep our stocks going up, to help us make more cars and more toasters and bigger bombs. We pray for our team to win the World Series. But no one prays that we'll learn how to love, how to please, how to understand and accept. Hmp. Morality. It's so strange, my talking to your mother and asking your folks to let you visit, let you come here and see the city and the art and new life, new people, new ideas -- life and ideas that they don't really want you to see. Such a pretense I've had to make, so many omissions and white lies, to match up with their morality. My mother's morality, my teacher's, my supervisor's. How could their morality conceive of the...the joy and fulfilment I felt as a young woman the first time I shared myself with you? Their morality forbids it. Their morality forbids neglect, forbids abuse -- and yet we are neglected, we are abused. And what kind of honesty is this, having to be honest behind everyone's back? What kind of morality is it that forbids pleasure, forbids intimacy, forbids ecstasy? Forbids individuation and knowledge and self-realization? It's not *my* morality. It's not my battered wives or my screw-up kids or my frigid women or my impotent men. Not my Mississippi lynch mobs or my wars. My morality tells me I shouldn't lie to them; their morality demands that I do, if I'm to be honest about myself."
She bowed her head and sighed. Her voice lowered. "But I can't lie to you, Steven. I don't know if...Hon, I don't know what you expect of me. I have an idea what it is. And I don't know if I can fulfill your every dream. I don't know that you can fulfill mine, either. I don't know that anyone, anywhere, can fulfill everyone's dreams and needs all the time, in every way." She shook her head. "I knew...I knew that one day I'd go to hell for this. And there is a hell, Stephen. It's all around us. Whatever we do or don't do, whether we're right or wrong... we're damned if we do and we're damn if we don't. I can tolerate it. I can tolerate knowing that I do what I think and feel is best. I can tolerate it because even though I don't know if I can do everything for you, I will always, always be as good to you as I can. And I'll always trust that you'll do your best. So if I can't live up to it all, or if you can't, I can accept it. I can live with that much hell."
She stopped. She raised her head and breathed deeply from the night breeze that faintly rustled the window curtain. "Oh, hon. I hope I'm not letting you down." She sighed again.
She straightened, her voice changing from plaintive to bold. "But there's one thing I simply will not accept. I won't accept thinking that I might have done something, said something, that makes you feel unlovable. Something has made you feel that you can't depend on yourself or your ideas or your efforts. If you feel that way, then I've failed you. Right now, right this minute, I don't really know what to do about it. But I have nine days to change the way you feel about yourself. And I intend to try. No. I don't intend to -- I will."
For the first time since she had moved to the window, she turned to look me straight in the eye. "You have no idea how difficult it was to say this. I agonized over it for years. Please don't use it against me, Steven. I think you're old enough to understand what I mean."
Her eyes and her words left me speechless. I cleared my throat and concealed my state of shock, nodding firmly to signal my acceptance of what she had said. I shuffled nervously. She waited, staring at me almost apprehensively. She seemed at once both resolute and vulnerable.
"I hope," she said softly, "I didn't blow your fuses."
"They're not fuses," I said with a brittle smile, "they're circuit breakers. They reset after a few minutes."
She smiled sweetly. "Have I...burst all your bubbles, hon? I can't even tell. You hide your feelings so well. Too well, Steven"
"I'm not as good at expressing those feelings as you are," I said guiltily. "But, no, I...I won't keep them hidden." I swallowed hard. "I can't answer right now. But I will."
She walked to me and gave me a quick little hug. "You don't have to say anything."
"Yes, I do," I said haltingly. "But my circuit breakers need time."
"Okay, hon. Okay. C'mon. Let's get to sleep."
With another fit of yawning, we shut the lights and groaned our way into bed, lying uncovered and facing each other in the dim wash of early daylight that filtered through the curtained window.
We lay on our sides, facing each other in the dark. I closed my eyes. From the window behind me, the city stirred faintly. It was an unfamiliar sound, one I'd never heard when falling asleep in Memphis -- a vague, distant but lurking and steady noise, a hint of the unexpected, an undefined coming and going, a hushed sound of events moving in all direc- tions.
I shifted, making my shoulder more comfortable. Opening my eyes, I saw her watching me.
"Are you falling asleep?" she asked.
"Don't think, hon. Sleep." She touched my shoulder, squeezed it softly. "It'll be all right, Steven. It will."
I closed my eyes. I was far too exhausted to question a looming future I couldn't see or define. I trusted her. I felt I had no choice.
That Saturday afternoon shortly before one o'clock, I awoke to my first weekend in New York, and my first hangover. And Martha's musical, teasing voice, and her gentle hands rubbing my back and shoulders.
"Up," she said, "the day's half gone."
There was little time for serious meditation over her words of a few hours earlier. Martha roused me with scrambled eggs and two cups of a strong, minty tea that made my mouth and nose tingle, and some celery juice. We showered and dressed hastily, then scurried outside into the blinding sunlight before I knew what happened.
"Hurry!" Martha implored as she dragged me by the arm toward Second Avenue. "I called Fiore while you were sleeping like a slug and he said he's leaving the health club by three!"
I yelped, "Are you sure he can work with somebody who can't talk or walk?"
"Snap out of it," she told me as we turned a corner and headed down- town. "If you're that tired and if you have a couple of bucks, we can take a taxi."
"Good," I resolved aloud. I stepped into the street as I'd seen others do and raised my hand for a taxi.
"Slacker," she said.
The meteoric taxi ride helped wake me during the short trip to Lexington and 47th. Martha loaned me her health club pass and told me how to find Fiore on the sixth floor of the hotel. "This is only an evaluation," she told me. "It's free. After that, and because Fiore's a friend of mine and wants my body, he's agreed to see you for twenty-five bucks a session. Take my word for it, hon, it's a bargain. But don't bother if you're not going to work with him."
Martha shopped while I was in Fiore's hands. I was surprised at his height; who'd guess that a paid trainer would be even shorter than I! He had phenomenal strength and agility. During the first ten minutes he learned my every strength and weakness with a few quick glances over my torso and limbs.
"Off with your clothes!" he snapped curtly, and he handed me a pair of blue shorts. "Dress!" Before I finished changing he was chirping, "On the massage table!" Rushed and confused, I fell down trying to remove my shoes.
Fiore laughed merrily. "Haha! Say, you're allowed to sit on a chair while you take off your shoes."
"Everybody's in such a hurry," I muttered.
"Of course! Iss New York! If you don' hurry in New York, you die!", a remark he laughed about until I had the shorts on and was climbing onto the table. For the next several minutes he threw me around like a bag of dried peas.
"You hev a nice frame, Steven. Nice! But weak back and hips. What kind of work you do, hah?" I told him about my newspaper route and the delivery bike. "No, No!" he warned. "No good, the way you move! When we finish here, we go to the bicycle to show you how to move. The way you move now, iss no good!" For an hour he demonstrated how to manage and build up my weaker body parts. By that time I was so breathless that I merely grunted at his questions and stumbled through his instructions. "Bad coordination! I have exercises for that! Here, here, no! No pushups like that! Here, THIS iss a pushup! Only halfway, you see? Never all the way! There! You see? Kapeesh?"
"What kind of food your Italian mother makes for you?" he asked later as I struggled into my clothes with no air in my lungs and no strength in my limbs. "Bread? Huh? Pasta?" I told him, yes, a lot of bread and breaded foods, pasta, salads with oil and vinegar, cakes and pies, pancakes, cereals. "Aha!" he screamed, "And then you have pimples, Ha? Listen to me: No white bread! No white flour! Never! Get vinegar and oil in the health food store! If anyone makes a salad with Crisco, shoot them! If they give you a pancake, break their legs! No sugar! Iss garbage, my friend! Garbage in your body, pimples on your face!"
He wrote a list of several items I should buy. "Today!" he demanded. "There is a place two blocks down on Lexington! Start today! Come back Monday, ten o'clock!"
He gave my back a slap that sent me reeling. He had a good laugh while holding me up. "Haha, you'll be all right, my friend! In only a few days with me, you'll have the strength of -- well, at least you will be on your way! What's this?...smoke on your breath? Listen to me -- nicotine iss UGLY! You cannot have good skin if you smoke! And when you see Martha, tell her thank you for sending you to me, I give you a special price! How lucky to have such a beautiful woman on your side!"
As I glanced about on my way out of the health club, I saw that Martha's was not the only lovely body in New York. There were several dancers and models around, some of them bearing the most perfect figures I could imagine. Their accomplishments fired me on -- though, for the time being, I was too whipped to do anything more than limp out of the club, into the elevator, and out to the busy sidewalk. By the time Martha returned from shopping and found me outside the hotel, I had managed to learn to stand again.
"So," she asked, "What's the verdict?"
"Are you sure Steve Reeves started out this way? I can do it if I get plenty of rest between sessions."
"Not the way *we* fuck!" she laughed, drawing a startled look from two or three passersby.
I showed Martha the list of things Fiore told me to buy.
"Can you afford this?" Martha asked. "This is some list."
"What'll it cost me?"
"About thirty or forty dollars, I guess."
"What I was going to spend on junk food, I'll spend for this."
Martha led me through my first trip in a health food store. We walked out with a bag of bottles and foods and pills I'd never heard of. Back in her apartment, she surveyed the goods. "I thought so," she said, "he gave you a lot of B6. I figured as much, everybody on your mom's side of the family seems to have signs of a deficiency. And, uh-oh, Brewer's yeast! Oh, my -- hon, you'll hate me for this, but I have to find some way to get a tablespoon of brewer's yeast down your throat three times a day."
Most of the teas and supplements were not seriously upsetting, but ingesting Brewer's Yeast was torture. By late afternoon I was filled with vitamins, minerals, teas, juices, the yeast, and herbs.
For a rest, she introduced me to Central Park, where we roamed over hills and through pine forests and followed a group of bird watchers until twilight.
On our way out of the park, we passed a hot dog stand. "Hey," she said, her eyes rolling, "Steven! You have to try a New York hot dog."
"No," I said firmly, mimicking Fiore. "Hot dogs iss pimples!"
"But you can't see Central Park without having a hot dog."
"No. No. And no."
"Wow, I see you took Fiore to heart. I'm proud of you."
The hectic session with Fiore and the walk through the Park did me in. For dinner Martha made "nekkid" hamburgers (ground sirloin baked slowly under a blanket of cheese and mushrooms), a salad dressed with the special vinegar and oils Fiore prescribed, plus another handful of pills. Martha informed me, "Gourmets never eat beef as-is. It's always ground, Steven." Dinner was prefaced with a spoonful of dreaded yeast, which I managed to swallow in small amounts with the help of some dark, berry-flavored tea.
After dinner I sat listlessly at the table, feeling I'd soon faint. "What's next?"
"To the bathroom. I'll show you how to wash your face."
"Wash my face? You think I don't know how to wash my face?"
"I'm gonna to show you how professionals do it." She gathered a can of scouring powder and a bottle of the new vegetable oil and led me to the bathroom.
I yelped with alarm, "I'm gonna wash my face with that?"
"No, silly. First we have to clean the sink. Watch and learn."
Again, it was a New York revelation. In her tiny bathroom Martha taught me how to prepare my face with a thin coat of vegetable oil before using special soap and steaming hot water.
I frowned at the sink of smoking water, and then at my oiled face in the mirror, with growing skepticism. "Now, who would go through all this just to wash their face?"
"People who don't accept the usual way of doing things," she said, adamant. "People who don't listen to fairy tales. Do it, Steven. Open up and try something different."
I followed the procedure reluctantly but exactly, counting aloud to make certain I splashed the nearly stinging hot water onto my face as she directed, twenty-five times. Afterwards, she made me look at myself in the mirror.
"Feel your skin," she prompted, her voice losing its stiffness. "Look at your face. Smooth, right? And the skin's tight? Look at your cheeks glow, hon. Your skin's acid-balanced now, and the pores are clear. And those damn pimples were opened up and they're already disappearing."
I looked carefully, flabbergasted. She was right. I wouldn't have believed it without seeing it.
"Trust me?" she taunted. "Was I right? Is not the wicked witch really your friend in disguise?"
I surrendered. "Yes," I mumbled.
"Feel better about yourself?"
She hugged me. "I've got to get you out of the 'Memphis mode', hon. Stop letting those foamin' Romans tell you how to think. I want you to find out for yourself, try something new, trust yourself. All it takes is some work and a little nerve. Okay?"
I hugged her back.
"Love you," she said. "You know that now, don't you?"
She hurried into the kitchen and started cleaning up.
"What next?" I called from the bathroom, still looking at myself in amazement.
"Movie, if you want."
"Doesn't anybody in New York ever rest?"
"Occasionally, but they don't admit it in public. It's bad p-r. But after last night, I guess we could both use a quick nap."
After cleaning the kitchen we lay flat on our backs in bed for a brief nap. I fell asleep immediately. When I awoke, Martha was sitting on the edge of the bed, smiling at me.
"Looks like you're beat," she said.
"Martha -- I'm sorry, I guess so."
"That's okay, hon. I can hardly believe you've only been here a little more than 24 hours."
I sighed drowsily. "Is that all? Seems like a week already. But you're right...this is only my second night in New York."
"I saw you so sleeping so hard, I let you nap over an hour. What do you say we skip the movie, go over to Second Avenue and eat out? Ronnie called, and she'd like to treat you for being so patient with her last night. Would that be better?"
"Deal," I said, relieved.
I started to rise, but Martha held me down with a hand on my arm. "I have to tell you something."
"Oh, no. More revelations."
"Yes," she said, and she made her voice very small and paused for a long time while she played bashfully with my shirt collar, hiding her eyes from mine. "Stephen...Ronnie is my very best, very close, very only girlfriend..."
"Go ahead," I said warily. "Go ahead, hit me with it."
"Well...Steven...hon...she knows about us." She felt me tense up and then go limp. "Not everything," she added quickly, "not...hon, not the fucking part. I could never quite bring myself to tell her about that, but I did say that we, you know, fooled around a while back. I didn't want her to be totaled."
"What did she say?"
I blinked. "Nothing?"
"No, she didn't say anything at all. I was so surprised. She asked me again about it, later, and I did tell her that a long time ago you gave me my first orgasm. She thought it was so sweet that we were good to each other. I even think she was a little envious. She grew up in Michigan in much the same way we did. But she had no friends at all, Steven. No one. She went through three fathers and a screwed-up mother and two really crappy brothers before she was sent off to a college she truly hated. She walked out of class one day and never returned, never went home again. She gave up everything and moved here with a college boyfriend and lived with him...until he kicked her out because he said she wasn't good enough for him. She ended up on the street, and got picked up by a guy in a bar. He asked her to stay with him, and she was so desperate for a place...He was the guy I told you about, who ended up being so abusive. She endured it until she finished school and got her first job. When she answered my ad for a roommate, she'd been sleeping in the bus station for two days."
I shook my head and winced.
"Plenty of people had it tougher than we did, hon. Many who aren't as sensitive as Ronnie would've turned cold and mean. But Ronnie still tries. Like you and I, she knows she doesn't fit. But she can't live in a shell, either. So don't think she gets loaded and always acts the way she did last night. She's disorganized and she's searching. But she's affectionate and understanding. I sometimes think...people like Ronnie, who've been hit hard and who are so different, are the only people I can get close to. She tries so hard to please. And like you, she can be very hard on herself when it doesn't work. And she has fits of despair. But she's really very nice. Now, please -- don't mention any of this. I'm sure she'll know that I would have told you something about her, but don't get into this with her. She gets very depressed about it. Okay?"
"Are you sorry you came here and got mixed up in all this? I know so much is hitting you at once -- "
"No. No, I like it."
"You *what* ?"
I said earnestly, "I mean...I mean it's life, it's real. I can understand it. It's not a Tupperware party. It's not I Love Lucy or shopping at the A&P. It's like the things I really think about and feel, but never talk about. I mean--" I sighed in exasperation, searching for better words.
She ruffled my hair. "I got the idea." She smiled with admiration and surprise. "I don't think you'll have too much trouble getting the hang of things around here."
"Ronnie's no problem," I said, trying to stand. I ached everywhere and needed to stretch. And I was starving. "It's Fiore that's gonna kill me!"
Again, with ruthless practicality and adherence to method, Martha forced a spoonful of bitter yeast down my throat. A cup of berry tea and a shower later, I was awake enough to force my sore muscles to carry me down the stairs and onto the sidewalk.
"C'mon," she said ahead of me.
"All right, all right. Let me wake up. Always in a hurry."
We met Ronnie a few blocks away on Second Avenue. She blushed when she saw me, but she gave me her catchy, sweet, girlish smile that made her dark blue eyes light up playfully.
"Remember me?" she joked, extending her hand. Blushing as well, I accepted her handshake. Like her face, her hand was small and delicate. She had long, slender, very warm fingers. Without her spiked heels she was Martha's height, and she looked slimmer in a simple skirt than she did in her business suit.
Ronnie took us to a crowded neighborhood diner where she and Martha stormily debated the use and purposes of psychology. Ronnie didn't agree with any of it. "Science is the bane of life," she groaned, slicing away at a pork chop. "Putting people's feelings on charts and graphs!"
"It has its uses," Martha insisted.
"So does cyanide," Ronnie said.
"And like anything else," Martha went on hotly, "it can be used or MIS-used, Ronnie. I don't agree with the way it's used. It's used to plot norms, and the norms are considered not only normal and desirable, but required for everyone. And, you're right, that's the part that's sheer nonsense."
"Careful, Martha, you're on the verge of agreeing with me." Ronnie grinned insolently and popped a chunk of meat into her mouth.
Eventually they exhausted themselves and changed the subject, moving on to the latest ladies' fashions. I sat beside Martha and opposite Ronnie, saying nothing. I listened, my elbow on the table and my chin propped in my hand, eyeing them with an amused smile as their new conver- sation progressed from frolicsome chatting to sarcastic debate.
"Ronnie," Martha argued, "that's what I don't understand about your business. What right has some cafe society designer to decide what I will or won't be able to buy in a store next year? He knows nothing about me!"
"Oh, Martha it doesn't work that way!"
"Yes, it does! That's exactly how it works!"
"So boycott Bloomingdale's. All I do is design what I'm told, don't point fingers at *me*."
"What you just said," Martha emphasized slowly, "is exactly what I mean. The business is structured for the very few who tell everyone else how to fall into line. Your own creativity and my freedom of choice never enter the picture. Because marketers know that most people are sheep. Madison Avenue denies people information that lets them decide for themselves."
Ronnie winked at me, unwhithered by Martha's polemic. "Steven, isn't this fun? Have you learned anything from this conversation?"
I shrugged and ventured, "Eat dinner with the boys, and don't wear ladies' clothes?"
"Great, toots. Martha, I *knew* Steven was a cool guy. Steven, are we boring you with this?"
I answered, "Actually, yes."
"Ha!" Ronnie yelped. "Good answer! Come on, let's stop all this philosphical garbage and talk about something totally mindless. Steven, has this friend of mine taught you anything about New York that you couldn't have learned in Memphis?"
I told Ronnie about learning to wash my face. Her eyes narrowed with serious interest in what I was saying. She wanted more information.
"Martha," she said, "why didn't you ever tell me about this trick with washing the face? All this time, and you never told me."
Martha threw up her hands, "Oh, you're just avoiding my point! Just for that, I'm going to the restroom. Please don't make Steven cry while I'm gone."
"Okay, hon, okay," Ronnie said absently, returning to me. "Steven, I meet Martha, next thing you know I'm calling her 'hon'. Can you believe it? But tell me...what's this about washing? Seriously. See, I have this blemish right here under my ear, and I have these pores, see? Over here...?"
Minutes later, Martha returned from the restroom and found us en- grossed in a serious exchange.
"I can't believe," Martha said sarcastically, "that you two are talking about cosmetics!"
"You know, Martha, this guy's fascinating. I never saw anybody go into things so thoroughly. You do everything that way, Steven?"
The talk went from skin care to the relation between mind and body and how an individual's acceptance of their faults affects their willingness to either change the situation or simply resign to it and remain a victim.
Soon Martha was yawning again.
"You already worn out?" Ronnie grumbled. "Just when it was gettin' good!"
"It's been a rough two days," Martha said. "We're calling it a night soon."
"Steven," Ronnie said, cupping her hand around her mouth in a mock whisper, "Martha always does this when she's losing an argument with me."
We left the diner. Ronnie strolled with us along First Avenue. On the way, we passed a pet store. The store was closed for the day, but we stopped to look at the giant green and white parrots and the toucans in the darkened window.
"Fascinating," I murmured, my mouth so close to the window that my breath left a small circle of fog on the glass. "What huge birds. I never saw anything like this back home."
"It's depressing, though," Martha said sadly. "The ones who aren't in cages have their wings clipped. What a mean thing to do to such gorgeous creatures. C'mon, Steven. Ronnie. Please. I can't stand seeing this."
Back in our building, Ronnie stopped at her apartment to thank us. "Steven, what a nice evening. Does this make up for my stupidity of last night?"
I pretended ignorance. "What stupidity?"
"You're sweet," Ronnie said, loading the comment with overplayed mushiness. She kissed me quickly on the cheek. "Mm. You Rhett Butlers are all alike."
After Ronnie said goodnight and closed her door, I turned to see Martha smiling at me. "One more chore. Let's cap off the night with one more New York experience. Come on."
We strolled down East 86th Street. It was getting late, yet I was amazed that the traffic and the people on Lexington Avenue were as frenzied as they were during the day. Martha led me to a newsstand so besieged with customers that we had to push our way through to get a copy of the Sunday Times.
"This is not the way you get it in Memphis," she said, offering me the hefty newspaper with both hands as if it were a precious gift. She saw my eyes bulge: the complete New York Times, including sections the out-of-town editions didn't carry. "Hot off the presses," she said, pleased at my reaction. "Be careful. The ink's still wet."
We headed home with the Times under my arm, my neck craning to catch sight of all the activity that flourished in late-night Manhattan.
"Who would ever believe," I said delightedly, "that buying a news- paper could be such a major event?"
"New York does have its simple pleasures," she said, enjoying my excitement. "But don't stay up all night with it. You'll have plenty of time later. Remember, Fiore told you to rest."
Later, upstairs, I crawled into bed as Martha sat propped against her pillows reading a book.
"You really perked up tonight," she said.
"It makes a big difference when you're around people you actually get along with. Ronnie was very impressed. See? There really are people who like you."
"Well," I said grudgingly, "I did pretty good for a fifteen year old."
Martha scowled. "You did well, period! Stop running yourself down, or I'll spank you."
I lay on my side as Martha paged through her book to lull herself to sleep, as she usually did when she was alone. I gazed out the window and listened to the city. Martha was right: being with kindred souls made a difference. I wondered how I would handle myself when I returned home. The very idea of having to fly back to Memphis loomed threateningly, making the spread of the next eight days seem like a paltry eight minutes. How much did Martha think I could accomplish in so short a time?
I shifted onto my other side, facing Martha. She put her book down and looked at me.
"Ready for sleep, hon?"
I yawned. "Looks like it, hm?"
She turned around to shut off the light on the bedside table. She rested on her side and faced me. Her hazel eyes glistened in the dark as she smiled at me sleepily.
"I'm glad you're here," she said.
I pursed my lips and made a little kiss. "Me too."
"Goodnight," she whispered.
Settling onto my side facing her, I closed my eyes and tried to stop thinking. The small kiss I gave Martha reminded me of Ronnie's friendly kiss as she bid us goodnight earlier. I still felt Ronnie's small, lipsticked, warm, sticky lips on my cheek. A mild horniness sprang from nowhere and spread with a vague tingle through my tired body. This was a new feeling, purely physical and seemingly unalloyed with any emotion. I wondered if the yeast and the bellyful of vitamins were responsible. I wondered whether the tingle meant that Fiore's efforts on my behalf were beginning to pay off. I wondered what kind of answer I could give to Martha's confession of a few hours ago.
I opened my yes and saw Martha, on her side, still watching me.
She asked, "Are you thinking again?"
She looked at me for a long moment. Her sleepy gaze changed to a mild frown. "That was terrible what you told me, about your mom when she caught you masturbating. Did she really act like that?"
"I got over it."
"No. I don't think you did." She yawned. She fumbled with the slit of my underwear and found the tip of my flaccid organ. "Maybe I should check it again, though, and make sure it wasn't damaged." Carefully she opened the slit and pulled out my cock. She said, "I told you I was wicked. I can't help it. You're so touchable." She looked down at my cock stirring languidly between her fingers. "Can I pull him off? It can feel very nice when you're sleepy."
I smiled, lax and weary except for my cock, which itched pleasantly in response to her soft hand. "Okay."
She said sheepishly, "You must think I'm terribly perverted, doing this now. Maybe I am."
"Maybe I am, too. You see how courageously I resist."
Perhaps it was Ronnie's affectionate kiss. Or the lack of sleep. Any misgivings I may have had about the strangeness of the moment or the reasons for her need to masturbate me just then were obscured by the warm tickle of her begging fingers.
She murmured, "I felt lonely, telling you all that about me this morning. I felt you might think I was pushing you away."
"No," I said. My cock slowly unraveled.
"Steven..." she began falteringly, her hand encircling and hugging my shaft. She swallowed, thickly. "It's not so easy for me...to open up that way."
"I know," I whispered back, aware of the same problem within myself. As I lay on my side watching her I sensed in her careful, delicately urging fingers and her disquieted tone, our mutual need to coax reassur- ance from weary flesh.
Sensing that I might be a little numb with drowsiness, she reached behind her and grabbed a bottle of hand lotion from the bedside table. Wetting her fingers, she smeared the peach-scented stuff on me and resumed her tender milking. I sighed pleasurably as her slick hand gently pulled upward, completing each motion with a squishy clench around my tip.
She asked, "Better?"
"Yeah. I'm tired, but I need it."
She soon had me stiff, and as she began methodically milking me I reached under the waistband of her pajamas. On her side, she raised one knee so I could find her clit. Lazily I made one-finger circles on her slick nub, now and then dipping inside her to caress the little lump of nerves that I knew lay deep within. For a long time we masturbated one another, in no special hurry to finish. We played languorously, sighing and moaning. She came first, closing her eyes and easing into it with a long groan, her hand on me pausing in its ministrations while she stiffened and enjoyed her cum with quiet desperation. As it ended for her, her hips undulated softly a few times and then jerked to a stop. She came out of it gasping wearily. I kept my middle finger in her while she finished me off. Just before I came she nestled closer, gathering a portion of her pajamas shirt and baring her flesh just above her navel. As cum splattered on her she smirked contentedly, murmuring "Mm-hm, mm-hm," and watched thin rivulets drool down her hip onto the sheet. When I finished she wiped up with a kleenex, then tugged my shaft firmly to draw the last of it onto the tissue. With our arms limply entwined, we fell asleep.
I awoke early Sunday and lay for a while watching Martha sleep. She was curled into a ball, her pajamas stretched over her smoothly rounded hips and firm thighs, one hand folded loosely into a fist near her cheek. She lay on her side, her face toward me, her eyes softly closed and her lips parted. She seemed touchingly innocent. It had been years since I'd watched her sleeping. For a while I dared not move; I had only a few days to see her this way. My brain ached with the question: How could this woman, this grown woman, so lovely, so intelligent, so accomplished, appear so childlike as she cuddled in sleep beside me?
I lowered my head to barely touch my lips to hers for a moment. As always, her flesh seemed to melt into mine.
Knowing I would not fall asleep again, I slid carefully from the bed and crept into the kitchen, where I rummaged for coffee and set the percolator brewing. Then I found a pen and some paper and sat at the dining room table. I gazed at the window in the living room where Martha had confessed her thoughts and feelings early Saturday morning.
I began writing, one word or phrase at a time. At fifteen, what could I say to allay the anxieties she expressed? Did she see me as a man, as a boy, or as a man who happened to be less than sixteen? How could I have expected her to respond to me in any way other than the way she responded while standing next to that window? How could I expect her to embrace an uncertain, undefined future with a partner whose major claim to fame was a paper route and advanced skills at delivering grocer- ies in Memphis, Tennessee? Should I proclaim an undying love for her? My fifteen-year-old heart idealized that love as precious; but a more cynical old man in my head knew that my youthful heart was susceptible to indulgence in impractical mush.
The words I wrote fell together and fell apart fitfully. I crossed them out, rewrote them, crossed them out and began again. Over an hour later, I had written:
You were always the one who offered first.
Am I the one who only receives?
That in me which I couldn't do, you do.
That which I couldn't have, you give.
I give you that you are more than loved,
but as my secret otherness,
the You-ness I can't be but am,
you are cherished, dearly.
Before I could finish, I heard a muffled knock at the front door. Thieves? The landlord? Quickly I fetched my pants from a hanger in the bathroom and stood listening at the front door as I dressed. Again, two brief, soft knockings. I cleared my throat. Silence. I cleared my throat more loudly.
"Steven?" a girlish voice whispered from the other side. "Is that you?"
It was Ronnie. I started to open the door, remembered that I wore my glasses, removed them, opened the door halfway, and peered out. She stood in the hallway in her pajamas and floor-length bathrobe. Her face looked shiny, as if just washed.
"Hi," she said, grinning. She gave me a little wave of her hand. "Martha up?"
"Steven, I'm outta coffee." She folded her hands beseechingly and grin meekly. "Please?"
"Sure," I said, beckoning her inside. I opened the door and held a finger to my pursed lips. She nodded and tiptoed into the kitchen. Realizing I was in my t-shirt, I tiptoed to the bedroom and fetched my shirt. Martha still slept. Closing the bedroom door, I buttoned my shirt and waited in the living room until Ronnie tiptoed from the kitchen.
"Shh, okay," she whispered. She held a cup half filled with coffee grinds. She stood near the door waiting, smiling sleepily with hair falling into her face. I moved quickly to the door.
"You guys sure clean up fast around here," she whispered.
Not understanding, I looked at her.
With her head she gestured toward the living room sofa. "The sofa's already made up and folded. Unless you sleep on the floor."
"Oh," I said. "Yeah. I woke up early."
She patted me on the shoulder. "Good boy. You Southern guys are so self-sufficient." Wincing and grimacing playfully, she whispered "shh" again and opened the door and slithered past it. I stood near the door and was ready to close it when she poked her head back inside. "Oh, by the way--" she whispered, craning her neck and face toward me. She gave me a quick, innocent peck on the cheek. "Thanks." She withdrew, waved a tiny bye-bye at me with her fingers, and tiptoed down the hall.
Just as I quietly closed the door I heard Martha mutter sleepily behind me, "Steven, is somebody there?"
She stood in the living room doorway, drowsy, her formerly combed hair a tousled, light auburn fuzz across her eyes and forehead. She slumped, she had no makeup, and her pajama sleeves half-covered her hands as they flopped uselessly at her side. She looked deliciously girlish.
"Ronnie," I said, gesturing toward the door. "She ran out of coffee."
"Oh...She's always out of coffee."
With her pajama bottoms rasping sluggishly along the floor, she drifted into the kitchen. Quickly, I retrieved my writing from the table, folded it and slipped it into my shirt pocket. I unfolded the Sunday paper and spread it on the table and sat, pretending I'd been reading all along.
In a moment Martha appeared at the kitchen door, still slumping, squinting at me through half-closed eyes. "You made coffee?"
She paused, scratching her forehead, and rubbed her eyes and murmured, "Oh. That's sweet." She yawned and drifted toward the bathroom, pausing on the way to give me a quick kiss on the cheek and say "Thank you" before stumbling into the tiny room and closing the door behind her. After a while I heard her clinking around. She dropped something plastic that rattled on the floor. Soon she drifted past me again, carrying cosmetics and towels, pausing again to give me another peck before floating listlessly to the shower stall in the kitchen. She removed her pajamas, giving me a quick flash of her tightly toned back and her charmingly round, sloping derriere (I mused: How in the world would one dare use common street or medical terms to refer to something so perfectly, delicately, and beautifully shaped?). Stepping inside and drawing the curtain, she turned on the spray and gave a little squeak.
As she showered I returned to my prized Sunday Times. So far, my first Sunday in New York was a great success: it was not yet nine a.m., and I'd already been kissed by two women and totally turned on by Martha's luscious nudity. Outside, sparrows chirped merrily.
During my brief shower, Martha applied her makeup quickly and combed her hair, pinning it back and bobbing it. I was amazed to find that in mere minutes she transformed the sleepy, frowzily sexy, pajama'd little girl into a chic, poised, glamorous woman in skirt, blouse, and loafers. After I dressed we walked down Second Avenue past several bars and restaurants that advertised their brunch menus on entrances and on sandwich boards along the sidewalk. Martha laughed when I asked her what a brunch was. "Brunch," she said, "is where we're going." She advised me which of the places along the street had good service and which had good food. She said, "You have to compromise between service and food. It's a New York institution: usually, you can't have both at the same time." I chose food over service, and we went to a place where I ordered eggs benedict on English muffins (yet another rarity in Memphis) and I was introduced to a spicy, non-alcoholic version of the bloody mary. I spent most of the time watching the appearance and behavior of the other customers. New Yorkers entered a restaurant, quickly sighted a table, and headed straight for it. Memphians usually stood still, frowned, and seemed to agonize over a decision before moving falteringly ahead, changing their minds several times in the process. I also noticed the glances and stares men directed at Martha.
"You know" I said secretively as we ate, "two men in here are staring at you."
"That's what New Yorkers do," Martha said, unfazed. "They stare. They're trained from childhood in effective staring. Don't stare back, though. They get violent. If you think this is staring, wait until you get on the subway."
We returned to her apartment. The first order of business was to stuff another load of nutrients into my mouth, including a tablespoon of the yeast, which blessedly was getting easier to take. Then Martha prepared food for a picnic in Central Park. She told me more about Ronnie and how they met and became friends, and things they did together.
Martha had laid out several slices of bread and covered each with slices of ham and cheese. She said, "I always thought Ronnie was very pretty." She was pleased when I agreed. She kept talking as she worked. "Would you like to go out with her?"
"Don't be silly, I don't like her that way. Anyhow, I'm too young."
"Steven--" She sighed impatiently, but continued working. "Ronnie is now your friend, because she's my friend. And she likes you. I doubt that she'd scream in horror if you asked her to go out and show you around. Please get out of the Memphis mode, hon, she's not one of your tough old aunts. She's more like your cousin Josephine Louise, the one you used to get all goggle-eyed about. Anyway, you won't even have to ask, because she's going with us to the beach at Fire Island Wednesday. And I'm asking her if she'll meet you for lunch after your session with Fiore tomorrow, and show you how to get to a place on 34th Street where you can order some decent eyeglass frames for yourself." She stopped smiling as she worked, speaking somewhat bitterly and almost to herself. "I don't like the way you're growing up down there. You've proven you can work hard, you've proven you can get your grades in school, you've proven that you're desirable and intelligent and sweet. I don't see why they allow you to just submit and suffer everything the way they do. So many people, so determined to make you exactly like them..." She looked up at me, apologetic, seeming almost surprised by her own words. "I'm sorry, hon. They're good people. But they don't understand you. And they've left me with an awful lot of work to do and an awfully short time to do it." She grinned at me, wrapping the sandwiches. "Am I pushing you too hard? Hm? Why are you so speechless?"
"I just don't talk much."
"You used to talk my head off, years ago. Well, hon, that's all right. Just be yourself, don't worry about it. Anyway, I have news for you. I've set you up with a date."
"A date. With a student of mine. Marilyn. She's sixteen. She's bright, sweet, cute. Done some theater, too. I told her about you and she wants to meet you."
I paused. "What if she doesn't like me?"
"She already likes you, Steven. And it was her request to begin with."
"But what if she doesn't like me?"
"If she doesn't," she said firmly as she worked, "then you should learn to handle it. With grace, confidence, and intelligence...Well, I see you're not so happy about it. All right, I won't force it. We can talk about it later, then, and you make up your mind. But it's for Friday, and I'll be there to chaperone, and...well, you make up your mind."
"All right, I'll...probably say yes." I said reluctantly.
"Hon," she said frankly, stacking the wrapped sandwiches and looking in the cupboard for a bag. "don't be a pushover. You can say no to me if you want to."
I didn't reply. I was thinking: what is she trying to do, get me off her hands by setting me up with someone else?
"There, now," Martha said finally, placing our sandwiches in a bag and fetching her purse. "We're ready for Rockefeller Center, and the park, and a movie I know you'll be crazy about." She stood in front of me and looked me over. "You look so nice, Steven. Please think it over about a date with Marilyn. Will you? There may be plenty of people who would put you down for not being what they expect of everyone else. But you're different in a very nice way and, frankly, Marilyn's looking forward to meeting you. I can't imagine a caring, intelligent person who wouldn't like you. You think about it. C'mon, let's get going."
Her words may have served in one respect to shore up my lagging con- fidence. But I chilled at the thought that her long-term hopes didn't appear to be the same as mine. On the other hand, I wasn't that certain about my own long-term hopes. They had never been defined in my head; when I tried to envision what Martha and I would be like in ten or twenty years, I always drew a blank. It was as if I had been living under an old assumption from the past, when Martha and I were growing up: She had always been there and, somehow, she always would.
That afternoon she led me through Rockefeller Center and Radio City, and then a lake in Central Park. We stayed in the park until sunset, sitting on the grass and snacking. When it was almost time to leave for the movie in the Village, she packed our leftovers and sat looking up at me, her skirt spread on the grass around her.
"I know you're having a good time," she said, teasing. "But what have you been thinking about all day, hon? Come on. You're hiding again."
Vacillating, I pulled my handwritten note out of my shirt pocket and gave it to her. "I don't talk that well on my feet yet," I told her. "I couldn't say it. I had to write it."
She unfolded it and read, her head lowered and her face hidden as I stood near her. The paper lay loosely in her hands on her lap.
Hearing nothing, I stuttered, "It's just words...it's not finished or anything..."
"I understand that, Steven," she said quietly. "I know what the words mean."
"Well...it's not what I was thinking. It's...what I was feeling."
For a long moment she silently looked down at the page. I couldn't see her face.
"Hon," she said earnestly, "I hope I'm not letting you down."
I shuffled, stirring my feet on the grass. "Well, I did promise I'd be your friend while I was here. A friend wouldn't put a lasso around you. A friend wouldn't want to." She didn't move or speak. "I mean... you wouldn't be the same, would you, with your wings clipped?"
I looked down at her. Nearly horrified, I saw a tear drip from her hidden face and onto the paper. She sniffed. I tensed: I had not expected this!
Gently, she wiped the droplet from the paper and fingered a corner. "Hon," she whispered, "these are the most beautiful words I ever read."
"Well, they're a little...clumsy."
"I don't care," she said firmly. She looked up at me. She smiled sweetly, gratefully, happily. She wiped a corner of her eye. "It's lovely. It's simply lovely. And these words...and what you just told me...it's the most beautiful thing you've ever done. Look at me, you have me crying like a baby. No one has ever, ever done anything like this for me! It's so unselfish, so much like the Steven I know!"
She stood, reaching for me. "C'mere," she said, and she embraced me with a close, tight hug, clinging to me from head to toe. She sniffed again, and then laughed against me. "Oh, lord, you don't say much. But when you do, you sure know how to do it!"
I gulped, astounded. She hugged me until I couldn't breathe.
Leaning back, she held me by the shoulders and beamed at me. "Come on!" she said eagerly. She grabbed my arm and walking briskly, keeping herself close to me. "We're headed for the rest of your vacation."
I glanced at her as we moved blithely along the path toward the south end of the park. She smiled, relieved, exhilarated, shaking her hair in the breeze, squinting into the setting sun.
She said contentedly, "Steven, you're not just a friend. You're not just sweet. You're one helluva romantic guy. I'm so glad you're here."
I beamed back, smiling inwardly. I thought: victory is so sweet.