J-Bee, scion of a military family, is raised in a violent milieu in the 1960s where he commits a retaliatory act of brutality. While his best friend volunteers to fight in Vietnam, J-Bee is repulsed by his own violence and refuses to follow in his father’s military footsteps. Instead, he matriculates at Columbia in 1971 in order to seek redemption. In an era of counterculture, J-Bee is exposed to “drugs and sex and rock and roll” while grappling with the moral issues of the Vietnam War and his own violence.
A small truck stood curbside in front of a narrow store; a florist was taking delivery as I approached. The shop’s metal cellar doors, normally flat and flush with the sidewalk, were opened and upright revealing the steps to the storage area below the shop. As the florist moved bundles from truck to cellar, the scent of fresh flowers was sweet on the crisp cold air.
What better way could there be to thank Margo for bringing me home from The Village and giving me refuge from the cold?
I approached the florist. “Can I buy some flowers?”
“Too early—we’re not open.”
I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out three dollars. I handed it to the man. “It’s all I’ve got.”
“Okay,” he said. “Whaddya want?”
“I don’t know. It’s for a girl—a woman.”
He eyed me. “It’s like that, huh?” He took my money and went into the cellar, returning with some pom-poms and baby’s breath, wrapped in delicate green paper.
“She’ll like these,” he said. “Lots of color.”
“Do you have a little card so I could write a note?”
“A card? Get lost—I’m not even open! What you ought to do is thank me.”
“Right,” I said. “Thanks.”
# # #
I opened the building’s glass front door. Stepping into the foyer and out of the cold, I found “Margo Rankin” on the list of tenants, written on a paper strip next to her buzzer.
I pushed the button and waited. I pushed the button again.
“Who is it?”
Her voice was grumpy, and I felt my stupidity. Could she be with another man? Had she been dead asleep?
“Uh, it’s me.”
“J-Bee? What time is it?”
“I don’t know. Six maybe?”
She buzzed me in, and I ran up the stairs. She leaned in her doorway in a housecoat and slippers. “It’s okay if you don’t mind I’m a mess.”
She was a goddess. I would be her lump of clay.
“Come in, now you’re here.’
I smelled the flaking plaster and the dust of old-time hot water radiators.
“I’ve been walking,” I said.
“Walking? Okay, young men need to walk sometimes. Sometimes they think better on the move. Where’d you go?”
“Down Broadway to 72nd.”
“72nd? I know what that place is. Not drugs again, is it?”
“No, it’s not drugs. I just couldn’t sleep, and I ended up there. It was Billy. He was my friend, and now he’s dead.”
“Oh— you knew him? The kid in Hartley Hall?”
Out of the chaos of my emotions, I suddenly thought of something one of my professors had said about the purity of “The Word” according to St John, how enlightenment was the ability to transmit thought with total clarity through words. But I couldn’t formulate words; I stood dumb as stone.
“I’m so sorry, J-Bee. Come and sit in the kitchen. Can I make you coffee?”
Could I let this woman past the barriers of my armor? Those heavy plates of defense that I had installed against the Sisters? Could I trust her with the underbelly of my soul?
“Let me take your coat,” she said.
I opened my coat and took out the flowers. They were a bit squashed but the thin green paper seemed intact.
“These are for you,” I said, thrusting them forward.
“For me?” she squeaked happily, which surprised me.
Her eyes went wide as she took them.
“I wanted to thank you for looking after me the other night. You were very good to me.”
Her eyes never left the flowers as she brought them to the counter and unwrapped them. “You shouldn’t have,” she said. “So thoughtful of you. They’re beautiful.” She examined them closely. “They’re a bit rumpled—you had them under your coat!” She turned to me and giggled. “You silly! I’ll put them in water. They’ll be fine.”
They did look a bit rumpled now that she mentioned it, and I felt rather pathetic, but Margo seemed happy, bustling industriously about her kitchen, finding a vase.
“I thought of getting you chocolate—”
“Did you? No, I love these. See?” she said standing back to admire her setting of the pom-poms in the vase. “They look great. Now sit down—I’ll make that coffee.”
I did as she told me. She prepared coffee, first attempting to straighten her hair and then curl it behind her ears. She rummaged through drawers, coming up with an elastic and tying her hair in a ponytail.
She served me a cup and sat down facing me.
“You have such a nice place,” I said.
“Are you all right, J-Bee?” She gazed into my face.
“I’m not sleeping well,” I said, “but I’m happy just to sit here.”
I asked her what she was doing lately.
“I’m doing a research project on the inequality of sentencing amongst different socio-economic groups inherent in our criminal justice system. I’m working with a very hip professor at the law school.”
“Nice,” I said, but it didn’t feel nice. I was jealous to hear about how wonderful she found some hot-shot professor. “So what’s your idea of ‘hip’?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“If you make a statement with that much matter-of-fact conviction, I should be able to ask a simple question about it without you getting your knickers in a twist.”
She pinched her face into a prunish wrinkle and glared. “What’s this about knickers? I don’t have knickers! You’re a bit impertinent for six A.M., and I’m serving the coffee, not the other way ‘round!”
“C’mon Margo, I’m kidding.”
Her face was red, but she took a deep breath and burst out laughing.
“You should see the look on your face! God, you’re funny.”
After we had both laughed enough to clear the air, I took my chance to press for an answer to my original question.
“So what’s this ‘hip’ thing about?”
“Hip? It means someone who ‘gets’ the counterculture. It means someone who understands and subscribes to the revolution we’re living in. My law professor friend, he’s not as stuffy as most lawyers. He’s not shackled to the suit-and-tie uniform they all wear, and he sympathizes with liberal politics. He does high-profile criminal defense work.”
“Probably gets paid pretty well.”
“In some cases. But I know for a fact that he also does pro bono for political rebels who can’t afford anything. Look, what you’re saying sounds jaded, but let’s be honest—you may be right. But why shouldn’t he take credit for high-profile work? It helps his standing amongst the law faculty, and it helps with potential promotion. He earns money from wealthier clients while, at the same time, he helps indigent criminal defendants with the Legal Aid Society. He’s part of the establishment, but he also reaches out. I respect that. When I’m admitted to the bar, I hope to bridge the gap between the elitist attitudes of the greediest attorneys and the idealism involved in helping those who cannot help themselves.”
I admired her. Her analysis was evenhanded; her insight was clever and precise, and her values had to be applauded. Given her determination, I couldn’t imagine that anything would stop her from fulfilling her dreams.
# # #
Later that week, Margo told me to meet her at the West End Bar, away from her cronies at The Rail. I went a bit early and took a booth in the back room where old men played jazz in the evenings. I had no idea what she wanted, but it made no difference. I grimaced at the certainty that whatever she bade me do, I would do it. I was her obedient servant or slave, more like, if she wanted one. I was powerless to do otherwise.
I scanned the place for familiar faces, but saw none. A gaggle of waitresses stood at a corner of the bar; I raised my hand for attention.
One came over.
“Waiting for someone, hon?”
I thought she winked.
She pulled out her pad and pencil, staring at me, her arms pressed inward against her breasts making them swell under that black leotard top that waitresses often wore.
“Got a Rolling Rock?”
I pulled out Machiavelli’s The Prince, required reading for philosophy class. I tried to read, waiting for beer, the jazz wafting gently in air. The music relaxed me, and in a minute, I was lost in the Italian’s lessons on ruthlessness. I pondered the dog-eat-dog world and the revenge I had exacted against my brother’s tormentors back home. Then I thought of a man whose morality had no stripe, a man with a shortie black tie and prep-school patina who cultivated a non-threatening façade to hide the lizard underneath.
I closed my eyes. I recalled my friend Billy, his long hair and bell-bottoms, the peace symbol around his neck. He had lost everything, and it was sad. I put my face down on the table, my nose in the crease of the open book, letting my arms dangle at my sides. I dreamed until I heard a voice speaking, a voice that tinkled like wind chimes on grandma’s veranda back home. It lifted my heart.
“You all right?”
I felt her sit across from me, but I didn’t lift my head. Her voice was enough. If I looked at her, I would be lost in the vision of her, and it would distract me from the pleasure I had from her voice alone.
“J-Bee, please look at me.”
I sat up.
“Coming here was a bad idea,” she said, glancing at the waitresses who stared back.
“But we’re here, so what the hey.”
“Right,” I said. “What the hey.”
The waitress came over, and Margo ordered a gin and tonic.
“You don’t like this place?” I asked.
“I prefer The Gold Rail, of course.”
“So let’s go to The Rail.”
“It’s not that,” she said. “I don’t want them to see me with you there too many times. I like to keep my private life private. I don’t want everyone I work with to know my business, you know?”
I had no idea what was going on, but I nodded my head as if I did. “So why is it a bad idea to be here?”
“It’s not really a bad idea. I mean, I feel like it’s a bad idea meeting you like this.”
I was crushed. “You do?”
“Well, no. Not really.”
I’m sure she knew, from the look on my face, that I was baffled. I stared at the walls, and neither of us spoke until the waitress returned with her gin.
“This is not going according to plan,” she said and drank it half down. “I need to buck up my nerve.”
“What do you mean, buck up your nerve?”
“I need more alcohol.”
She called for the waitress and ordered another. I was still nursing the same Rolling Rock.
“Alcohol’s good,” I said. “Why’re you nervous?”
“Why do I feel like this?” she asked herself.
“Feel like what?”
“I’m a grown, experienced woman. I’m not sure I want this.”
“What don’t you want?”
“I can’t feel this way about you. But it’s an emotional fact—I just do. No point in hiding it. No point in playing with you.”
I was shocked. This was not expected. I could feel my body and mind move from disappointed lethargy to an acute hyperawareness as hope reentered my system.
“But I’m angry at you.”
“Angry? Why? What did I do?”
She looked at me like an adult looks at a child who was lost but now is found.
“Nothing. You didn’t do anything. Except that you made me feel this way.”
“It’s my fault? Christ, I didn’t have a clue. I’m really sorry.”
“You silly; don’t say you’re sorry. Come over and sit next to me.”
I got up and moved to her side of the table. She edged closer and put her arm around my shoulders.
“What I have for you, it’s the kind of feeling— okay, love— that can screw up your life. You give the other person power over you, and he can crush you.”
I was stunned. I wanted to get up and do cartwheels even though I had never been able to do them. Then a horrible thought occurred to me—perhaps Margo was kidding. I was an easy and inexperienced target, and she could be toying with me. She could lead me anywhere and then laugh at my gullibility, an idea that struck me with fear. I felt my emotional self shrink away, putting up walls for protection.
“That’s how you feel about me?” I asked.
“Why the surprise?”
“I don’t know. You never show it. How do you know that’s how you feel?”
“Oh, gosh. Do I tell you? Where’s my gin.”
I’d never seen her drink anything but an occasional Chardonnay, but there she was, having another slug of gin. She was more than nervous—she was panicked, and I suddenly reverted to a rational man and left my emotions behind. No, Margo was not playing—how could I ever have imagined that she might play with another’s feelings? She was as genuine a person as I’d ever known, and I realized she was saying she loved me.
I sat like a paralyzed lump. I waited for her to continue, scared to death. This was all new to me, to be loved by a woman. And not just any woman— a woman whom I thought to be both brilliant and desirable. She was so far ahead of me; I didn’t stand a chance. I was vulnerable in front of her, and I knew this had to change fast if I were to meet the challenge.
“When you’re in the room,” she said, “I get some kind of hormonal storm. My brain short-circuits, and I don’t think straight. I’m all humid like the tropics.”
“How?” was all I could mouth. Sex with this goddess just seemed much too advanced, but she had planted an image in my head, an image of misty heat, a flooded sinkhole veiled in lush jungle undergrowth, sticky and moist like rainforests after a downpour. I glanced at her, the hair cascading in rivulets to her shoulders, and I trembled with the thought of all she had hidden. I was dumbfounded by fantasy, and all I could mumble was, “Oh, right. A physical thing?”
“Well, there’s that. But it’s more than that. You may be raw, but you’re honest, and that’s rare. And you’re intelligent. Analytic. Then you’ve got this Southern accent when you explain things to me.” She arched her eyebrows. “That accent really came at me from nowhere. It’s not heavy or redneck; it’s genteel. Wasn’t expecting it. And then you’re willful. You have ambition. You have a moral compass too. No question—there’s a lot going on in there.”
She caressed the side of my head with her palm and fingers; it took me totally by surprise. It was a spectacular feeling of such well-being that I involuntarily shut my eyes and emitted a low-pitched glottic hum with every stroke of her hand.
“You like that!” she said in a high-pitched giggle.
“I do,” I said. “So how do you see all this in me?”
“I’ve been watching you. I’m not stupid. You have a hold on me, which I like but don’t like. I’m not used to it. I’ve got my own ambition. Gosh, why am I saying this? This is hard. It’s like confessional.”
There it was, finally— I was her confessor! She was confessing as I sat, eunuchoid, with a miter on my head. I was sitting in the finery of silk embroidered costumes, my hands folded neatly in my lap, listening to the sins of a young woman, saying, “Yes, my child.”
“You’re Catholic?” I asked. “I’m Catholic.”
“No, I’m not Catholic.” She thought about it. “The use of the word ‘confessional’ was a metaphor. Actually, I’m Jewish.”
It was all new. I wasn’t at Columbia to meet bomb-throwing Jew-boys after all. I was there to meet bomb-throwing Jew-girls.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. What now?”
“Do you like me?”
“Yes. Of course. Maybe I even love you, but I’m not sure what that means.”
“Well,” she said, “then I guess you should come up to my place.”
# # #
I lay on my back, bathed in the grays of urban night. Slats of light filtered in from the lamps on the avenue, projecting across the ceiling in diagonal beams. Blushes of red and white were moving in other directions across the ceiling, coming and going, accompanying noises of tires on wet asphalt.
Margo’s face nuzzled the side of my chest, under my arm. Her breath brushed against me in feathery waves; her arm was draped over my chest.
I purred, not daring to move.
She murmured inaudibly.
“Hmmm?” I responded.
“I said your hair’s getting longer. I like it.”
“And why aren’t you wearing a cross? I thought Catholics wore crosses.”
“I used to wear a cross,” I said.
“Not anymore? Does that mean you’ve lost your innocence? An exile from The Garden?”
“Yeah, I suppose. The Sisters would say I’ve fallen from Grace.”
Would I tell this woman how I fell? Of my torment at the hands of the Sisters? Of my tainted soul and evil deeds?
“The Sisters?” She touched her tongue to the side of my chest.
“What flavor am I today?”
“Tell me,” she said. “Tell me about the Sisters.”
“They were nuns?”
“I still can’t figure out whether they gave me hell because they knew—in that holy, preordained way—that I was destined to be damned and so deserved to be punished. Or maybe they were intrinsically evil themselves and had wandered from the path of righteousness of their own accord, just people using God as a pretext to exact abuse against us boisterous boys.
“Or maybe there is no God. Maybe none of it really matters. Maybe the Church and the Sisters, the priests, and even the bishops and cardinals—even the almighty Pope himself— make the rules on earth merely to empower themselves while appearing righteous as they hide behind their cloaks and finery. I don’t know about all of them, but some of them are greedy, piggy-faced toads, beating children and feeding themselves off the nickels and dimes of the poor.”
“Were you beaten, J-Bee?”
I nodded. I remembered their hard faces, their mouths taut in the grimace of attack. I remembered getting hit, but it was the faces which told me I was an object of hatred.
“What did it do to you?” she asked, worried. “Did it twist you inside? Did it deform your soul?”
She sat up, propped herself on her arm and looked at me. She passed her hand over my chest, over the soft hair, and it felt good.
I reached for her and kissed her. I stroked the curves of her buttocks and thighs, coming to rest on the fur of her deepest recesses. I wanted her. I wanted her, and I didn’t want to share her with any other man. She had transported me to underground secret passages, to grottoes secretly shrouding limpid, tropical waters, surrounded by the lush vegetation of the paradise that was her. I was lost in her, and love flowed from me like a river. It was powerful, and whether it lasted ten minutes or for all of eternity, there was no mistaking what I had discovered.
“Tell me a story, J-Bee. Tell me the story of your life before you got here.”
“There’s a lot to tell.”
“There’s always a lot to tell, and if you don’t start, you’ll never tell it.”
She had me cornered. I would be baring the tender underbelly of my soul at the risk of being sliced to ribbons. If I confessed and revealed my story, it would rip from me like a torrent, and there would be no way of stopping it.
I wanted to protest. I bleated like a sheep, “You haven’t told me a thing about you.”
She said nothing. I got a pair of cow’s eyes.
“You want me to trust you?” I managed to say.
“It’s hard, I know. It’s harder the more you have to hide.”
I looked at her, the imp, now smiling with her face on my chest, licking me again.
“It’s like mushrooms on your burger,” she said. “It’s a new adventure in the terrifying labyrinth of life. Will you find a monster lurking in the maze? A tantalizing siren who will drown you? Or will you find the woman of your dreams, a woman who may protect you from the storms of life and more? Yes, J-Bee— trust a woman, and you may be injured, damaged, maimed beyond recognition. Trust a woman, and you have everything to lose. But think what you might gain: understanding, sympathy, and an end to the solitude, loneliness and emptiness that is the hallmark of a hermetic male life.”
I looked at her again, my mind squirming like a worm on a hook.
“Christ, that is well put.” It came out like a groan from a man who knew his destiny and had no power to alter its course.
“The cliff is there,” she said. “Jump.”
I looked at her in horror.
“Oh what the hell, J-Bee. Go and jump! What do you have to lose besides everything?”
I was in the grip of an intangible thing, pushing me ever forward like a lemming to the cliffs, promising elation while subjecting me to extreme risk, taking away all rational thought and laughing at my powerlessness. I stumbled forward and leapt from the precipice, and my life plunged into free fall. I told her that I was the son of a naval officer from Norfolk. I told her about my best friend, Gilly O’Daly, who went to Vietnam. I told her how I was beaten by the nuns and how their rigid behavioral rules got under my skin like bugs in my pajamas and how I lost it, acted out, rebelled and railed against authority. I told her how it made me do all kinds of “bad” things, and when I acted out, I paid for it with my skin. I didn’t want to tell her more because I was afraid that I might lose her, that she might reject me, and yet I couldn’t stop. Something within me wanted to be heard, forcing me to continue so that I finally told her what only Gilly knew: I had committed what society would call a felony and what the Church would call a mortal sin; I had taken revenge against my brother’s tormentors with full premeditation, ambushing them in a violent and savage act. Within the entire span of my young life, it may have been isolated as an act of depravity, but it was the one exception to my behavior that made me a sinner; it was the moment with the single most powerful impact on my soul.
I told Margo everything about the planning and beating of Stankewicz and Laureen, and I told her how it had changed my world. It was this event, I explained, that had been the catalyst for my choosing Columbia, a place where I imagined the forces of Good and Evil would come face to face and battle for my soul.
When I had finished, Margo lifted herself from my chest and, kissing my forehead, said, “I had no idea that being a Catholic was so difficult.” Then she hugged me and didn’t let go.
It had a strong effect. There was a trumpeting within me that shook the fortress walls of my soul until they tumbled down in submission, allowing light to penetrate where it had been absent a very long time. Then the tumbling of the walls became the quaking of the earth, and the quaking of the earth became the convulsing of my torso. I was horrified—how could the telling of my story, the trusting of another soul have such an effect? How could I be sobbing so uncontrollably without the power to stop?