An Unanswered Letter – part 4 – America – a short story

Now that we were in New York harbor, Mike again took the role of guide and observer. He kept asking me how I felt and what I thought about what I saw. I recall that I had nothing profound to offer. New York was in the midst of a heat wave and the air was hot. I had never experienced such air. It was like putting one’s head in an oven. Over and over I commented on the air but Mike had experienced such torpor before and I don’t think that my comments impressed.

Looking back I think that he wanted something profound relating to an awed response to the Statue of Liberty and the symbolism of New York’s harbor welcoming immigrants into its arms.
The morning of our arrival he wore a crisp blue cotton shirt the exact color of his eyes. The sky blue hue accentuated their depth and picked up a glimpse of color from his class ring. During our voyage I always loved how he looked in blue admiring the old blue sweater which he wore when it was cold, the one he was wearing when we first met. I’d also seen him in greens and light tan clothing and thought this suited him well but not as well as the blues.

At this point I was desperate and almost paralyzed by a deep sadness which I attempted to disguise. In accordance with my upbringing I thought that if we were to ever meet again the initiative had to come from Mike, the man. I kept telling myself that such romances aboard ship were commonplace and that I should not spoil it by asking for more. I tried to appear distant and not engaged, ready for my American travels. He, doubtless, was waiting for me to be ‘American’ and to give him some encouraging comments.

The State Department employees with their passport booths set up in dining hall. They were set up to process us on board with a barrier between the US citizens and everyone else. Our parting was hasty as we separated into our appropriate lines. As I stood in my line I mused about everything that I had heard about ship board romances. Ours certainly fit the description. But we hadn’t made a rendezvous not even an exchange of contact information. We had just parted with, no meeting in a few months on the Empire State Building, just a fleeting hug, no memento, no promises, no exchange of addresses, no souvenir. I thought that we were to become strangers again separated by time and tide.

He was, of course, in the short fast moving line of Americans while I was swallowed up into the long slow moving line of Europeans. When I emerged I paused at the top of the gangplank and looked down to scan the crowd for one last glimpse. That’s when I saw him moving quickly towards his Mom and Dad. His Mom waved frantically and his Dad stood beside her. I could just see him taking his Mom in his arms and then his turn as he gave a man-hug to his Dad. They patted each-other on the back. By now I was on the pier and lost sight of them in the throng of people.

They had told us that our quay was New York’s newest (ergo “best”) but I found it grim and grimy perhaps because this was where Mike and I separated. I paused beside the ship which loomed above me asserting its presence. I looked up at it letting the experience of the last nine days race through my head. My heart pounded, at the pain of saying goodbye. Then I saw him again. He was running upstream towards me, his face anxious. I thought that, perhaps, he had come back for an address. The address which I, desperately wanted to ask for but didn’t because girls of my upbringing don’t make the first move. Looking back I am sure that he wanted me to respond as an American might and to ask thereby saving him the first step. But I remained mute. He took me in his arms and pressed us together in a long embrace. “Good bye,” he murmured in my ear, “good bye. We had a great time didn’t we?”

I nodded, “Yes, it was a great pleasure.” He seemed to wince. I’m sure that he was thinking, as I thought afterwards, what a stupid understatement I had just made. Those were probably the words which finally severed and sealed our parting.

He kept his arms around me and said, “Good bye. Have a great trip!” not the words which I had hoped to hear “I love you and want to see you again.”

But, this time I was able to respond with warmth, “Good bye, Mike, meeting you has been very special, Thank you for everything- have a good life.” My voice trailed off as he turned to see his parents coming back up the quay. The crowd swelled thicker as he left me and ran towards them to be lost in the milling mass of people. He didn’t look back but I stood and watched until I was almost alone on the wharf. Then I took up my bags and walked slowly into New York.

Outside the docks I took a taxi to a preselected hotel. It turned out to be a ghastly place, a grey gloomy hole which matched my mood. Its only redeeming feature was a lovely “blue room” reception hall. I changed into light clothes and quickly left my dismal room, to brave the heat and walk the city streets. The streets which I trod were garish, streets of bargains and food, of neon signs, of questionable businesses, of people, of rubbish or trash as Americans call it, and of heat so torpid that it radiated up from the sidewalks,. The building rose almost unconnected, grey and grubby, into the hazy air, only their tenuous bases planted in the street podium of garnish activity. I walked for hours trying to find peace in this jumble of humanity and dirt but eventually returned to the hotel to sleep. The City had done nothing to improve my mood.

I was dejected and sad even though I arrived with two fantastic deals in my pocket. Through the National Union of Students for $99 I had purchased a Greyhound ticket which was good for anywhere, any ride, for the next 99 days. I also had invitations from four People to People families with whom I was to stay. I had already set up the stays so that I could start in New Jersey and travel in an anti-clockwise motion, up the New England coast, across the north via the Great Lakes, then eventually get to the Pacific where I could turn south through California and then back east to take in part of Texas and round up the Atlantic coast back to New York for another nine day cruise back home. Call it an American sampler designed to give a taste of America of 1966.

The next day another cab took me to the Greyhound station where I began my ninety nine day travels. My recollection of my travels has faded over the years; that is all, except those relating to Michael. I vividly remember my day in Boston which I spent in an anxious state of morose anticipation, not looking at Boston, but looking for Michael.

I remember that the bus arrived in Boston in the middle of the night and so I found a place in the terminal ladies toilet where I lay on the floor, undisturbed, and slept. I slept the soothing slumber of youth until I was awoken by the cleaning crew who seemed none too pleased to find me curled up in this public place where people are not supposed to sleep. I won them over when I apologized and humbly asked directions to the river.

I knew Boston to be Mike’s home town and that he was somewhere in this city. Naively, I thought that I might run into him but didn’t know where to put myself for this chance meeting. Indeed, I had no plan or thoughts on what I’d say if we did meet. I spent the day looking for him and then saddened, but not surprised, returned to the Greyhound station to continue onwards to Chicago.

From Chicago I went on to Cleveland then across South Dakota to the Black Hills and on to California. My People to People assignment in California was in the Central Valley with Dr. Guy Grenier and family. From the father’s name I expected a French speaking medical doctor. I was surprised; Dr. Guy Grenier was neither French speaking nor a medical doctor, his link to me was through architecture. He, and his family, had selected me as their student because he worked as a coordinator between architects on one side and educationalists on the other, and felt that this created a special rapport. Initially I judged him authoritative and proud, but as I came to know him I saw much to admire and dismissed my first impression. He had a spirited persona and could talk knowledgeably on many subjects including literature, music, lingos, and people. At the hosted People to People picnic I amused him by telling him that my father made a mean “Martini”. I gave the recipe as; one third gin, one third Italian Vermouth, and one third French Vermouth mixed with a drop of Angostura bitters, a twist of lemon and cube of Ice. He was delighted by the recipe and, grinning from ear to ear, introduced me to his ‘boss’, Dr. Garsy, so that I could tell him the recipe. Dr. Garsy smiled with equal amusement and thanked me adding,
“A national capable of perpetuating that deserves to lose its empire!”

Of course the most important event which occurred during my visit in Modesto was my receipt of Michael’s letter. It arrived enclosed in a People to People envelope. He had written to them imploring details of my itinerary and information on how he could contact me. I wish that I had kept this precious letter but I didn’t; suffice to say that I remember exactly what I was doing when the letter arrived. As humans we seem to be blessed with the ability to remember what we were doing and where we were at the most pivotal moments of our lives. In my case I was outside on the Grenier’s patio sunbathing. They were inside discussing the axiom ‘Mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun’. Michael wrote that he needed to make contact with me and asked People to People to assist him. I immediately wrote back giving my address in Kansas as my next visit.

Soon I was traveling onward to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Grand Canyon, and finally Kansas. Here I found Michael’s next letter waiting for me. He proposed that we meet in New York August 12, 1996 at 8 PM at the intersection of MacDougal Street and Washington Square; half way long the section of MacDougal which borders on Washington Square Park. I wrote back that I’d be there. The rest of my travels into Texas, to St Louis, Philadelphia and Washington DC is a blur eclipsed by my longing for New York and my pending meeting on MacDougal street.

© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, January 2014

6 thoughts on “An Unanswered Letter – part 4 – America – a short story

  1. Oh that had my interest. In 1980 our first visit to the US we did the greyhound bus thing to Texas, then took a bus tour of New England and from there did the round trip with a car we purchased across to the Pacific Ocean down to LA and back hugging the Mexican border. Yes New York, or Washington DC can be a might hot in summer and equally as cold in winter. I’ve done that many times. Great story.

    • I think that one has to regard sightseeing travels as providing atmosphere for many of the “sights” seem to blur together in time. Some never do, such as that first view of the Taj Mahal, as you pass through the entry gate – but that is, perhaps, another story! I seem to recall that you wrote some interesting excerpts from your first US jaunt and I was astonished at the clarity of your recall. You are right in surmising that there are autobiographical elements merged into the ‘Unanswered Letter’ story which had to be laced with fiction to make it interesting.

  2. “The rest of my travels…is a blur eclipsed by my longing for New York and my pending meeting on MacDougal street.”

    This captures well the intensity of new love. Looking forward to the next installment. Has been an enjoyable read 🙂

    • Good to have you back, and in form, Eric. I hope that you enjoyed your hiatus. Yes, I agree about the intensity of young love, and the reminiscent longing which such love endows on many mature adults. Ishiguro kazoo captured a similar, maybe less youthful, yearning in “the Remains of the Day” It is a special, non threatening, emotion.
      Cheerio, Jane

  3. My heart is in my throat, Jane. Love undeclared, unexpressed, mixed signals–that damned reticence at the wrong time—all strike a chord. How well you’ve depicted the situation (still a possible one, I find, even at my advanced age)…and how ironically true is this travelogue in which hardly a tourist sight is seen for the overwhelming swell of in-sight….can hardly wait to see how you make peace.

    • Cynthia, a warm thank you for your words of encouragement. One more episode to go – I hope that it brings conclusion and that you enjoy the climax! Writing these stories is a trip in itself!

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