As a freshman at NYU, Jonathan often felt like a small fish in a large pond. But in first year law school he felt like a very small fish in a shark-filled ocean. No more fooling around in bars and dormitories. This was real life, each man for himself. It didn’t matter what courses he took- the required ones or his one elective– ambition bristled around him. The second and third year students- almost lawyers, at least in their own eyes- were ferocious in class arguments, over-eager to ask intelligent questions, aggressive.
When he had time to reflect on his situation he felt severely out of place. He had chosen law because he thought it would offer him independence and the widest choice of a career but that first year there was no sign of independence and no free choice. It was all cut and very dry. No one else complained. Most of his fellow students wanted to join a decent (read famous, reputable or powerful) law firm, practice law as required, become a partner and retire to a second career of clipping coupons on their investments. He didn’t know what he wanted from law school but he knew it wasn’t that.
Occasionally he shared a beer or coffee after a lecture with fellow students, there was no one he could call a friend. Although he never admitted it, he was lonely.
There was another problem. He still lived in New Rochelle. There was no question of getting his own place near the law school in Greenwich Village. In 1950 apartments were scarce. All available places were snapped up by veterans. So he commuted, taking the train to Grand Central then the subway down to the law school in the Village. As a result, his main contact with fellow students was either in class or in cafes and bars where his time was defined by the NYNH & Hartford train schedules to New Rochelle.
There was only one female in his law school class, a short woman with long dark hair, not particularly attractive and apparently shy. He wondered why a woman would want to study law. Maybe it was the men, he thought at first. He rarely saw her outside the lecture halls or seminar rooms She was never visible at bars, seemed very shy. If she went to a party, she always left early, alone. She was someone Jonathan watched, interested in spite of himself. Was she Italian? Spanish? Other? She had an unusual name, sounded a little like Cindy but that didn’t seem to fit her somehow.
Late in summer semester he saw her in a seminar on family law. There was a lively discussion. Jonathan didn’t join in. Curious, he waited until she packed her briefcase then followed closely as she headed for the door. He held the door open, smiled,
“Hey, that was pretty sharp, what you said at the end.”
She looked up, startled.
“My name’s Jonathan. I didn’t catch yours. It sounded like ‘Cindy’.
She smiled. ”No, not Cindy, Xenia.”
“No, just Greek.”
By this time they were headed for the stairs. Jonathan had pulled up beside her.
She grimaced, shook her head. “No, American.”
“.. but my grandparents came from Greece. ” She said.
“Bye, Jonathan” as she vanished into the law library.
Well, at least she remembered my name, he thought. It’s a start.
The discussions around the coffee machine that semester were all about the the Owen Lattimore hearings and the illegally obtained FBI documents or the state of the Rosenberg trial. He felt sorry for the Rosenberg children, innocents dragged into the spotlight in the current hunt for Communists. For Senator McCarthy he had no sympathy at all. McCarthy’s bullying tactics alienated most of the law students although they were quick to add they weren’t against his aims, only his tactics. It was too easy to be branded a ‘pinko’.
His second year at law school was busier. He began tutoring undergraduate students, relishing the chance to earn money and regaining a sense of superiority he hadn’t had since high school.
Xenia was still there but with a short, curly haircut. She seemed feisty, more self-possessed. She spoke more in class, asked good questions. They often had coffee together, standing near the machine in the lobby. It was obvious that to her they were just friends, which was fine with him. Maybe she had a boyfriend somewhere who had urged her to get a haircut. He preferred long hair, although he complimented her new look.
It turned out she commuted from Staten Island. She was going to concentrate in Family Law, she said. Jonathan was still undecided. He was keeping all options open as long as possible. Sometimes he envisioned himself as a labor lawyer defending union rights, or arguing in court, a Perry Mason figure championing the underdog. He even bought a real hat like his hero, but ended up wearing it only to services on the High Holidays.
His curriculum changed too that year. There were more electives and fewer required courses. It was also more complex. He joined several study groups and met more people.
As the end of the semester approached the evening sessions of the financial law study group often extended past midnight. Xenia and Jonathan had to leave in a hurry, racing for the Staten Island ferry or the train at Grand Central. One evening Xenia suggested to the group they adjourn to her uncle’s diner close by on Greenwich Avenue and 12th St.
“Just an idea.” She said. Her uncle would provide unlimited coffee, she said, an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“What about the ferry?” Jonathan asked.
She waved her hand “I can sleep at my uncle and aunt’s place on 18th St.”
Jonathan thought a minute. “Hey Oliver, can I sleep on your sofa again if I need to?”
“Sure.” Oliver mumbled, busy packing his briefcase. Oliver, one of the lucky ones who had a place of his own, was a good-natured, bright guy, someone Jonathan was easy with, not one of the sharks. Jonathan had often taken advantage of his hospitality, crashing on the sofa in the tiny apartment after a date with some undergrad.
It became almost a tradition to meet at the Athena Diner in the evenings, sitting together at a circular booth at the back. They got to know Uncle Dimitri and the steady parade of various waitresses who worked for him. There were the regulars – Rose, Ethel, Agnes – in their forties or older, really fast at their jobs. They worked the day shift. Most of them were gone by 10 pm. They reminded Jonathan of his aunts, come on hard times.
What Xenia called ‘the occasionals’ came and went, sometimes for a month, sometimes longer, usually on the night shift. They were younger, looking for better jobs. For most of the law students they were part of the wallpaper like the stools at the counter or the revolving cake display in the corner. Jonathan noticed a good-looking woman in her twenties, who often read a book between waiting on customers. Curious, Jonathan asked her one night what she was reading.
“Not reading, learning lines.” She ignored him.
“You’re an actress?”
She looked up, irritated. “Not right now.” Jonathan was surprised by the heavy sarcasm,
“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t know.” She went back to her book.
“So, what are you memorizing?” He leaned over, trying to read the cover.
She snapped the book shut. “It’s a play by Eugene O’Neill. Isn’t it time you went back to your friends?”
Jonathan lifted his hands in surrender as he backed up. “Okay, okay. I said I was sorry. ” He said as he returned to the study group.
“Not very friendly.” He muttered to Xenia as he slid into the booth next to her. Xenia smiled and shook her head. “That’s Joanne. She’s – um – serious.” “Obviously.” But Jonathan was interested. He’d never met an actress.
Soon he was teasing her, saying “Good evening, Bette Davis or are we Vivian Leigh tonight?”
“Oh, It’s Perry Como. Good evening, Mr. Como. Win any cases today?”
Both of them smiling, she carrying food to a table, he heading for the booth at the back. He liked her easy sarcasm, her quick answers, found himself looking forward to seeing her at the diner.
The next time he saw her reading, he risked a question.
“Got an acting job?”
She shrugged. “Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Just no money.”
His chin dropped, eyebrows lifted, the prosecuting attorney. “So- not a job.”
She shook her head, sighed. “It’s a showcase on Mulberry Street. The agents come and it’s a chance to be seen. I’m busy preparing.” She was starting to leave but turned back. “You can come if you want.”
Intrigued, Jonathan found his way later that week to the back room of a bar on Mulberry Street. The large space, once a meeting room for immigrant workers in the neighborhood, was filled with folding chairs for the audience – a few bored looking men, probably agents and directors plus excited family and friends of the performers.
When he saw Joanne on the stage doing a scene from “Anna Christie” he was shocked. She seemed taller and very beautiful, but he couldn’t understand why she had chosen a scene that was so depressing. True, her speeches were very dramatic. Anna/Joanne told the story of her rape and descent into prostitution very convincingly, so much so that for a moment Jonathan wondered. Maybe Joanne really had been a whore. He knew nothing about her past. But as he applauded and saw her smile, he recognized the Joanne he knew. It was all an act.
After the performance they had drinks in the bar. She had chosen the scene for the range it offered, she explained. She laughed at Jonathan’s naïve reactions. As they walked the dark streets, she talked about her acting lessons at the HB Studio, the grueling auditions, the disappointments when she lost out and the tremendous satisfaction of performing when she had the chance. He was fascinated. She was full of energy, so determined, so different from the girls in New Rochelle and the undergrads he’d dated.
They left the bar, wandering the deserted streets, talking. Joanne had been born in New Jersey but grew up in Las Vegas, an only child. Her father, an inveterate gambler, had wanted to be close to the action. After he died she and her mother moved back to New Jersey. Joanne was glad to be close to New York. She’d always wanted to be an actress. Jonathan told her about New Rochelle, how cramped he felt in the tight Jewish community where everybody knew everybody’s business. He talked about the law, his hope it would offer the most possibilities for him professionally, his own indecision compared to her ambition. It was 1:30 am when he dropped her at the subway. He slept at Oliver’s.
Winter semester in his third year Jonathan and Oliver were partnered in the mock trial course. They were handed a food poisoning case. Their client, the plaintiff, was suing for extensive damages. They’d watched other mock trials and knew that the professor/judge wanted the trial to be as realistic as possible. Sitting in the library, thinking over their tactics, they wondered who could play the part of the plaintiff.
Jonathan jerked upright. ”Joanne, of course! Joanne from the diner. I’m sure she’ll do it.”
Oliver frowned. “I’m not so sure. We can’t pay.”
“Let me handle it. I know she’ll do it. I saw her onstage once and she’s really good.”
What Jonathan didn’t mention was that he’d been seeing Joanne since the summer. Not really dating, she had no time for that, more like sharing time together, listening to each other while walking arm in arm through the city or just sitting close together in a park. She was special for Jonathan. He wasn’t sure she felt the same.
When he asked Joanne to help at the mock trial she was enthusiastic. Jonathan had to promise that he and Oliver would prepare her as thoroughly as any playwright so she would be convincing and be able to answer questions from the other side.
They used Oliver’s tiny apartment to practice with her. Joanne was quick and intuitive, offering suggestions and additions to the description of the pain and agony she had suffered from the rancid coffeecake – the loss of salary, the damage to her looks, so important in her job as a receptionist. The whole thing was a lark to her but one she wanted to do well, not for “the boys’” sake but for her professional pride. Oliver and Jonathan had to rein her in when she collapsed in tears during the final rehearsal. In the event, the ‘boys’ lost the trial but won praise from the professor/judge for the excellent preparation.
After the mock trial Jonathan concentrated on studying for the finals and the Bar exam. When he was at home he had to fend off questions from his father about what Murray called “your next professional step”. Estelle suddenly insisted on his presence at Friday evening dinners so he could meet “a nice girl”. He stayed away as much as possible, pleading exams, but couldn’t avoid several painful evenings meeting young women who were as uncomfortable as he was.
Joanne seemed very quiet after the excitement of her performance at the mock trial. Walking around lower Manhattan with Jonathan at the end of her shift, she admitted that she felt low. “It’s always like that after a performance.” She admitted. ‘You get all that adrenalin up for the show, then afterward you fall into a black hole.” He tried to cheer her up but she made a face. “Don’t bother. It’ll pass. It always does.” Still as he rode back to New Rochelle, Jonathan worried about her.
Things were not so optimal for him either, what with the questions from his father and mother about his future. To make matters worse, his sister was having a messy adolescence. At fourteen she gained a lot weight (his mother’s opinion) then, at sixteen, she stopped eating completely. Both parents appealed to Jonathan for help. He should talk sense to Isabel. But Jonathan felt out of his depth, who was he to talk sense to his sister? He’d barely talked to her at all, hardly knew her really. He had enough to think about just now with Joanne.
Maybe Joanne could talk to Isabel, his thoughts ran on from there. He could invite Joanne to the Seder and she could talk to Isabel. Then his parents would meet Joanne and maybe stop bothering him with other women. He could make it sound to Joanne like another mock trial, a chance to perform again, with the difference that she would be defending him by her presence and could encourage Isabel as an example of independence.
This was how he proposed it to Joanne – as a chance to act and as a favor to him. She said she’d love to come and asked many questions about what she could expect at the ritual. She admitted she was curious about New Rochelle and his family after hearing so much about them.
To his parents he said simply he had a friend he’d like to invite, she was curious about his background – thereby revealing it was a woman. His parents agreed. They would be very happy to meet Jonathan’s friends from law school, especially as he had kept them so secret. He said nothing to Isabel, as usual.
The Seder was seemingly uneventful. But seeing Joanne there, he realized how deep his feelings for her were. Was he in love? He wasn’t sure. Joanne had been very attentive to the family, very polite even when excusing herself so soon after the meal, pleading an appointment in the city. Jonathan had driven her to the train and complimented her on her ‘performance’. “No problem. I had fun. See you soon.” as she ducked out of the car and ran for the train just coming in to the station.
Walking around his neighborhood later, he knew exactly what was going on behind all the lit windows – the wine, the blessings, the songs, the reading about the flight from Egypt – the whole Passover ritual the same every year of his life. He saw it going on and on – in his own family, with his wife, his children – years and years of sameness, and found himself hating the predictability, the monotony. He knew he had to get away from the narrowness of his parents’ expectations. First he had to graduate, then pass the Bar exam, get a job, move out, start his own life.
These plans evaporated when he got back to his parents’ house. He found total confusion. Murray lying on the floor, his mother on the phone screaming to get the ambulance here immediately, Isabel nowhere to be seen. His mother hung up but continued screaming. “This is all your fault. If your father dies, you will have it on your conscience. How could you invite that woman into our family? Are you crazy?” on and on. The ambulance really did arrive immediately, distracting Estelle. He followed in the family car.
By morning his father was out of danger but his mother’s accusations were just as violent and now tempered with self-pity. What had she done to deserve this? Had he been abused, deprived? They had given him everything and this was the thanks they got – a shikse at the Seder. Desperate to avoid his mother’s hysteria, pleading final exams and the Bar exam, Jonathan escaped on the first possible train to the relative sanity of Manhattan.
The study group met as usual next day at the Athena Diner, but there was no sign of Joanne. He asked Uncle Dimi if Joanne had called in sick.
“No. She came in this morning and quit.”
Jonathan must have looked shocked. Dimitri looked at him, shook his head. “But she left a note for you.”
Jonathan took the note, shoved it into his pocket, took a deep breath and joined the others in the booth. He had trouble concentrating on the details of tort law. Finally after everyone left the diner he read Joanne’s note.
By the time you get this I will be on my way west. I know this is a shock. I finally got an offer after the showcase. I didn’t want to tell you before because I wasn’t sure it would work out. It took a long time but I got the contract a week ago. It’s really a great chance for me – a big part, a decent theater in Chicago. I couldn’t say no.
I did put them off until after the visit to your family. I felt I owed you that. I don’t know whether I was any help with your sister. I hope your family didn’t mind my presence too much.
I know this letter seems an easy way out. Jonathan, please don’t let it destroy what we had. I will always treasure the memory of our long walks and talks. You have been a very special person for me.
It just seems time for me, maybe for both of us, to move on.
Jonathan, shocked, angry, left the diner, found himself retracing some of the places he had wandered with Joanne. He tried to piece together the timing. She knew before the Seder but didn’t want to tell him. Was she afraid of his reaction? Did she think he wouldn’t trust her to come to New Rochelle? Why wouldn’t she tell him about the possibility of a job in Chicago? Come to think of it, she never mentioned if the showcase had produced any offers. She seemed so honest, but maybe Jonathan was just a small unimportant part of her life. He began to be ashamed of his own openness. Maybe she was amused at this law student, laughed secretly at his ambitions and his whining about his family. Although he knew he might be wrong, Joanne might have a good reason, still, he felt used, felt their relationship was cheapened. He was hurt, his trust violated.
He just caught the last train to New Rochelle. As the train rattled along he calculated his chances of moving out even before the Bar exam. If Joanne could move, so could he. He’d start looking tomorrow.
TO BE CONTINUED