Lovers & Latchkeys: Tales From a Greenwich Village Girlhood

Sex and Sinclair Lewis

WINTER in Manhattan. On the Down escalator, cradling my stack of overdue library books, I am taking one last dip into Sinclair Lewis’s “Arrowsmith,” wallowing in the agony Martin feels after his wife’s death. No, no, Martin, don’t do it! Don’t give out the vaccine to everyone and ruin your experiment! Science is at stake! I stumble off at the bottom platform, struggling not to drop my awkward pile. A young man, very pale with dark hair cut in a vaguely foreign style, gently taps me on the shoulder. He wears a very thick, expensive-looking black topcoat buttoned tightly at the neck, and no scarf.

He apologizes for bothering me and asks me what I am reading so intently. I tell him and surprise! He too is a Sinclair Lewis fan. He asks permission to walk me to the Donnell Library, my destination. As we walk, he tells me he is Canadian, that his name is Ron and that he is an actor who has only recently moved to New York. He is homesick and lonely. Would I consent to meet him occasionally on Sunday afternoons? He is good-looking enough for me to believe his story. His porcelain skin and inky hair make him resemble every Prince in the Russian fairy tales I had only recently abandoned in favor of “Babbitt” and “Main Street” and “Arrowsmith.” A bookworm without a boyfriend, I saw no reason to reject the opportunity Fate was handing me.

The following Sunday, I finished my homework (mostly trig) before noon and took a long bath. Ron and I were to meet in one of the sculpture galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. It was not my first time, of course, but always before there had also been high school classmates on a field trip or maybe my father taking me to see the Baroque Christmas tree ornaments and later for hot chocolate and cookies. Prudence and the tornado of butterflies in my stomach decided me in favor of not telling anyone where I was going or who I was meeting. I arrived early—Ron was already there! We spent two hours strolling around as he pointed out subtleties of form and delicate bronze gestures that he loved, especially among the Rodin collection. His fingers were long and slender. I was unbearably aware of them as he traced outlines in the air, his crisp diction a sharp pleasure. The sense of the words was completely lost to me. I learned that he was twenty-eight and hoped he would not find out that I was fifteen.

Week after week we met, and week after week I lied to my friends and family about my Sunday whereabouts. Always, he wore the heavy black overcoat. At the Central Park Zoo, he seemed riveted by the sea lions. This was my moment. Inhaling the mingled odors of sun-warmed metal railings and fish-splattered wet cement, I took that occasion to present him with my official senior yearbook photo, of which I was very proud. In back-buttoned black Orlon cardigan and borrowed pearls, hair rigid from overnight foam rollers and hairspray, complexion airbrushed to flawless, I thought I appeared worldly but bemused—ready for anything. Perhaps even an affair (whatever that was) with an older man.

Ron held the photo in his slender hands. “My God,” he said. “It isn’t you at all. You look so old. What did they do to you?”

It seems to me that we did not see each other again, as the earth thawed and the trees in Central Park sprouted their pale green fringes. We never wrote or talked, since I had no address, or phone number. He knew only my first name.

I am certain he existed, because I still have that picture of myself, with the pearls and the trusting (yet worldly) gaze.

Years later, I saw in a shop window a reissue of an older recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by the Canadian pianist and famous eccentric Glenn Gould. The CD cover shows him sprawled at a piano, in heavy wool gloves with the fingertips cut off. His black hair hangs down over his forehead. The pale face is somehow familiar. He is wearing a thick, dark overcoat. Is it even remotely possible?

It’s possible. In New York City, anything is possible.