I am 19 and we are already married. We are already something with two heads. I am at Barnard, and Bruce is in Law School at NYU. It is late and snowing hard, and we go out. We have to walk in the snow. We live on 7th Avenue and 14th Street in a bourgeois building called The Vermeer, one of a series of high rises named after painters—an homage to the area’s artistic heritage, perhaps. We are on the edge of the Village, not exactly at the party, so when we walk we head south and east, toward the Lower East Side, the bosom of Bohemia.
It’s coming down hard, and it’s very cold, and we have walked for miles, but we can’t go home. The streets are beautiful and quiet. The cars are polar bears with golden eyes, gliding along uncertainly. Bruce’s mustache is frosted over as well as his eyebrows and curls peeking out of his hood. We can see our breath. We can see the future, and it looks like a blizzard in a glass globe. I am born, and in a jump cut I am 16 and watching Breathless in the Bleecker Street Cinema, and I like this thing I don’t understand. I will want to wear a striped shirt and sell the Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris and have sex with a thug with a beautiful mouth, but I will marry Bruce. Years later, when I am 62 and he is 64 and we have not seen each other in 33 years, he will say on the phone, “We were runaways, flying toward each other to be somewhere.”He will say, “I see it.”
It is 2:30 in the morning, and the only place to duck into is Ratner’s on 2nd Avenue, open all the time. No matter when you sit down, an old waiter lumbers over with a basket of warm onion rolls and holds a green pad in readiness for your order. The menu is as long as the Guttenberg Bible and you have just arrived, but he is waiting. I can smell the rolls. They are made of challah dough and packed densely with sautéed onions, like a pocket, and some onions on top are blackened. Inside the rolls are soft and creamy. You don’t need butter, although you slather it on, and the rolls are so good you don’t want anything else, but they are free and you have to order something. The waiter is wearing a white shirt and a tired black vest, and his face is creased with an ironic smile because he knows he is wittier than you and he has been practicing his lines. I don’t imagine I will ever wear a vest like that, but I will be wrong, and in my 50s I will don an outfit exactly like his, including a little black bow tie, and I will pass around hors d’oeuvres at the kinds of parties I attended as a writer. I will be a waiter, not knowing what comes next.
There are others at Ratner’s. A couple like us but older and sexier. The woman wears bright crimson lipstick, and when she smiles her gums emerge like actors behind a curtain. It’s a goofy grin and winning. Her red hair is long and straight, not the rust of some redheads, there is a little purple in the mix, and it is swept this way and that, and I can see why men want her, why anyone would. At another table is a man who is talking. He is spouting off on philosophy or politics. It’s 1966, and Bruce and I have marched against the war in Viet Nam. Kate Millett is my teacher at Barnard, and we are reading Beckett and Genet, and she is calling me Mrs. Zimmer, which makes me turn to see if Bruce’s tiny mother has slipped into the room. But Kate means me, and the name makes me feel unreal to myself, even though I am Bruce the way Cathy is Heathcliff.
I don’t remember everyone at Ratner’s. It was 43 years ago. But I see the man who is talking and who lives nearby, who knows things or sounds like he does, who draws people to him, or maybe Bruce and I do that with our happiness to be there. Everyone in the restaurant moves toward each other, and we make a party. We shove tables together, and the waiter doesn’t mind. We order mushroom and barley soup because that’s what you order at Ratner’s. Also bagels and lox we share. The snow is getting heavier, and we are giddy with the prospect of trudging home, miles away.
No one wants to leave. We tell each other stories about who we are or we don’t have to. The man who talks has a thin build and short-cropped hair brushed forward. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and keeps his scarf draped loosely around his neck. There is a small hole at the elbow of his brown sweater. He is a book editor, or a school teacher, or a graduate student stuck on his dissertation. At four or so there is stirring. I don’t know how it happens, but we leave together, all these strangers, and we go to the apartment of the talking man—the smart man or the lonely man. He has a narrow, East Village flat, crammed with books, a mattress on the floor covered with an Indian throw, dusty plants. He empties his cupboards and places food and drink on a table by a window that looks out on 3rd Street, where cars are buried.
This is how I want life to be: sudden and generous. In Europe a year later, Bruce and I will buy train tickets from Geneva to Paris, and in the station a handsome man named René Boquet will approach us. This is really his name. He looks like Belmondo in Breathless with a brush of dark hair and a pouty lower lip, and he will say to us in softly accented English that if we cash in our tickets he will drive us to Paris in his van for half the price. On the way, he will guide us through the gardens of Fontainebleau and deliver us to the city of light at dawn. We say, “Okay,” exchanging are-we-crazy looks followed by what-the-hell shrugs. During a thunderstorm in Monaco, René deposits us in a bar while he gambles at a casino, and Bruce and I attempt to describe our situation to men on stools—there are only men—who shoot rapid-fire French at us and chuckle into cigarette-stained palms. Eventually René returns and is good to his word, and by the time we stumble groggily through the rose gardens of the fabulous palace of French kings, we have fallen in love with each other, and René will find us a hotel in the Arab quarter that costs one dollar a night, and he will present us with our first Paris, including a dinner prepared by his girlfriend, Marianne, of roasted pintade, a bird I have never heard of, served with its forlorn head tucked against its shoulder and stuffed with boursin cheese, which I will taste for the first time.
In the apartment of the talking man, we drink wine and smoke pot. Maybe my first joint. The talking man says, “If you can love an ant, you can love a human being,” and I think, I should remember this, even though I don’t love ants and it’s harder to love people, no? I sit beside the red-haired woman, trying to absorb her experience. She has a space between her front teeth and wears gloves with fur cuffs. With her slim good looks, she looks like an actress Gene Kelly might cast in one of his movies, Leslie Caron, let’s say, in An American in Paris, who portrays a lovely, obliging slip with the gift of appearing a blur so that Kelly can know where he begins and ends. But it’s 1966 and the next year Bruce and I will ride a bus to Washington and hear Norman Mailer deliver the speech at the Pentagon he will chronicle in Armies of the Night. Kate will invite me to join NOW, the National Organization for Women, and I will hear Ti-Grace Atkinson, NOW’s president, defend her visit to Valerie Solanis, who is in jail awaiting trial for shooting Andy Warhol. Ti-Grace will justify the visit as an act of solidarity with a feminist, for Valerie is the author of SCUM Manifesto, SCUM standing for Society for Cutting Up Men.
The red-haired woman is not what she might have appeared even a year or two earlier. She works for a photographer near Herald Square and goes out on shoots and is assembling a portfolio of her own. Her boyfriend is a drummer, and they have slid into Ratner’s after one of his gigs. She is 25, the same age as my sister, but Ellen is in New Jersey with no job and two kids. Ellen says she is happy, and I don’t know what she means.
In 1983, I will write a piece for the Village Voice about Minor Characters, a memoir by Joyce Johnson, recalling an affair she had with Jack Kerouac when she was an eager young woman looking for a way to get to the party. I will evoke a memory of myself at 11 or 12, trying to imagine the future: “There would be a house with grass around it. There would be a white picket fence around the house. There would be a married woman standing in the backyard, staring over the fence. I knew I would be unhappy. I knew I would not want to be there, but this is the future I imagined.” In this piece, I compare my experience at Barnard with Johnson’s, ten years earlier. Johnson wants to be a writer, but her professors are men who feel wounded to be teaching girls. One man casts an icy, sardonic gaze at the eager faces before him and declares they will never be writers. He says, “If you were going to be, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You wouldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight trains, riding through America.”
Instead of this man, I find Kate at Barnard, Kate who lectures to us passionately in her industrial strength gray skirts and inevitable bun, speaking with a fake British accent from a couple of years at Oxford. She calls herself a sculptor and lives with her Japanese husband Fumio, also an artist, in a house on Bowery and 1st Street that totters this way and that and doesn’t have a single level plane. It doesn’t matter if I understand Kate’s references. “What?” she says, “you don’t know who Ugolino is from Canto 33 of Inferno? You poor benighted child!” She looks heavenward and laughs with tenderness and scorn. One night the class is invited to an exhibit she has mounted in the basement of her house. Everything is painted gray as if buried in fallout ash. It is so serious it’s funny—exactly like Kate. Her weekly conferences last an hour. She blackens our papers with arguments and teasing. On one essay I have saved—about Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian and the Dionysian as applied to Othello—ah, English assignments!—I write: “Death is the discovery of the great wound and the horrible discovery of the opposite sex: the female feels as if she has lost something, the male as if he is going to lose something.” Kate, on the hunt for the source of this borrowed thunder, engraves in the margin, “Your Greek professor’s Freudian theories?” Even so, she likes my mind. Her beautiful mind likes my mind, and through the vapor on the bathroom mirror I see the possibility of Kate.
It’s maybe six by the time Bruce and I set off for our apartment. A few months earlier, my father stood on the bare parquet floor and said he would co-sign the lease if we got married. I thought I was too young. I was sure I was too young, but I was not going to leave Bruce any time soon, maybe never if we could keep moving. Sex will divide us—sex, or the desire to be in two places at the same time. But now I am with Bruce—a great tall thing with Beatles hair, adopted and an only-child. The sight of Bruce looming over his pint-sized parents is something out of a Diane Arbus freaks exhibit. Next door to us lives Adele Mailer, the wife of Norman who some years earlier he stabbed with a penknife, nearly piercing her heart and later declaring that if he had not he would have developed cancer from repressed rage. Adele has creamy skin the color of a clay pot and she performs in plays at LaMama and Theater for the New City. We listen to each other’s lives through our thin, common wall, and we throw parties together. Kate and Fumio eat Swedish meatballs and crudités at our table from Macy’s, a gift from Bruce’s parents. I wear frameless, lilac glasses cut in octagonal shapes. I want to be one of the slouchy, prickly girls Kate favors who jump on motorcycles and write poetry, but I’m too studious, too married, too Mrs. Zimmer at the end of the day.
As the sky turns rosy and the last giant flakes flutter down, Bruce and I walk home from the East Village and never see our friends of the night again.