I was seventeen, standing in the foyer of Levering Hall at Johns Hopkins. In our ongoing campaign to meet college men, we had come out on a school night to Hopkins, to some sort of political meeting, or perhaps a poetry reading. My best friend MJ was with me, and so was our friend Alma, a year behind us in school. My mother had recently taken up knitting again, and she had turned out some fuzzy mohair sweaters. This night, I wore a pink one, loose and fuzzy, over a short dark skirt.
Whatever event had brought us to the Hopkins campus was finished, and Alma’s very tall, very handsome rosy-cheeked brother was there to take her home. His friend looked short, but only because Bill was so tall, well over six feet. He wore a navy blue shirt black tie, and jeans. Later, after he and I dated for the second half of my senior year, I came to learn that Bill thought this attire made him look vaguely like a Mafioso, but to me he looked like a Baltimore City police, uniformed officer, but without the badge. Nobody dressed this way, at least no college guy I’d ever seen in real life.
Wearing the dark brown skirt and white blouse uniform of Mercy High School meant that I never had to make decisions about buying clothes for school. Coordinated outfits, mostly sweaters and skirts, were absolutely necessary for Sunday Mass, Friday night CYO or going to plays or basketball games at Calvert Hall or Loyola. The styles were dictated by Seventeen Magazine and the junior fashion boards at Hutzler’s or Stewart’s, the local department stores, which in turn probably received their marching orders from Seventeen and Glamour . I had carefully assembled a small but workable out-of-school wardrobe. Though I not yet persuaded my mother to buy me a pair of Weejuns, I had a few Villager skirts and sweaters, the requisite Chesterfield coat with velvet collar, and a shoulder bag that was the envy of my school friends. Even on the coldest winter day, we didn’t wear hats, or hoods. We eschewed scarves. Gloves and the Chesterfield coat were enough for us, no matter how frigid the weather.
But once I started going with Bill, my preppy style didn’t play so well. He was an actor, which is to say he tread the boards at his all – male college, and sometimes, at Mount Saint Agnes, its sister school across town. The theater crowd was sophisticated and cool. They had parties at the apartments of people who were at least twenty-five and sometimes—amazingly, to me—even older. They might gather around a small television to watch a special broadcast of Brando in “On the Waterfront” while they drank scotch and smoked Marlboros or Benson and Hedges. One couple, Ray and his lover, were out of the closet–both in their late twenties, both in college, both army veterans. They, too, were in the college theater group.Ray and Fred lived together in a large studio apartment on Belair Road, in a blue collar neighborhood, where rents were far cheaper than in the student ghetto.
From the time I was fourteen, my mother endured much moaning and crying on my part over my boyfriendless state. “You’re not fat,” she would say. “You’re fine. Not every boy likes a rail thin girl.” By the time I started going out with Bill, she was so relieved to see me with an active social life that she never asked for details on where I was going. And I, in turn was vague. So long as I was home by midnight, I could do as I pleased. She trusted me to make good decisions, she said.
This particular night I wore a wine colored merino wool knot dress because Bill had sent a handwritten note, couriered to me by his sister before homeroom a few mornings earlier. “Kindness of Alma” was written in ornate script in the lower left corner of the envelope, and for the return address F. J. Talma, Francois-Joseph Talma, a nineteenth century French actors whose persona Bill had adopted. In his letter, in florid, formal prose on vellum stationery, he outlined the schedule for the Saturday night. He told me the precise time he would pick me up and directed me to “wear dark, dark colors.” My mother wouldn’ t hear of my wearing black, so the burgundy wool dress — bought the year before for an afternoon tea dance at the Naval Academy– would have to do. I laid out the Chesterfield coat and Bob Dylan boots.
“Oh, we’re just going to a play and a cast party after,” I stold my mother. Indeed, there was a play—Genet’s The Balcony, which I barely understood, and a party afterwards at the home of a couple in their late twenties who lived around the corner from the Northeast Baltimore police headquarters, in the upstairs of a two–family house. Everyone was older than me, and everyone was drinking. I sipped at a glass of white wine, and found myself watching—not really participating—in a conversation between two Mount St Agnes seniors and a Jesuit from Loyola, adviser to the drama club. The girls were tall, blond and sophisticated, and they laughed and chatted and then sang, for the benefit of Father Whatever His Name Was, a parody of a Broadway show tune. I knew the song, “Can Do,” from Guys and Dolls. “Can’t do, can’t do, “ they sang. “The Church says we can’t screw. Can’t do, can’t do.” The priest threw back his head and roared with laughter.
I was shocked. I tried to show no sign of even mild surprise as I half-smiled and backed away. I found a sofa to sink into, and looked around the room for Bill. He stood in a far corner near the kitchen, holding court. “So I said to the professor, “I don’t think it’s a matter of pathetic fallacy. Rather, I think Dylan Thomas was…pathetically phallusy!’” Everyone laughed. I looked at at my watch and saw that it was 11:40, and even though my house was only ten minutes away, I became anxious.
I was quiet on the drive home. Bill lit a cigarette and he, too, was silent. His mother’s car, an older model Dodge Dart, had no radio. I felt I had disappointed him, though I‘d tried my best to be the cool and sophisticated intellectual girlfriend I thought he wanted me to be. He kissed me good night on the front porch. I didn’t ask him in.
My mother was still awake down in the basement family room. watching an old movie on the black and white television, something with Rita Hayworth. Dad was upstairs in bed, long asleep, and Mom was in her pajamas and bathrobe, drinking ginger ale.
” Didn’t we see this once, at the Northway Theatre,when I was in fifth grade? ” I asked her. “Remember, it was a school night. I fell asleep on the ride home, and you had to tell me how it ended.”
“Sit down, sweetie,” she said, patting the sofa next to her. “Wasn’t that Rita Hayworth a beautiful girl?”