Most Memorable: March 2013
In 1967, in the second semester of my senior year at Vassar, I went for three job interviews in the Boston area. I stayed in the Cambridge apartment of a girl who had graduated the year before, a round-eyed blonde I called by her last name, Palmer, a Greek major, summa. Palmer worked at Polaroid, one of the places where I was scheduled to interview. Several matters were on my mind that week in February: staying with someone who had intimidated as much as impressed me when she was at college; interviewing for jobs at places as different as Polaroid, and a think tank where I’d be taking the IBM 1.Q.test, and The Atlantic Monthly. Also on my mind was that it had been forty days since my last period.
If I were pregnant, it was definitely by the young man I was engaged to marry in August. I was job hunting in the Boston area because he’d be doing graduate work at Harvard in September. I would be our sole support at the beginning of our marriage.
On the bus from Poughkeepsie to Danbury to Hartford to Boston, I kept thinking how forty days was Biblical. The caravan-like pace of the small old bus led me to look for a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, but all I saw were empty furrows of farm fields and cows and horses whose breath steamed in the chill air. Around sunset, north of Hartford, I saw a boy leaping furrows like hurdles as he ran towards a farmhouse glowing from within. The darkening sky lowered clouds that would bring snow within hours. It was a time to be going home, but I was going in the opposite direction. Forty days echoed Biblical injunctions like my mother’s parting words to me four years earlier when she had left me, the freshman who skipped her senior year in high school: “If you ever get in trouble, call me. And if you ever get in trouble, I’ll kill you.”
Palmer’s apartment was larger than I’d expected. It had a large living room with big-bellied Boston windows, a white kitchen, and a bedroom with two double beds separated by a night table. Across the room was a long dresser with jewelry box, triptych, perfume bottles, and a seventeen-inch TV. I thanked her for hospitality and insisted I make dinner for both of us the following evening. She looked momentarily troubled, something of a relief to me because Palmer had always looked absolutely certain of everything. She had talked that way. The first time I’d met Palmer, in my sophomore, an even more terrifying girl in my dorm, the daughter of the only Democratic mayor in New Jersey, created the introduction by opening my door without knocking—I lived in a single—and announcing to Palmer that this – I—was the person who could write pretty well. Jessica assumed my one comfortable chair as her throne, directed Palmer to my desk chair, and ordered me to supply them both with entertaining reading matter, which I never thought of refusing. They left as imperially as they had entered, but Palmer had been enthusiastic and warm. She was a very pretty girl, beautifully sure of her charm.
Now in her apartment living room, reacting to my offer to make fettucini and steak bernaise, the only two I could cook with some pride, Palmer’s discomfort almost made me feel some equality with her, even though I had to count every cent I was spending on the trip. I had saved up three months of working at the Vassar library to pay for it. I was ashamed to be a scholarship student at Vassar; good looks and some small ability had helped me “pass” economically amongst girls who routinely carried as taxi money amounts I’d work weeks to accumulate.
The problem was Palmer’s sensitivity to my cash flow because her friend would be coming to dinner the next night. She tried to figure a way to say he’d pay for everything, but we were both clumsy about my pride. In the end, she agreed to me take care of it, and in a rush of gratitude, I said I wished my ‘friend’ would finally come, too. Palmer was immediately concerned and compelled me into an intensely hot bath where she insisted I drink a full mug of Scotch. Then she stood guard outside the bathroom door, checking at intervals to make sure I wasn’t fully overcome by heat or alcohol. I remember, drunkenly, her question through the door, about whether I thought Ophelia had been pregnant. This made me laugh until I cried.
Despite the snow falling heavily, I successfully arrived at my first job interview the next day, way out in a far suburb, Bedford, past Lexington and not quite to Concord. The corporation was made up of four to six two-story lettered buildings where everything was stainless steel and brightly colored plastic. Eighty percent of its income came from Air Force contracts, and along with the war in Vietnam, the corporation was greatly inflating. Hence their aggressive campaign on Ivy campuses. They promised the best pay of the three places considering me for employment. I was put in a windowed cubicle with a thick test brochure, which, like other aptitude tests I’d taken before and since, put me in the top percent. I was offered a position as part of a team of seven physicists (I thought of Snow White) whose work would only be explained to me after I passed a top security clearance. I assured my interviewer that the last group I had belonged to was the Girl Scouts. He put me into a corporate car to take me back to Boston.
There were at least six inches of wet snow on the ground—and it was still coming down fast—when I walked into the building that housed The Atlantic Monthly. Although everything was neat and fairly new, compared to the military corporate experience The Atlantic appeared to operate on a shoestring. I met men and women who looked like a weekend at Yale twenty years later. They were extremely cordial to me — I was given tea in a china cup, with milk and sugar — but the slim, soft-spoken man who interviewed pretty much assured me that there was no money in the job they offered, and secondly, it was barely secretarial, and he knew how Vassar girls felt about being secretaries. It would have been rude of me to ask why he then had so formally invited me by letter to an interview, and I thought perhaps it was just his polite way of not telling me I hadn’t impressed him or that something about me had revealed to him my scholarship status. It might have been the fact that I wasn’t wearing a coat in the snowstorm; I didn’t have a presentable winter coat. I owned one really nice suit then, black with Persian lamb collar and cuffs. I had a little Jackie Kennedy Persian lamb hat I wore with it. If it had been a sunny day, I would’ve looked great.
As it was, I went out into the then ferocious storm and tried to find a cab. My feet were soaked. The curls of my Persian lamb hat drooped. But at least there was a friend at Polaroid, Palmer. I was cold and miserable by the time I got there, unsure about how much I should tip the cabdriver and what steak cost in Cambridge. I still had that dinner to shop for and cook. I hardly remember the interview; the place was corporate, cubicles of glass and grey carpeting, the job meaningless and clerical. By the time I found Palmer in the warren of a lower floor, I felt that Eliza, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I had jumped similar ice floes.
Palmer was sitting at a desk in front of a glassed-in cubicle. Her IBM electric was red. She was typing faster than anyone I had ever seen. I was embarrassed to see Palmer typing; I’d heard this girl translate Greek just as fast. She was salutatorian of her class. She was someone Jessica the Democratic mayor’s daughter wanted to impress. But Palmer wasn’t embarrassed to see me; she was peppy and excited, eager to introduce me to her boss and have him put in a good word for me upstairs. She drew me into the man’s brightly lit office and said nice things about me. He was in his forties, I imagine, with photos of a family on his desk. He was balding and overweight, a modernized but Dickensian character. He praised Palmer and her cheeks reddened. My back was turned to them as I was leaving the office when they told me at what time they’d be home for dinner.
Even in a snowstorm with soaked shoes, it is wonderful to be twenty years old. At least it is wonderful from the safe distance of time, knowing as I now do that things far harder to endure were yet to come. That day, however, I was not feeling wonderful. I was exhausted, cold, and terrified. I crossed streets to find a grocery store, all the while imagining myself slipping in front of an oncoming truck. I wiped snow out of my eyes with tears, thinking at least that way my mother would never have to know about the forty days. As I shopped for fettucini noodles and Parmesan cheese and cream and salad and a thick steak to feed three — one of whom was a man with an obviously huge appetite — and then on to a liquor store again in the bleary snow, I thought of the alternative: if I really were pregnant, what were the job interviews for? What had four years on a generous Vassar Club scholarship gained me? I thought about my fiance and how responsible he would be, and how it would alter his plans and how his family would feel about me then. I knew, as I paid for the Beaujolais I’d learned to drink in their home, who was always held responsible for illegitimate pregnancies. I also knew about a girl in my dorm who’d gone for an abortion after getting pregnant by a townie. First of all, she could afford it. Second of all, after it, she’d left school in the middle of the week. No one even mentioned her name after that.
I changed into dry clothes in Palmer’s apartment, college clothes, old wheat jeans and a pink and grey Vassar sweatshirt. I cooked. I went to the bathroom a hundred times to check. I drank a lot of Scotch. I set the table, lit candles I had bought, put music on Palmer’s stereo.
By the time Palmer and Bill arrived, I was really warm and the apartment smelled wonderful of garlic and butter and cream and broiling steak. They laughed to see how high I was, and I laughed with them. Bill said he’d called my interviewer who was looking forward to having me as his assistant. Palmer, Bill, and I shared a lascivious laugh. After dinner, Palmer and I cleaned up the dishes. She told me that Bill intended to stay a while; did I have a problem with that? I said it was her apartment. She started crying; I said I was the one who should be crying, I was probably pregnant. Bill came in to the kitchen because of the crying—and he heard what I had said. Palmer cried more loudly; he said he’d helped her get her abortion and he could help me get mine.
I fled to the bathroom and into another hot bath. I had no need for further Scotch. What kept me from sliding down into warm, wet unconsciousness were the consoling sounds in Palmer’s bedroom that quickly transformed into sounds of such erotic intensity that I was awakened by my strongest character trait, pure curiosity. What on earth were they doing?
By the time I quietly exited the bathroom into the bedroom, the lights were dim and the TV was on. Palmer and Bill were in the far bed by the door. I nodded to them without eye contact, got into bed, and pulled the sheet and blanket over my head. I fell asleep the way someone does when she doesn’t want to wake up ever again.
I woke up. Palmer had gone to work and left me a note thanking me for the great dinner. It was sunny outside, doubly bright on the snow. I got a cab to the bus station and began the return trip to Hartford and Danbury and Poughkeepsie. Somewhere between Hartford and Danbury my period came; tragedy turned into mere humiliation as I then had to face getting off and onto buses in bloodstained clothes. It was more than enough for me to cope with before I was twenty-one.
I took the job with the seven dwarves; when my top secret clearance came through, I discovered I was using a computer to plot the kill ratios of ballistic missiles. It was 1968 by then, and I quit. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Bobby Kennedy were murdered that year. I got a job learning public relations for a mental hospital on Long Island.
I saw Palmer and Jessica at a reunion fifteen years later. When I asked Jessica what she was doing, she said, “I’m a whore.” Palmer explained that Jessica wrote speeches for a corporate president. Palmer still looked lovely but very tired. She’d been married and divorced, had no children. Her work was looking after her trust fund. She asked me if I had any kids and how old they were. “One,” I said, “she’s just three.”
“She won’t have to go through what we did,” Palmer said, hugging me.
Jessica watched us embrace with bleak-faced skepticism. Born a fin de siecle fatalist, the daughter of the only Democratic mayor in New Jersey just shook her head.
Lois Bassen was a 2011 finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and the winner of the 2009 Atlantic Pacific Press Drama Prize. She serves as fiction editor for Prick of the Spindle, and is a reviewer for Horse Lee Press, Small Beer Press, The Rumpus, Leaf Scape, New Pages and others. For the past two decades she has been published in Kenyon Review, American Scholar, Minnetonka, Persimmontree and others. She is also a prize-winning, produced and published playwright. She was commissioned to co-author a WWII memoir by the Scottish bride of Baron Kawasaki.