by Willard Manus
She'd never said it to him, but he could see it in her eyes, the way she responded when they were together. She was attracted to him, wanted him--so why didn't he show her a little affection? It wasn't as if he didn't care for her, find her appealing.
They'd known each other all their lives, having grown up and gone to the same schools together. Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps familiarity was trumping intimacy, killing desire.
That was bullshit, of course. He had to admit it. He knew he could love Carol--should love her. Yet he found himself holding back when he was with her, maintaining a rigid emotional distance.
Part of the problem was that he was involved with another girl in their apartment building. Fran Brooks wasn't half as pretty or intelligent as Carol, but she was the one he kept asking out. The reason was simple: he could have sex with her any time he wished. In fact, it was she who had encouraged him in that regard, going way back to junior high school.
They were in the same English class; the classroom had a walk-in closet in back. One day, when they were both hanging up their jackets, she suddenly grabbed him and pulled him close, kissing him hungrily, her tongue lashing around in his mouth like a wild little snake.
That night, after his parents had fallen asleep, he sneaked Fran into his apartment and led her to his room, where they made love for the first time, with Fran being the aggressor, telling him exactly what she wanted him to do.
Where had she learned so much about sex? Fran wouldn't answer the question at first, but he finally got it out of her. Two years ago, when she was fourteen, her parents had both fallen seriously ill. With no one to care for her, she had been sent to a girl's orphanage, where all the talk was about sex. By the time she left the institution she was quite knowledgable about the subject.
They had sex regularly after that, sometimes in his room, sometimes in his car. Fran had no inhibitions whatsoever about sex, although she did make him promise--make that, swear--not to make her pregnant. Since he was unable to maintain an erection when he used a prophylactic--that plasticky feel and smell killed all desire--he was dutiful about practicing withdrawal. After depositing his seed on her belly, she'd give him a grateful smile, then reach for a Kleenex to clean up the mess.
Fran had other boyfriends, all of them older than he, with a lot more money and status too. But that wasn't the reason he found himself becoming less and less interested in her; jealousy had nothing to do with it. It was her manner irked him. She was always making these idiotic and irritating remarks, like "President Eisenhower has such a cute bald head, it makes me think of Daddy Warbucks" or "Eddy Howard is a much better singer than Elvis Presley."
If truth be told, she got on his nerves, pissed him off much of the time. The same couldn't be said for Carol Kelbick, though. She never said stupid, careless things. She also dressed nicely and used makeup in a skilful, understated way, unlike Fran, who piled on the pancake and went crazy with garish, red lipstick.
Carol was exactly his type and she loved him, goddammit, loved him in a deep, abiding way. There wasn't another girl in the world who felt this way about him, so why in hell did he keep rebuffing her like this?
He wanted to explain himself to her, but simply didn't have the courage to do it. She'd never believe him anyway, never believe that he had rejected her in favor of a girl who did not even exist. That's right. The girl he loved was strictly a figment of his imagination, his secret fantasies.
Who was she? Well, one thing was for sure: she definitely was not a small, darkhaired Jewish girl from the Bronx. Oh no, this one was tall, blonde and Gentile; maybe an actress or the curator of a museum, an expert in modern art or Greek archaeology. She lived in Manhattan in a 12-room apartment, or perhaps in the towers of the Waldorf-Astoria, where she'd receive him in a negligee and hand him champagne in a fluted glass and a cracker piled high with caviar, whispering throatily, "When you finish this, let's take a bubble bath together and make some wild love for the next few hours, ma cherie, mon amour!"
It was a silly, childish fantasy of course, but 17-year-old Ben Levin was gripped by it, obsessed by it.
So every Saturday night, when he could have walked two flights up to Fran's apartment, or three to Carol's, he got in his 1939 Hudson Terraplane instead--a hand-me-down from his father--and drove all the way to Manhattan in search of his blonde shiksa of a love goddess.
From bar to bar he went, jazz club to jazz club, hoping beyond hope to find her in one of those places, sitting on a bar stool over a martini, a red-tipped cigarette between her slender, bejeweled fingers, smiling at him as he approached, looking at him with an expression that promised exquisite pleasure.
He never did find a girl like that, of course, but he still kept pursuing her every weekend, hitting one midtown ginmill after another, until he'd blown his $20 a week allowance and had to make the long, lonely drive back to the Bronx.
This madness continued until it came time to start college, out on Long Island, where he had been offered a football scholarship by a small, third-rate school. It was his transition to adult life; there would be no more bar-hopping nights in Manhattan, no more desperate searching for the fictional heroine of his dreams.
All that was behind him and he was glad of it. He'd experienced so much frustration and pain--and, yes, shame--in recent years. He'd chased a girl who didn't exist when all the while there was a real live one waiting for him, a girl who loved and wanted him in an deep, meaningful way.
He did encounter Carol, though, right before he left for college. This was in the lobby of their apartment building--a long, dimly-lit corridor furnished with overstuffed sofas and chairs. They came face to face one night and stood there looking at each other.
Then Carol spoke up. "What do you have to say for yourself, Ben?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"That despite the shitty way you've treated me, we still have
a future together."
"Carol, I'll be living in Garden City. You'll be here,
finishing high school."
"So what? You have a car. And there are trains that go back and forth to Long Island."
He felt a surge of guilt and wanted to say, "You're right. I have treated you shittily, but now I want to make it up to you.
I want to be together with you, because I do love you, Carol. I've
always loved you, dammit!"
But instead, something cold and merciless rose up in
him--it was a feeling would haunt him for the rest of his life--and he found himself turning away. Turning away from her and saying nothing. Nothing!
Carol grabbed him and spun him around. There were tears in her eyes as she snarled, "You bastard. You fucking bastard! I hate you!" Then she ran to the nearest elevator.
* * *
Years went by, some twenty years, before he ran into her again. This was after he had heard that Carol had been married and divorced, and was now working as a costume designer in television.
He'd been married and divorced as well, and had two grown children.
They met unexpectedly at an art gallery opening in Los Angeles. They came upon one another and stood for several long minutes staring at each other, taking each other in.
A few wrinkles aside, she looked much like she had as a teenager, slim and fetching, with the same dark, soft hair and piercing brown eyes.
He was the first to speak. "I'm sorry, Carol. I'm sorry for everything," he found himself blurting. "How can I make it up to you?"
She didn't answer right away, just continued to eye him. Then her mouth tightened into a thin line and she said, "Too late, Ben. Too damn late!"
Then she turned and walked away, swinging those shapely hips of hers, showing him exactly what he had missed all these years.