So there we were. Four friends: Margaret, twenty-one; her sister Justine, twenty-five; and their mother Pegeen, eternally young and beautiful … all three native New Yorkers. Then there was little old me, who grew up in the Midwest (this becomes relevant later), and like thousands before me, came to the Big City to chase down a dream.
There is nothing new about girls leaving small towns. They move east to become models, filmmakers, art directors, writers, actresses … this or that. Dozens of songs, plays, books, and movies have immortalized their passion to be more and do more, and after they arrive, each and every one of them can be found standing on the tiptoes of their destinies, gazing forward with little caution and less fear.
Young women are wonderful.
What got me thinking about them today was a conversation between the two sisters and their mother concerning twenty-two-year-old Ginny, who had come to New York from Iowa to pursue a career in fashion design. According to Margaret, their new friend was “petite with gorgeous crystal blue eyes.” She was “bubbly, personable and outgoing, but also sensitive, affectionate and loving.” Justine added that she was “kind, good-natured, silly, goofy, and sweet.”
Their mother, however, saw the young woman as “small, fragile, gullible, naïve, and doomed.” To Pegeen, Ginny was fodder for an evil-intentioned brute lurking beyond a turnstile at a subway stop (“I’ll grind her bones to make my bread!”) and unlikely to survive, let alone to achieve her dreams.
What precipitated this argument was a second move for the Iowa transplant. This time out of a cramped studio apartment in Manhattan to comfortable rooms in a marginal-if-not-dangerous neighborhood across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Pegeen was certain that the move would be a death sentence. Margaret and Justine just laughed at their mother, unfazed by her fears and confident that, even though Ginny wasn’t a native New Yorker, she was immortal (as are all girls under the age of twenty-five) and had enough street sense to survive.
And that got me to thinking about my own move to the Big City. To unexpected kindnesses. To odd souls. And to happenstantial meetings with unforgettable, if dubious, strangers … when, like Justine, Margaret, and Ginny, I scoffed at danger and believed in the delicious invulnerability youth.
I’ll tell you about a few:
CAB DRIVER: When a girl is anywhere from eighteen to twenty-four years of age, it is almost inevitable that she is going to fall in love, fall hard, and fall for the wrong guy. I certainly did. It is a rite of passage.
I don’t remember his name (well, I actually, do), and I don’t remember any details of our breakup, but I clearly recall dashing out of the restaurant where he broke my heart, hailing a cab and sputtering my address to the man behind the wheel when I slipped into the back seat.
As soon as I shut the car door, I dazedly realized that I would have to pay for the trip, so I rifled through my purse. Horrified, I quickly discovered that I had only four singles and no change. I made a timid “ahem” to the driver. He looked in the rearview mirror and met my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled, tears streaming down my cheeks, “but I don’t have enough money to get home. Can you just drive toward 84th Street, and let me out when four dollars are used up?”
The cab driver nodded.
I dropped my eyes. I did not glance out the window, I paid no attention to traffic, and I continued to weep. About fifteen minutes later, the taxi pulled up to a curb and stopped. I looked up. We were outside my apartment building. The meter showed $8.35.
“But…but…” I sputtered, handing over less than half the fare.
The cab driver smiled. His eyes smiled. His heart smiled. The unrepentant romantic in his fatherly soul smiled. And as I gushed out my thanks (tears still streaming), he said kindly, “He wasn’t worth it lady.”
And, just like that, I fell in love with New York.
THE SPY: I was standing in line at Lincoln Center waiting to buy tickets for a play when I noticed the man in front of me. He was blond, blue-eyed, tall, suntanned, and he had a handsome face. A movie star face.
We began to talk, nothing of consequence, but flirtatious and friendly, and we soon found ourselves sitting in a nearby café. Our talk, however, quickly turned into a monologue, and soon I was feeling as if I’d been swept into a spy movie and had become the latest “Bond Girl” for sexy James. I listened, agog.
“I was flying over Iran northeast of Shiraz when my plane was shot down,” he began, his jaw tight. “As I spun out of control, I ejected and parachuted down. I was on a Black Op mission, so when local tribesmen turned me over to the Iranian secret police, I knew I was on my own.”
He pulled out a wallet, flipped it open to a government ID emblazoned with the letters C.I.A., his photo, and a name I didn’t catch, because he quickly flipped it shut again. There was a look of pained recollection in his eyes as he described starvation, torture, beatings, and finally – gently touching the back of his head – a metal plate that was surgically inserted in his skull after his escape. He had bribed a guard, stowed away on a cargo ship, was rescued by American troops, and was then taken to a hospital in Kuwait.
He went on to detail deployment as a Navy Seal (he attached plastic explosives to enemy submarines), invading the Falkland Islands as an advisor to British Troops, and infiltrating Castro’s inner circle in Cuba.
But the minute he started to talk about the metal plate, I was ready to leave. He was the third man I had met in as many weeks who told me the same thing (the first purportedly a fighter pilot; the second, a Hollywood stuntman). Was “I have a metal plate in my head” a new pickup line? Had it replaced “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” or “Didn’t we meet on the Riviera?”
When we were walking out of the cafe, he said that he would like to see me again. What he really said was “Will you marry me?” and I’m not kidding. I don’t recall how I got out of there, but I did. With efficient haste. In thinking back on that interchange, I’m not sure if my spy was sadly delusional, a Great Pretender, or a prop put in my path by a comical cosmos wanting to test the credulity of a twenty-one year old girl.
CASABLANCA: Girls do such strange things. When I was twenty-four years old, I became annoyed by how long it was taking for reality to GIVE ME EVERYTHING THAT I WANTED. So, I decided to hurry things along by checking into the exclusive Hotel Pierre and lurking in the lobby until a suitable millionaire came along. Back then, I was adorable, so it seemed like a workable plan.
Suffice to say, I did not meet my millionaire. But on a park bench across the street from the hotel’s entrance, I met Daniel. Daniel was handsome, of course (a requisite for all my youthful encounters), mellow and talkative. Soon he was telling me about a trip he’d made to Mexico many years before. It wasn’t an adventure story, so don’t expect exploding planes or midnight excursions to Tibet. And it probably wasn’t even true. But by telling me his tale, Daniel made my solitary stay at The Pierre oh so much more romantic
“After I walked into a bar in Tijuana,” he began, his voice confidential, “I suddenly experienced a weird kind of déjà vu, as if I’d been plopped into a nightclub in Morocco in the middle of World War II. A middle-aged Negro was seated at a piano, playing and singing. He had the same voice; the same expressive eyes; and the same tilt of his head – as if he wanted to send his lyrics through the ceiling to the sky – as the piano player in my favorite movie, Casablanca. I had seen it at least a dozen times, so the face and the voice were familiar. So was his song. He was singing … ‘As Time Goes By.’
“I waited and watched until he finished. Then I approached him and said, ‘You’re Dooley Wilson, aren’t you?’
“With tears in his eyes, the old actor responded, ‘Thank you, sir. It’s been years since anyone recognized me. It’s good to be remembered.’”
That’s all. As I said, no exploding planes and nothing very dramatic. Just three stories about encounters with three strangers, any of which could have gone bad, but none of which did.
I could also tell you about Vinnie, who passed out drunk every night in the lobby of my building; or the burglary of my apartment one hot summer day when I left my window open while I was at work; or the drunken couple who lived across the hall and kept me from ever getting a good night’s sleep. But those stories could have happened anywhere, and they weren’t any fun. I survived them, too.
Just as Margaret and Justine will survive and thrive. Their friend Ginny will become a successful fashion designer. Or like a girl in an O. Henry story, she’ll go back to Iowa and marry the boy on the farm.
Pegeen, the sisters’ loving and fretful mother will, over time, come to realize that her little chickadees are strong and wise. Invulnerable and immortal. Maybe not for all eternity, but for as long as forever lasts.
And while they are young.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2016
Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com.