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Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls (28 page)

BOOK: City of Girls


What followed was a time of murky and contourless unhappiness.

Some engine within me had now stalled, and as a result I went limp. My actions had failed me, so I stopped taking action. Now that I was living at home, I allowed my parents to set my routine for me, and I dumbly went along with whatever they proposed.

I breakfasted with them over newspapers and coffee, and helped my
mother make sandwiches for lunch. Dinner (cooked by our maid, of course) was at five thirty, followed by the reading of the evening papers, card games, and listening to the radio.

My father suggested that I work at his company, and I agreed to it. He put me in the front office, where I shuffled around papers for seven hours a day and answered phones when nobody else was free to do so. I learned
how to file, more or less. I should have been arrested for impersonating a secretary, but at least it gave me something to do with the bulk of my days, and my father paid me a small salary for my “work.”

Dad and I drove to work together every morning, and we drove home together every evening. His conversation during those car rides was more like a collection of rants about how America needed
to stay out of the war, and how FDR was a tool of the labor unions, and how the communists would soon be taking over our country. (Always more fearful of communists than fascists, was dear old Dad.) I heard his words, but I can’t say I was listening.

I felt distracted all the time. Something awful was clomping around inside my head in heavy shoes, always reminding me that I was a dirty little

I felt the smallness of everything. My childhood bedroom with its little, girlish bed. The rafters that were too low. The tinny sound of my parents’ conversation in the mornings. The sparse number of cars in the church parking lot on Sundays. The old local grocery store with its limited collection of familiar foods. The luncheonette that closed at two o’clock in the afternoon. My closet
full of adolescent clothing. My childhood dolls. It all cramped me, and filled me with gloom.

Every word coming out of the radio sounded ghostly and haunted to me. The uplifting songs and the sorrowful ones alike filled me with disheartenment. The radio dramas could barely hold my attention. Sometimes I would hear Walter Winchell’s voice on the air, bellowing out his gossip, or sending forth
his urgent calls for intervention in Europe. My belly clenched at the sound of his voice, but my father would snap off the radio, saying, “That man won’t rest until every good American boy is sent overseas to be killed by the Huns!”

When our copy of
magazine arrived in the middle of August, there was an article about the hit New York play
City of Girls,
that included photos of famed British
actress Edna Parker Watson. She looked fantastic. For her primary portrait, she wore one of the suits I’d made for her the previous year—a deep gray number with a tiny, tucked waist and a fiercely chic bloodred taffeta collar. There was also
a photo of Edna and Arthur walking through Central Park, hand in hand. (“Mrs. Watson, despite all her success, still praises marriage as her favorite role
of all. ‘Many actresses will say that they are married to their work,’ says the stylish star. ‘But I prefer being married to a man, if given the choice!’”)

At the time, reading that article made my conscience feel like a rotting little rowboat sinking into a pond of mud. But thinking about it today, I have to say that it enrages me. Arthur Watson had completely gotten away with his misdeeds and
lies. Celia had been banished by Peg, and I had been banished by Edna—but Arthur had been allowed to carry on with his lovely life and his lovely wife, as though nothing had ever happened.

The dirty little whores had been disposed of; the man was allowed to remain.

Of course, I didn’t recognize the hypocrisy back then.

But Lord, I recognize it now.

On Saturday nights, my parents and I went
to our local country-club dances. I could see that what we had always so grandly called the “ballroom” was merely a medium-sized dining room with the tables pushed to one side. The musicians weren’t terrific, either. Meanwhile, I knew that down in New York City, the Viennese Roof was open for summer at the St. Regis, and I would never dance there again.

At the country-club dances, I talked to
old friends and neighbors. I did my best. Some of them knew I’d been living in New York City and they tried to make conversation about it. (“I can’t imagine why people would want to live all boxed up on top of each other like that!”) I tried to make conversation with these people, too, about their lake houses, or their dahlias, or their coffee-cake recipes—or whatever seemed to matter to them. I
couldn’t work out why anything mattered to anyone.
The music dragged on. I danced with anyone who asked while noticing none of my partners with any specificity.

On weekends, my mother went to her horse shows. I went with her when she asked me to go. I would sit in the bleachers with cold hands and muddy boots, watching the horses go round and round the ring, and wondering why anybody would want
to do that with their time.

My mother got regular letters from Walter, who was now stationed on an aircraft carrier out of Norfolk, Virginia. He said the food was better than you’d expect, and that he was getting along with all the guys. He sent best wishes to his friends back home. He never mentioned my name.

There was a rather headachy number of weddings to attend that spring, as well. Girls
whom I’d gone to school with were getting married and pregnant—and in that order, too, can you imagine? I ran into a childhood friend of mine one day on the sidewalk. Her name was Bess Farmer, and she’d also gone to Emma Willard. She already had a one-year-old child whom she was pushing in a pram and she was pregnant again. Bess was a sweetheart—a genuinely intelligent girl with a hearty laugh
and a talent for swimming. She’d been quite gifted in the sciences. It would be insulting and demeaning to say of Bess that she was nothing but a housewife now. But seeing her pregnant body gave me the sweats.

Girls whom I used to swim with naked in the creeks behind our houses back when we were all children (so skinny and energetic and sexless) were now plump matrons, leaking breast milk, bursting
with babies. I couldn’t fathom it.

But Bess looked happy.

As for me, I was a dirty little whore.

I had done
a rotten thing to Edna Parker Watson. To betray a person who has helped you and been kind to you—this is the furthest reach of shame.

I walked through more agitated days, and slept fitfully through even worse nights.

I did everything I was told to do, and caused no trouble to anyone,
but I still could not solve the problem of how to bear myself.

I met Jim Larsen through my father.

Jim was a serious, respectable, twenty-seven-year-old man who worked for Dad’s mining company. He was a freight clerk. If you want to know what that means, it means that he was in charge of manifests, invoices, and orders. He also managed outgoing shipments. He was good at mathematics, and he used
his skill with numbers to handle the complexities of route rates, storage costs, and the tracking of freight. (I just wrote down all those words, Angela, but I myself am not sure what any of them actually mean. I memorized those sentences back when I was courting Jim Larsen so that I could explain his job to people.)

My father thought highly of Jim despite his humble roots. My father saw Jim
as a purposeful young man on the rise—a sort of working-class version of his own son. He liked that Jim had started out as a machinist, but through steadfastness and merit had quickly worked his way up to a position of authority. My father intended to make Jim the general manager of his entire operation one day, saying, “That boy is a better accountant than most of my accountants, and he’s a better
foreman than most of my foremen.”

Dad said, “Jim Larsen is not a leader, but he’s the reliable sort of man that a leader wants to have beside him.”

Jim was so polite, he asked my father if he could take me out on a date before he’d ever spoken to me. My father agreed. In fact, it was my father who told me that Jim Larsen would be taking me on a date. This was before I even knew who Jim Larsen
was. But the two men had
already worked it all out without consulting me, so I just went along with their plan.

On our first date, Jim took me out for a sundae at the local fountain shop. He watched me carefully as I ate it, to check that I was satisfied. He cared about my satisfaction, which is something. Not every man is like that.

The next weekend, he drove me to the lake, where we walked
around and looked at ducks.

The weekend after that, we went to a small county fair, and he bought me a little painting of a sunflower after I’d admired it. (“For you to hang on your wall,” he said.)

I’m making him sound more boring than he was.

No, I’m not.

Jim was such a nice man. I had to give him that. (But be careful here, Angela: whenever a woman says about her suitor, “He’s such a nice
man,” you can be sure she is not in love.) But Jim
nice. And to be fair, he was more than merely nice. He possessed deep mathematical intelligence, honesty, and resourcefulness. He was not shrewd, but he was smart. And he was good-looking in what they call the “all-American” way—sandy-haired, blue-eyed, and fit. Blond and sincere is not how I prefer my men, given a choice, but there was certainly
nothing wrong with his face. Any woman would have identified him as handsome.

Help me! I’m trying to describe him, and I can barely remember him.

What else can I tell you about Jim Larsen? He could play the banjo and he sang in the church choir. He worked part time as a census taker and was a volunteer fireman. He could fix anything, from a screen door to the industrial tracks at the hematite

Jim drove a Buick—a Buick that would someday be traded in for a Cadillac, but not before he had earned it, and not before he had first purchased a bigger home for his mother, with whom he lived. Jim’s sainted mother was a forlorn widow who smelled of medicinal balms and who kept her Bible tucked by her side at all times. She spent her days peering out the windows at her neighbors, waiting
for them to slip up and sin. Jim instructed me to call her “Mother,” and so I did, even though I never felt comfortable around the woman for a moment.

Jim’s father had been dead for years, so Jim had been taking care of his mother since he was in high school. His father was a Norwegian immigrant, a blacksmith who had not so much sired a son as
him—shaping this boy into somebody unerringly
responsible and decent. He’d done a good job making this kid into a man by a young age. And then the father had died, leaving his son to become a full adult at the age of fourteen.

Jim seemed to like me. He thought I was funny. He’d not been exposed to much irony in his life, but my little jokes and jabs amused him.

After a few weeks of courtship, he began kissing me. That was pleasant, but
he did not take further liberties with my body. I didn’t ask for anything more, either. I didn’t reach for him in a hungry way, but only because I felt no hunger for him. I felt no hunger for anything anymore. I had no access anymore to my appetites. It was as if all my passion and my urges were stored up in a locker somewhere else—somewhere very far away. Maybe at Grand Central Station. All I could
do was go along with whatever Jim was doing. Whatever he wanted was fine.

He was solicitous. He asked if I was comfortable with various temperatures in various rooms. He affectionately started calling me “Vee”—but only after asking permission to give me a nickname. (It made me uncomfortable that he inadvertently settled on the same nickname my brother had always called me, but I said nothing,
and allowed
it.) He helped my mother repair a broken horse jump, and she appreciated him for it. He helped my father transplant some rosebushes.

Jim started coming around in the evenings to play cards with my family. It was not unpleasant. His visits provided a nice break from listening to the radio or reading the evening papers. I was aware that my parents were breaking a social taboo on my
behalf—namely: consorting with an employee in their home. But they received him graciously. There was something warm and safe about those evenings.

My father came to like him more and more.

“That Jim Larsen,” he would say, “has the best head on his shoulders in this whole town.”

As for my mother, she probably wished that Jim had more social standing, but what could you do? My mother herself
had married neither above nor below her class, but at exact eye level to it—finding in my father a man of the same age, education, wealth, and breeding as herself. I’m sure she wished I would do the same. But she accepted Jim, and for my mother, acceptance would always have to be a stand-in for enthusiasm.

Jim wasn’t dashing, but he could be romantic in his own way. One day when we were driving
around town, he said, “With you in my car, I feel that I am the envy of all eyes.”

Where did he come up with a line like that? I wonder. That was sweet, wasn’t it?

Next thing you know, we were engaged.

I don’t know why I agreed to marry Jim Larsen, Angela.

No, that’s not true.

I do know why I agreed to marry Jim Larsen—because I felt sordid and vile, and he was clean and honorable. I thought
maybe I could
erase my bad deeds with his good name. (A strategy that has never worked for anyone, by the way—not that people don’t keep trying it.)

And I liked Jim, in some ways. I liked him because he wasn’t like anybody from the previous year. He didn’t remind me of New York City. He didn’t remind me of the Stork Club, or Harlem, or a smoky bar down in Greenwich Village. He didn’t remind me
of Billy Buell, or Celia Ray, or Edna Parker Watson. He damn sure didn’t remind me of Anthony Roccella. (
) Best of all, he didn’t remind me of
—a dirty little whore.

When I spent time with Jim, I could be just who I was pretending to be—a nice girl who worked in her father’s office, and who had no past history worth mentioning. All I had to do was follow Jim’s lead and act like him,
and I became the last person in the world I had to think about—and that’s exactly how I wanted it.

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