(from the collection: Back Then)
By Yale Udoff
Outside it was beginning to snow.
As they left the theatre the crisp, cold air brought to Pauline that peculiar joy she always felt during the first snowy winter evening. Her joy was the result of many things: the beauty of the virgin white flaking slowly down through the beam of a hunched and lonely street lamp, the expectation of the long warm winter evenings that would follow, but most of all she enjoyed the intimacy the snow brought to the city - the scale of things seemed more manageable, more comfortable.
The air was crisp and the spotlights that centered on the fountain in the middle of the square momentarily blinded both. The night sky, heavy and black, hugged the surrounding buildings. Sparkling Christmas lights from the hotels and shops helped contribute to the glow that whitewashed the graceful fountain, which slept contently like some huge white bear. A wave of excitement rushed through Pauline's body as they crossed Fifth Avenue and headed east. She head always felt the colder the night the warmer things really were, and tonight all was warm and inviting.
The strong light from the window of a bookshop on the opposite corner sprayed across Madison Avenue. He pointed her attention to the changing colors of the traffic light that stood at rigid attention to next to them, and which played merrily on the bookshops window - now red, now yellow, finally agreen. "Like to go in?" Claude asked, after they crossed.
Her eyes flashed her answer and he pushed open the door. They found themselves surrounded by tall bookcases whose shelves held a mixture of brown leather bindings, paperback foreign language editions, magazines, art books and gay many colored calendars for the New Year. On the top shelf, in the corner, a carved Renaissance saint competed for living space with a graceful but forbidding black plaster Egyptian cat. Standing half way up the ladder a squat, silver haired man in a crew neck sweater filled the crowded shelves with fresh books. As he worked he glanced hurriedly at the inside jacket of each book, then quickly and smoothly slipped the volume into position.
Claude turned and finding Pauline directly in front of him was once again taken with the fragile beauty of her face, the golden hair a halo against the background of the brown leather books directly behind her. Her soft yet finely chiseled face reminded him of the smooth delicacy of porcelain china. He was intrigued and puzzled by the feeling that for all the sparkle of her features, there hid behind her luminous eyes a deep sadness, a melancholy that pervaded her person. He drew close, wrapped his arm around her slim waist and they moved out of the shop, once again into the noisy street where shoppers and party-goers rushed past, each enjoying the night in their own way. Or, perhaps, suffering through it.
As they walked, refreshed by the crisp breeze, Pauline stopped and turned toward a window full of bright fluffy dresses. She gazed rapturously at the dead glare of the mannequins, the unrestrained joy of a young girl on a holiday picnic flowing through her face. "I love this part of the city so much. Don't you?" He nodded his agreement, and they continued walking, The snow was coming quickly now, the wind whipping it into their faces where it melted as it dripped down their cheeks.
A candle flickered inside the rusting carriage lamp that jutted out from the soot stained brick wall; a square of deteriorating wood with Bristol Pub carved into it hung below the lamp. Maneuvering her towards the pockmarked door, he gripped the brass knob and pulled it open. They stepped down and into a long narrrow room with muted light. The cedar walls held the gouged out initials of men and women who had warmed themselves around the same fireplace that now smoldered with the remains of a recent fire. " Nice place," Pauline said as they moved between a file of booths on one side and two-chaired tables that sat near the bar.
"An open booth," Claude pointed. She slid into the narrow opening and settled back, breathing in the feel of the room. Claude pushed himself into the bench across from her and lit a cigarette. Pauline removed her gloves slowly, revealing long graceful fingers that lay naked and defenseless on the hard oak. A beam of light from the small lamp on the wall next to them caught the gloss on her nails as her fingers moved nervously across the table. The hypnotic glide of her hands in addition to the strange way the light fell on her fingernails mobilized all of his attention before a voice intruded: "Care to order."
He looked up. A sour face returned his glance. "Cutty Sark on the rocks, please."
"And the lady?"
"What would you like, Pauline?" She seemed to hesitate, then with a dimpled shrug addressed to him, "Can I have a Side Car?"
"Sure," he nodded to the waiter, who headed away. Pauline's eyes followed the waiter to a bar covered with twinkling glasses and chatting drinkers. At the far end of a bar, a few feet above the glasses, the snow was jammed against the arched street level window. The sleepy hum of indistinguishable chatter flowed - when suddenly, a woman slapped the young man beside her and left before he could say anything. The man tried to shrug off any embarrassment he felt, but betrayed his false ease by throwing down some money on the bar, fumbling for his jacket as he raced out into the snow.
"Wonder what that was about?" Pauline murmured.
"Bars, restaurants, just walking, they're sort of our theatres, don't you think. People get a chance to act," Claude offered. Pauline smiled, shrugged but said nothing. She seemed not to know what to say. He fumbled with a bundle of alternatives as an uneasy silence floated between them.
"Did you like the film?" he asked.
"Yes, very much. Those people lead such interesting lives. It must be wonderful to live like that."
"Well, I don't know. It's just a movie. The characters, the people were, well, a little bit, you know sort of surface. Ordinary."
"I still liked it," was her mild rebuke. He wanted to move the conversation in another direction, but his mind, whipped by a torrent of crosscurrents, pointed him in no particular direction. The need to say something, anything, was relieved momentarily by the waiter, who with quick cat like moves placed two paper napkins beneath the cold drinks. Pauline caressed the stem of her glass before lifting and sipping. Her head was turned toward the wall and her eyes moved slowly up into the dark area of shadow where the wall met the ceiling. Claude, uncomfortable, toyed with a chunk of ice that floated in his glass, and was startled by the sudden question: "Are you Sagittarius?
"Don't you believe in Astrology? The signs of the Zodiac."
"No," he answered haltingly, muffling the full effect of the denial before it left his mouth. He was, however, unable to short-circuit the grin that creased his face. Strangely, she didn't lose a moment before, "I'm supposed to marry a Sagittarius," she said with an earnestness that rebuked his grin. "I hope you're not a Taurus. They're bad for me."
This time he laughed, unable to control what for him was an unusual subject for discussion - then, once again, the embarrassment rolled through him, the result of the pain he saw shoot through Pauline's face. She sipped her drink, then without looking at him asked, "What month were you born in?"
"January," he mumbled.
"What day in January?"
Her shoulders lost their arched tenseness. "You're Aquarius. That settles things. I won't have to worry about you. In fact," she was smiling coyly now, "I'll never even marry you."
"Finish your drink. I'll get us another round," was all he could manage.
Fresh napkins were placed below the second round as he asked a question, the answer to which he already knew. But on first dates it was standard operating procedure to stay on known ground, to at all costs keep the conversation easy. He had missed seeing her on the elevator, and luckily got her number from a friend. "Have you changed jobs yet?"
"Didn't I tell you on the phone? It's been a wonderful first week. I love the new hospital. I work in Administration. It's so pretty. Lots of trees and a big lawn." She hesitated for a moment - And I'm going to school too. Hunter. Evening classes. I'm taking a course in the Fine Arts." Enthusiasm radiated form her as she talked, and he felt it somehow sink slowly into him as though his body sensed more fully than his mind ever could what how much this meant to her.
"Won't that be a little difficult - working all day, school at night?"
"No. I really want to go. It's only two nights a week. I want it. It makes things interesting. Full. Know what I mean?"
He didn't know. There were too many possibilities. Nevertheless, he nodded, "Great then."
"You were lucky enough to go to college four years straight. I never really wanted that. And anyway, it wasn't for me. One or two courses in night school are just fine."
"I admire you, doing that. You'll meet some interesting people."
"I really don't think of it as anything big. It's just, just doing I guess. Like when my girl friend Ann - she gave you my number - when she and I shop or just take a walk in the city. We always have lots of fun." She was talking rapidly now, but with distinct clarity. "Last weekend we decided, Ann and I, just like that, to take a long walk up Fifth Avenue. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. We walked around, here and there, finally stopped at a cocktail lounge. We were having such a good time when two nice looking boys came in. We knew they wanted to meet us. They sat down next to us. Since they looked nice, we started to make conversation. They were from California - both blondes," she laughed. "I guessed that anyway."
"Because they were blondes?"
"No, silly. Because a few summers ago I visited an aunt in Los Angeles. It's lovely. Wonderful weather. And clean, so clean. Not dirty like New York. I was fixed up with a boy from UCLA and those two reminded me of him, though he was more redhead."
"Never been there myself," he replied. "I've always wanted to, but never managed it. Been to Europe twice but never the coast." For a moment he was lost in the mental geography of his own travels, but he quickly snapped back into the conversation. "I'm sorry, it was rude of me interrupting you. What about the guys from California?"
She offered a big smile, shrugged girlishly. "They started talking. They were nice. They have a way in California," she seemed to be searching - "I don't know. Different than here."
"What was so nice about them?" he asked with a bit more edge than he immediately realized was appropriate.
"They just were," she replied, sipping her drink. "They even asked if they could buys us a drink? We said, okay. But do you know what happened?" He didn't. "The bartender refused to let them buy us one. Said the hotel didn't allow it. What he called 'pickups.' I got so mad I almost cried. The boys made a fuss but couldn't do anything. We left. They walked with us for a few blocks, but it was over. Just like that. It's not fair, is it?"
"Maybe the bartender was just trying to help. Mistakenly, of course." She lowered her eyes, placed one hand over the other and looked up. "There was nothing wrong. Nothing." He didn't reply. An awkward silence filled the booth before he finally ventured, "If you like walking, shopping, other things about Manhattan, why not move here."
"I'd love to, but it's too expensive. And besides, my parents wouldn't like it." She seemed far away, but after sipping from her glass continued talking as though the flow of conversation had gone unbroken. "It's so dull, so dull living at home. Ann is the only friend I have who isn't married. There's nothing to do. Nothing."
"But your school work and the new job," he offered, trying to make amends for laughing about the signs of the Zodiac. She didn't answer for a few long moments, then uttered a barely audible, "Yes." He finished his drink, checked his watch, smiled at her and called for the check.
Outside, they stepped through the slush on the now deserted street, the only sound, the dull crunch of the still falling snow flattened and soiled by their shoes. Pauline looked up, breathed deeply, then lowered her head, her eyes blinking from the snowflakes that blew into her face. She curled her arm around his elbow and Claude wondered, as they walked toward the subway marked Uptown: The Bronx, if she knew he would never call again.
-- End --