CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
SYLPH AND NYMPH
1. First Love
The first concepts about love between the opposite sexes came to me in the idealized version in which this relationship was portrayed by the poets, mainly Pushkin and Lermontov. In their descriptions the adored maidens took on a delicate, almost ethereal shape, even though imbued with all the human attributes. Whether reserved or flirtatious, serious or lighthearted, trustful or jealous, constant or fickle, they were enchantresses all, heavenly beings to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped as idols. Though they were kissed and embraced, and passions raged, these acts seemed to be of the spirit, not of the flesh. In my youth I knew of only one graphic description of love in terms of earthy pleasures, in a poem by Lermontov, where an "experienced" woman encouraged her youthful lover in these words:
Cuddle close to me, my young and handsome lad!
How shy you are! Is this indeed your first attempt
A woman's breast to fondle with your hand?
These lines will seem quite innocuous to a present-day reader, but in those days certain words and phrases which are freely bandied about now were considered vulgar and in very bad taste. Terms like belly, pregnant, puberty, virgin--not to speak of even allusion to sex organs, menstruation or sexual intercourse--would have been scandalous if used in mixed company. When I first read the above lines at the age of fourteen or fifteen a pleasurable thrill went through me, but it was mixed with a certain unease, a sense of desecration of the purity and sublimity of love, even though the poet, in his exquisite verses, brings out the deep anguish and heartfelt longing of the unhappy woman.
Sex as a fact of life was of course not unknown to me. I had seen the mating of sparrows and of domestic fowl. My playmates and I saw dogs in the back yard or garden, one mounted on top of the other, and chased them with sticks and stones, sometimes causing them to run away without breaking their coupling we believed that the male's penis became so swollen in the act that he was unable to withdraw it. During fairs an open space just outside of town was set aside for horse mating. Curious kids were chased away from the immediate vicinity, but we managed to hide behind bushes or fences to watch the proceedings. It was an awesome sight indeed to see the great black stallion snorting, stamping and raging at the restraints exerted by six men, barely able to control him until the mare was brought into the compound, when he made a mad dash, reared on his hind legs and performed the act of procreation, aided by one of the men who guided the extended huge organ to the mare's orifice. Sometimes the mare's legs buckled under her from the weight of the stallion mounting her from the rear, which made it doubly difficult to hold back the stud until she was up again and he could complete his service.
In addition to these visual and explicit manifestations, young children were not spared from hearing the constantly repeated swearing of the peasants in which coarse references to sex were predominant. These people, unlike the prudish Jews, displayed complete disregard of what was generally accepted as a code of proper behavior. As was previously mentioned, they did not hesitate to urinate and even defecate right in the market place, and young women nonchalantly exposed their breasts to suckle their babies in public, without any attempt to cover up. One time on entering our store I heard a villager, who apparently was asking father's advice, explaining why he wanted to chase his wife out of the house: "She wouldn't let me finish; doesn't give me a chance to let off."
Now all this was very intriguing and even conducive to prurience, but in my concept it was mere animalism, a biological process that had nothing to do with love as revealed by the poets. These crude physical acts could not possibly inspire the sublime lyrics and bitter-sweet romantic songs imbued with melancholy yearning alternating with heavenly rapture that seemed to be the inevitable emotions engendered by love. The few girls I was acquainted with made me aware of the mystifying aura surrounding them. I found pleasure in their company, liked some better than others, but felt no deep emotion toward anyone in particular I felt no bliss in their presence and suffered no pangs at their absence. I was not indifferent to them, but our association was that of good companions, nothing more.
This then was my spiritual and emotional state when I experienced the first raptures of love. The object of it was a raven-haired, green-eyed sylph who seemed to be the embodiment of all the charms the poets sang about--nay, more beautiful than any image a poet ever conjured up. It happened suddenly, unpremeditatedly, truly at first sight. She was a newcomer in town, having moved in with her parents and an older sister when they had to abandon their smaller and more rustic community due to the exigencies of war. When I saw her for the first time on the porch of her residence as I chanced to stroll by, something happened to me it was as if a vision of all the charms impressed on my mind by the poets' lyrics suddenly materialized and became concentrated in the wisp of a girl sitting there unconcernedly chatting with her sister. I was momentarily dazed, had the impulse to stop and stare, but caught myself and continued on my way, stirred by emotions never before felt, awake or in dreams. Her image did not leave my mind. As the days passed by I was agitated by a yearning to see her again, to speak to her, to look into her eyes, perchance to bask in her smile. I could not rest, thought of ways and means to make her acquaintance, but she apparently did not yet know anyone through whom an introduction could be obtained. I passed her house many times, agitatedly hoping and sometimes succeeding to get a glimpse of her. At last the suspense became unbearable one afternoon as I neared the house and saw the girls on the porch I was impelled by a force beyond control to take the unheard of step of approaching and introducing myself. Contrary to my direst misgivings, I was not spurned or rebuffed, but was received cordially and invited to join them.
From that day on I became a frequent visitor at their home. I found her sister, who was my age, very pleasant company too, and the three of us spent many hours together, especially on the long winter evenings, talking, singing, and in joint reading. I used to remain there way past the curfew hour (we were still under German occupation), risking arrest by a patrol even though I sneaked home through back alleys or over the swamp, to the worry of my mother. But how could I let such trifles deprive me of an extra blissful hour or two in her presence, when every minute away from her seemed like eternity! True, we were not alone, did not hold hands, exchange kisses, or whisper sweet things to each other, though I was indeed craving for and dreaming about these delights. In fact, the word love was not even mentioned outright at that time, except in poems which I wrote in secret but did not dare give to her. It did not matter just being in her presence was happiness enough and filled my heart to overflowing.
This state of exaltation continued for about six months, when the specter of separation suddenly loomed ahead. She and her family were preparing to emigrate to America at about the same time I was applying for my visa, and the anguish at the refusal of my first application was deepened immeasurably by the thought that I might never see her again. My elation was so much the greater when I did succeed in getting the visa at the second try. Through a fortunate coincidence we met in Warsaw en route, though traveling on different steamship lines, and it was she who sat next to me at the unforgettable performance of Eugene Onegin at the Opera House there, and whose presence contributed to the previously described rhapsodical emotions I was subjected to during that performance.
In the United States our attachment developed and ripened, and the future seemed bright with happiness and fulfillment. It was not to be. A calamity that was not the work of man struck, and we became separated for several years. Although we corresponded during her absence, and saw each other again after she returned, the broken bonds could not be made whole again. I was still desperately in love with her, and agonized over ways and means of recapturing the former hopes and dreams, but the events of the intervening years made this impossible. We remained good friends, and after each of us got married our respective spouses joined us in friendship, in full knowledge of our former relationship. The exaltation as well as the agony engendered by that relationship are indelibly engraved on my heart. I understand the poets.
The separation from my beloved left me disconsolate, but the long hours spent in work and study helped to alleviate my state of gloom. For a long time I shied away from social companionship. In one thing only did I find real solace in music. On rare occasions it was the topmost gallery in Carnegie Hall where I listened to it, but much more frequently at the Lewisohn Stadium of the City College campus, that wonderful facility, now regrettably gone, which brought the best in classical music, and dance, within the reach of countless thousands of New Yorkers who otherwise would never have been exposed to it. Radio was still in its infancy; long-playing records were still in the future; Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House were too expensive, and inhibiting, to the general public; but the Stadium, with its informality, twenty-five-cent admission, and a feeling of camaraderie among the audience attracted capacity crowds to the music under the stars (or what passed for stars in New York City). It was there that I first heard Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Sibelius, and so many other composers whose very names were new to me, all performed by great orchestras, famous soloists, under renowned conductors. What a new, theretofore unsuspected, world of enchantment was opened up to me! I drank in every sound and reacted to every mood as if in a trance, oblivious to my surroundings, until brought back to earth by the shouts and applause of the enthusiastic audience.
It was at these concerts that I made the acquaintance of several young people who belonged to a group that reminded me of our "circle" in Europe. In fact this group was also European, Britishers all, and I was the only "Russian" among them. They were quite sophisticated, and espoused the new trends in politics and social behavior, including a much freer relationship between the sexes. I was invited to their common meeting ground, an apartment owned by two sisters (was I fated to meet two sisters?) who held open house on some evenings and on weekends. The time was spent in discussion of current world affairs, lighthearted banter, and at times not-so-innocent flirtation. Why they took me, an outsider, into their midst I can only guess at possibly one of the sisters (the younger one!) had something to do with it but whatever the cause I found their company stimulating, and was gradually drawn out of my sullenness.
One of the group's activities was hiking, and it was exhilarating to explore the hills and woods of Westchester and Putnam counties, which brought back recollections of excursions to the forests of my native country, although the terrain there was flat and the flora quite different from the foliacious growth encountered here--there we had mainly tall, straight pines with bare reddish stems rising to a height of twenty or more feet before spreading out into a crown of branches which shut out the sky. For me it was a salutary and much appreciated change from the six days spent in the store and the evenings devoted to study to come out early on a summer Sunday morning, meet the group at a designated place, and tramp through the rocky hills and forest trails; then settle down for a picnic lunch in the shade of trees near a swiftly flowing brook, its clear waters showing every pebble in its bed and sparkling wherever the sun's rays fell upon it through the foliage; and make the way back in late afternoon, physically tired but spiritually refreshed by the change from the daily routine in the stuffy city. We often wound up the day at the sisters' apartment to relax and spend the evening in congenial company.
I remained a member of the group for about a year, when it began disbanding, some of them returning to England, others marrying and going their own way. To my great regret I unwittingly became involved in the breakup of a friendship between the spirited younger sister and a very decent chap who was quite serious about her, something I was unaware of when I lightheartedly responded to her flirtation. After leaving the group I reestablished contact with some of the fellows I had gotten to know at school, and through one of them met Rose, who was to become my wife.
3. Enchanted Evening
Hyman Kulick was one of the schoolmates whose company I enjoyed and with whom I had much in common. He too was a product of the shtetl; came here as a poor immigrant; supported himself by hard work while studying engineering evenings at City College; had broad cultural interests; and with all that displayed a fine sense of biting Jewish humor. By the time I renewed communication with him he was already married to Ethel, a Chicago girl who had known Rose there. Rose had spent the summer of 1927 at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania on a student scholarship, and came to New York at the end of the term not only to see the city but also to explore the possibilities of finding better work than she had in Chicago. We met at the home of the Kulicks when we chanced to visit them at the same time during the fall of that year. We spent a pleasant evening in chatting, reminiscing, and singing Russian and Yiddish songs. Rose was rather reserved, but she made a good impression on me as a pretty, sincere and plucky girl. She was staying with some people from her home town in Russia, and accepted my offer to see her home. The fifteen-minute ride on the subway proved quite boring. Much as I tried to carry on a conversation, all I could get out of her was "yes" or "no" in response to my remarks. The change that came over her since we left our hosts was puzzling, since during the couple of hours we had spent there she did not appear too shy, talked quite spiritedly, and displayed a strong sense of independence. The explanation came much later that she was very unhappy with the family situation of the people with whom she was staying, and was put in a black mood at the mere thought of having to spend another night with them. In fact she was then in the process of looking for another room in order to get away from them. Not knowing this at the time I was intrigued by her behavior, and before parting asked her if she would like to meet me again. The answer was a noncommittal maybe. As she had no telephone, I gave her the one of the store I worked in, and in my newly acquired sophistication taunted her: "I suppose you are the kind of a girl who wouldn't dare to phone a fellow!" , receiving only an enigmatic smile for an answer.
During the succeeding months we both visited the Kulicks several times without running into each other. We did meet by chance at an art exhibit, but I was with a "girl friend" and she with some friends of her own, so we only exchanged a few words. Then on a fine spring Sunday she telephoned, stating that she had just come across the business card I gave her the first time we met, and decided to accept my challenge. We arranged to meet that same evening. We had some food in a little restaurant on Columbus Circle, and then spent several hours in Central Park, walking, talking, telling each other facts and anecdotes of our lives, laughing at past misadventures, and thoroughly enjoying each moment we spent together. What a transformation occurred in her behavior since that boring subway ride! She looked radiant in her spring outfit, and her conversation flowed naturally and unaffectedly. Her expressive bluegray eyes became filled with pain at the recital of her family's misfortunes during the civil war in Russia (those were real tragedies, compared to which my own family's difficulties seemed trifling); or would sparkle with laughter at some comic incident. That laughter! It seemed to express her entire personality more than anything else. It was hearty, full throated, ringing with such complete abandon and unfeigned enjoyment that it was impossible not to be carried away by it. It fitted perfectly the fine texture of her skin, the crimson blush that spread over her cheeks at some awkward moment, her well-developed figure, and her unconstrained bearing and movements. She exuded health and vigor, and seemed the embodiment of life and love. Our fate was decided that evening we were in love with each other--fully, deeply, unreservedly.
The attraction she found in me, according to what she told me later, was my loyalty as exemplified by my devotion to my family; my obvious sincerity; and, of all things, my pale face and emaciated appearance! It must have appealed to her innate mother instinct.