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My New Black Dress

I saw him on television not long ago, the grandson of the famous poet. He was narrating a program about the Louvre, and all its recent changes. He knew the museum well and spoke with mild enthusiasm of the new arrangements, but his emotional indifference to his subject showed. He maintained a slight, but noticeable, distance from the Louvre, as if it were merely one of his many interests, like the Wimbledon tournaments, or a performance of The Wild Duck. He looked calm, portly, dignified. The day I had sex with him, he looked sweaty, skinny, and wild. That day threw my whole world into disorder, and I thought I might end up back in The Madhouse.

I had met this poetic grandson—whose name was Cedric but who told me to call him Ricky—in The Madhouse. My mom used to burst into blue flames when I referred to this much-recommended clinic so flippantly. The Howard Retreat, named after a certain Dr. Howard who founded it and went to his reward long since, cost a packet each week and deserved respect, my mom thought. HR, in elegant monograms, appeared on the place’s towels and blankets, dishes and cushions, and Ricky said those HR’s stood for “highway robbery.” I laughed and laughed, as I always did at his shows of wit.

I thought Ricky the cleverest guy I had ever met, and he shared my opinion . My laughter, he claimed, was my most attractive quality. He was a depressive personality, who “seized on any joy,” he said, but he usually said such things in a mocking way. He had the wryly humorous manner often cultivated by depressives, I later discovered. Yet he was not suicidal, like I was.

Most of the people at The Howard Retreat seemed to be either alcoholic or suicidal, with a few other depressives and polar types mixed in. I usually preferred the alcoholics, when Ricky was unavailable, because they knew how to have fun, and I longed for a bit of fun before the moment when I believed I would have to turn out the lights. One of them, a pianist at a classy cocktail lounge when he was sober, used to spend many evenings playing old vaudeville songs, on the elegant white Steinway where we had coffee after dinner. We all joined in the choruses, and I envied his talent. His ability produced a good living, I figured, since apparently he paid his own bills at The Howard Retreat, and I would fantasize about drawing people nearer in his delightful way and getting rich at the same time.

Ricky despised this man. “An old drunk,” he would say, almost spitting. He expressed his contempt forcefully, and when he did, I told him he sounded like his description of his grim father. This puritanical millionaire, for religious reasons, allowed no conversation at the dinner table and humiliated any child who broke the rule.

I soon fell in love with Ricky, and after that, he could say or do nothing I would not accept, including secret and forbidden meetings on the golf course at night, and clutching for each other when his rudeness had chased everybody else out of the swimming pool.

I was, at the time, an eighteen-year-old who had started college at sixteen, and had embarked on a series of affairs in order to prove to myself I was not the Nothing I knew I was. Exhausted and confused, I married one of them, mostly because of his pretty blue eyes, and he committed suicide. Did I drive the poor man to this act? He left me determined to purge my guilt by doing likewise.

Ricky frowned when I told him about my late husband. “The man was a fool to collapse under the weight of his own misery, but he probably wasn’t bright enough to see the joke—which is what life is,” he said.

“The joke?” I echoed, and he shrugged, but he kissed me in the rose garden that night more tenderly than he ever had done.

The Howard Retreat used golf courses, rose gardens, squash courts, and so on, to convey the atmosphere of a country club. Its rules required guests, as they called us, dress for dinner each night and chat pleasantly with each other on these social occasions, discussing neither the pain which had brought us there nor the sufferings of our fellow guests. Lively, pretty Mrs. McDermott disappeared for a week or so and reappeared with a bandage on her forehead. Everyone guessed she had had a pre-frontal lobotomy, no longer a popular treatment among doctors, but she seemed as pretty and lively as ever. I wanted to ask her in what way, since her surgery, she felt different about life and death. I had been threatened with this treatment, and wanted to gather enough information to justify either fighting or submitting.

Ricky persuaded me not to ask any questions. “Some rules, even we have to keep. She wouldn’t, in any case, remember what she felt like before, which is the whole point of the operation, as I understand it.”

I understood even less and kept my mouth shut.

Ricky talked his way out of The Madhouse sooner than I did. The last night we were together, while we were making out on the golf course, and I was trying to keep things under control—all I needed was a pregnancy—he said I had helped him more than his doctor.

“You’re the only one who has raised my hopes,” he said in a voice several notes lower than usual, weighted down with the seriousness and candor he had adopted for the occasion. I suppose his face reflected this total sincerity, but I could not see it clearly.

“Don’t raise them too high,” I giggled with vapid girlishness, and we rolled around in the grass under the stars like two six year olds.

He gave me his New York address and telephone number before we parted that night, and I tucked his slip of paper into my bra. I envied his East Village address, even though the area did not yet have its later style, and was not even called “East Village.” I had nowhere to go except to my folks in Forest Hills. I intended to break out of that awful place as soon as ever I could, but my new life had to start there, as I told Ricky with regret.

“I suppose I can’t call to see if you’re out, but you call me as soon as you have a chance,” he whispered into my hair during our final hug. I promised I would.

And I did.

He sounded, when I called a few weeks later, as if he were having a hard time placing me, but he did invite me over.

“We’ll have some lunch,” he said, and I agreed enthusiastically, deciding at once to break out my new black dress for so important an occasion. This dress made me look tall and elegant, not wispy and gauche, or so I hoped. A soft wool crepe, of the most intense black, its only decoration was a wide red grosgrain stripe running up the left side and around the neck. The bodice was fitted, with a tight, tight waist and a shirred skirt. I felt something marvelous would happen while in that dress, a great Fourteenth Street bargain.

“Cheap is cheap,” my mom said, but what did she know?

I had transferred to NYU, on Washington Square, but classes barely had started, and I set my visit to Ricky on a Tuesday when I had none. I hoped he would declare his love in one of the charming little cafes I passed as I walked toward him, and we would later enjoy each other in his cozy flat.

This flat proved “cozier,” that is smaller, than I thought any flat could be. Dirty socks hung from a crooked lampshade, and his bed, which dominated the small space, lay unmade and covered with grayish sheets which gave off a sour smell. My quarters never had been models of cleanliness, but I did try to straighten them out when I expected company. Was he trying to insult me? But why? I had no idea.

“This is where you live?” I asked, as if I could hardly believe it. He laughed, the way he had always laughed at everything I said.

“Where else?” he asked, and pushing me on to his nasty unmade bed, his fingers fumbled for the zipper which would unlock my beautiful new black dress. It had been wasted on him.

Successful with the zipper at last --did I hear a seam splitting?-- Ricky threw my dress on the floor over a scrunched up piece of his clothing. Dirty underwear, I supposed from the glance I got. He moved quickly, with almost an angry look, into straight sex with no trimmings, and I had had too much experience to pretend surprise or alarm. I had worn protection, just-in-case, and it seemed easiest not to struggle. I turned my mind to French verbs.

My verbs, unlike Ricky, would benefit my future --I was a French major-- and concentrating on something like French verbs usually helped avoid emotional overkill in matters of date-rape, or long waits for buses, or other disturbances. I began to conjugate verbs in my mind, and soon my entire self fixed on them. J'aime, tu aimes, il aime—no,no—je vends, tu vends, il vend, nous vendons, vous vendez, lls vendent.

Ricky distracted me from my French verbs by looking almost ferocious when his tense sweaty body moved to climax. He did not frighten me, but he hurt, and the pain also distracted me. I had had no sex in months, and he should have known enough to be gentle. He was a good-natured person, and no doubt he would have been more careful had he realized I was there at all. But he was alone on an empty planet, having the big fuck he had been dreaming about during his long months at the Howard Retreat.

I did not have sense enough to realize how much his behavior angered me, but I did know I was hungry. “I thought we were going to have some lunch,” I said when he stopped.

He rolled over on his stomach and mumbled, “Wake me in half an hour, and I’ll see what I can do.” His eyes fell shut, and his breathing became deep and regular. Was he faking? No. He had fallen into a deep sleep.

I dressed quickly and quietly. My unnoticed dress had not wrinkled in spite of its inglorious resting place, and it looked fine when I shook it. I gathered up my purse, and left without arousing Ricky. My disheveled hair I could straighten out in the bathroom down the hall.

The idea crossed my mind, during my walk back to Washington Square, that I might still eat at one of those cute sidewalk cafes. I was so hungry I felt sick, but I suspected all those adorable places I had longed to enter would prove as disappointing as Ricky. I picked up a candy bar somewhere and told it to last me until I was safe in Forest Hills. I stopped thinking about Ricky and filled my head again with French verbs. They had become my mantra.

A shower started as I began to cross Washington Square itself. A small sprinkle at first, within moments, it turned into a downpour. I began to run, and as I did, I realized the skirt of my dress was shrinking rapidly, like something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie. It was about hip length by the time I reached the subway at Sixth Avenue. Nobody, back then, absolutely nobody, wore dresses at hip length. I tried to take comfort in having remembered to put my slip back on. The slip, at least, had not shrunk, and it was of a taffeta material that might pass as a skirt, I hoped. I bought a New York Times at a stand, intending to spread it over my lap if I got a seat, as seemed likely at about three in the afternoon. I used to practice, in those days, walking gracefully with a book balanced on my head, and I did my best to use this refined walk as I descended into the bowels of the earth to catch an E-train. The walk sometimes could fill a hole in my heart when French verbs no longer served me.

I was alone in the garden of my father’s country house, moving lightly down the stone steps that led to a view of the lily pond by moonlight. My father, the twelfth Earl Gravistock, had installed the lily pond, and I knew it was deep and fed by an undertow current. If I stepped into it and let it take me, I would never again have to pit my delicate powers against the world’s selfish cruelty.

Several times as I stood on the platform—tempted by the warm moonlight on the cold lily pond—some woman interrupted to tell me my dress had shrunk. I would smile and look down in surprise. “My goodness, you’re right,” I would say, or something to that effect.

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