New York was still hot when I got there. I had timed myself to arrive by overnight bus so that I gave myself most of the day to find our meeting place on MacDougal. Of course I arrived early. I carried a small square travelling suitcase which I set upon the sidewalk and used as a seat. As I waited I watched the crowds on the sidewalk – the place teemed with activity. I marveled at the extraordinary mix of people with their unconventional clothing and seemingly carefree demeanors.
I saw Mike before he saw me, but I almost didn’t recognize him. Gone was the pale youth of our transatlantic passage. The young man I saw now was bronzed and muscular and exuded health and vitality. What a difference two and a half months had made! I stood up as he approached and greeted him unsure whether we should hug or shake hands. We indulged in a quick embrace which didn’t express any of my pent-up emotions. Mike was a little preoccupied because he had hoped that we could stay with Chris, one of his friends, in Greenwich Village. This friend turned out to be away on vacation; so, as it was getting late, we found a nearby hotel.
I shall always remember our approach to the reception desk. Mike asked about vacancies and when the clerk inquired whether we needed two rooms or one Mike turned to me. I quietly said, “Two rooms.” My motivation was driven by shame and anguish. I didn’t want Michael to discover my dark secret.
Yes, I had a dark secret. It was that, although I was twenty-one years old, I had still not reached menses. Yes, this is a medical anomaly, but is easily explained. My menses had been delayed by my long years of anorexia. By this time in my life I had overcome anorexia but the hormones of normal development had still not caught up. My chest was as flat as a boy’s although I disguised this fact by wearing a bra padded with bean bags. Of course I didn’t want Michael to discover my secret and, being premenstrual, I knew that I didn’t have the right hormones for intercourse. So here I was, a prim virgin, in the middle of Greenwich Village having to deny the man of my dreams. It was an act to hide a secret and an act which probably affected the direction of the rest of my life. I often wonder what would have happened if I had said, “One room.”
We didn’t spend long in the hotel and were soon out on the streets of Greenwich Village. Our walk was directionless as we wondered among the crowds on the street. Mike seemed to be perfectly at home in this sea of activity but I was unaccustomed to seeing so many unconventional people. We watched a spontaneous concert in Washington Square and eventually found a small restaurant where we ate. When we entered the restaurant Mike turned to me waiting for me to select a table. I looked at him. That is when he told me that American girls always select where they are to sit in a restaurant. It appeared to me that he did not like this custom but was determined to make me do likewise. I think that he liked making me choose, not because he approved of the arrangement, but because it amused him to see me doing so.
The following morning Mike called Barbara who had a flat on East 56th. She told him that she would willingly put us up and so we checked out of the hotel and made our way to her apartment. Barbara impressed me immensely with her long blonde hair and elegant thin body. I got the distinct impression that she disapproved of our liaison as she hardly spoke a word to me. I even wondered if she had one been one of Mike’s girlfriends, for her distaste was undisguised. I soon discovered that she worked for Time Life Magazine and had aspirations of becoming a novelist. She made us laugh with her descriptions of life on the magazine which centered on cutting, cutting and more cutting. She explained that this is the key to good writing.
Mike spent the next two days whisking me around New York. We visited the East Village with its small art galleries and even attended a discussion about art in one of them. We visited Sheridan Square with its famous bookshops, brownstone houses which reminded me of England, the Seagram Building, Lever House, and the Lincoln Center. At the Lincoln Center we saw some Calder sculptures which Mike liked. We wandered into many art galleries, the one which I remember best was the Frick collection with its calm interior courtyard and famous art including Vermeer’s Laughing Girl, JV Eyck’s Virgin and Child and El Greco’s Clearing of the Temple.
Mike made contact with his friend, Chris, who, although still away on vacation, gave us permission to use his flat as a pied-a –terre. I found the ferocious untidiness of his abode in stark contrast to the expense of the furnishings and world class art on the walls including a Chagall. Mike and I adopted it as a good place to hang out and enjoy each other’s company without the watchful eye of a hostess, as was the case in Barbara’s apartment.
My last memory of Mike is of the Sunday afternoon which we spent in Central Park. That’s when he told me that he felt that he had squandered the weekend and that he felt depressed. He told me that girls of my class are cold, and that American girls attack the male. It was obvious from this comment that he did not like the attacking woman but somehow seemed to wish that I were more sexual and did just that. Perhaps this was the moment when I should have come clean and told him about my dark secret but I didn’t. Pride is a terrible thing.
When he made his declaration of love, I did not understand what he was saying. His declaration came in a riddle which I pretended to understand but didn’t. He said that the new Beatles song ‘I’ve just seen a face’ summed up his feelings and made him think of me. I, of course, had never heard the song, and so did not know what he was telling me. But again pride took hold and I didn’t say anything. When I got home I bought the record and cried bitterly when I heard the words. Even now years later those words ring my heart and bring tears to my eyes.
‘I’ve just seen a face
I can’t forget the time or place
Where we just met
She’s just the girl for me
And I want all the world
To see we’ve met
Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm mmm mmm
Had it been another day
I might have looked the other way
And I’d have never been aware
But as it is I’ll dream of her tonight
La, di, di, da di di
Falling, yes I am falling
And she keeps calling
Me back again
I have never known the like of this
I’ve been alone and I have missed things
And kept out of sight
For other girls were never quite like this
La, di, di, da di di’
‘Oh, falling, yes I am falling
And she keeps calling
Me back again’
Calling I may have been, but after we parted I spent a few more miserable days in New York and an equally sad nine-day oceanic crossing before taking up my next year at university. I don’t remember if we exchanged letters, I rather think that we didn’t or if we did they were few and far between. Certainly, on my side of the ocean, the demands of everyday life including my mother’s illness and death eclipsed any thoughts of trying to stay in touch. By the time that my menses occurred two years later and I became a full woman we had already lost contact. That’s when I wrote the first version of the letter that was never mailed. That’s the letter which I have now rewritten and have nowhere to send.
I add this conclusion to my ‘Unanswered Letter’ in the second edition of my anthology of short stories. It wraps up Mike and my encounter of 1966. When the first edition came out in 2013, I undertook an extensive promotion tour to assist with sales. I orchestrated the tour so that it followed the path which I had taken forty years earlier. It was a nostalgic decision which gave me pleasure but I was not so wrapped in the past to travel by Greyhound. No, this time, I travelled in luxury in an RV camper. Moreover, I didn’t travel alone as my son, now a freelance photographer, accompanied me acting as chauffeur and companion. He helped fill the vacuum left by my husband’s death and used the trip to chronicle America on film. We stayed in good hotels, and ate well. I enjoyed this chance to travel with him and was thankful that he was beside me to soften the sting of loss and provide companionship.
I developed a routine in which I would read excerpts, always the same excerpts, answer questions, and then sit at a desk signing books with a blue felt tip pen. At each venue I scanned the audience in the hope that, perhaps, I’d see a face that I recognized. Well, actually, I didn’t care about just any recognizable face all I wanted was that one face, the reason for the story, which I did not explain to my audiences. Each time I rationalized my disappointment with the consolation that the more people who came, the more the book would be read the more likely it was to draw the response which I craved.
By the time that we had been on the road for two months we were both ready to go home and headed south from New York with only one stop planned in Fort Worth. Here, the second signing was in a boutique store. As usual I scanned the audience without recognition. I gave my reading, answered questions and settled down to signing books. When I thought that the last book had been presented I looked up at the room to see if my son was close. That was when I felt a warm hand on my neck. I experienced an erotic wave of excitement. Only one person had ever touched my neck in this manner causing such a tremor of desire. A clipped voice spoke, the sound transported me back four decades, “Hi Susan, it has been a long time. How are you?’
I didn’t have to turn. I knew. I said, “It’s you Mike, isn’t it?”
I didn’t have to ask how he was I could feel strength and health in his touch. It was the same vitality of 1966. Slowly, enjoying every precious moment, my heart pounding, every second in slow motion I turned to look into his face. The rest of the room became a blur as I looked at him. In those long nanoseconds I saw beyond aging skin, beyond graying hair, beyond creases around the eyes and mouth, into the depth of the blue eyes. Their color was unchanged and they still shone with intelligence. I wanted to plunge into their blue, to swim in their pool of intellect. As I faced him I felt his hand still warm and caressing, touching the erotic places on my neck. I sensed his strength and lost myself in the ecstasy of the moment.
Slowly, ever so gently, he bent over and brought his lips to mine for a kiss. It was to be that sweet kiss which we had never exchanged.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, January 2014