The Enchanted Disenchanted
A native of New York and a graduate of Barnard College, JOYCE ENGELSONhas worked in the publishing field until recently, when she decided to devote full time to writing. She says: “What I am trying to do is to handle the matters orthodox to women‘s fiction, the matters of sentiment, but to explore and express them without sentimentality.” In this story she shows the sense and nonsense of the situation she describes.
THE riders reined in their horses and gazed at the searching sky. . .”
“Cripes! ‘The searching sky’?” Greta pronounced the words slowly. What the devil does it search for? Writers! It must be hard to write, but a searching sky! Oh, hell, I sit here and read crap, and what for? So I can put off eating breakfast, which I put off so I can put off going to work, so I can put off living, which I‘ve been putting off successfully for aeons. Or so I can look busy, which might, just possibly, prevent Mother from coming in and asking me some damned embarrassing question.
“Greta!” Her mother had an endearing habit of shrieking when she was close and whispering soughingly from a distant room.
“Yes, dear. I’m right here.”
“Greta! Don‘t you have to go to work? It’s nine.”
Her mother stood in front of her, obviously pretending to be stout and short, and wearing a dirndl, pretending to look motherly in spite of the cigarette which drooped forever out of the corner of her mouth. Greta thought her mother must be some kind of smoking miracle: she had the most absolutely tobacco-unstained fingers in this world; she never held the damn cigarette in her hand but let it hang out of the corner of her mouth, screwing up one eye, closing the other against the burning eye-tearing smoke.
“For chrissake, Mother. For years you’ve been asking me the same damn thing. I know, when you were young — don’t tell me that again. When people worked, they had to go to the office or the pigpen or whatever it was by eight or nine. Well, obviously, cookie, I don’t. Can’t you get it into your head? I can be in when I‘m in. I’m not going to be fired. Or what do you suspect? That I don‘t work at all? You probably think I’m actually a daytime streetwalker.”
Her mother allowed the horror she was supposed to feel express itself in a faint moue, but aloud she said: “I don’t think you’d be good at that job.”
“Well, thanks. Very much. You’re really a dog‘s best friend. I mean, you‘re a real severest little critic and all that, aren’t you?” Greta was alarmed at the slight rise of real anxiety, real hostility in her voice, and just perhaps in her heart, and subsided.
“Oh, I know, honey. You’re an executive. Responsible job and everything. I’m just . . . Greta?”
“Ummm?” Here it comes, Greta thought, hopelessly.
“Greta, are you a virgin?”
“Oh, my God.” Greta exploded with laughter and a hint of something besides. “That‘s the limit. That‘s really it. Not only do you embarrass me, but you ask me a stupid question to boot. When I was eighteen, which I don’t have to remind you was two years more than a decade ago, you claimed — hell, you practically swore out a warrant — that 1 caused you an ulcer and a gently murmuring heart because I ran off with a boy. . .” Boy. Man, Greta thought inside her outer turmoil. Hard to think Jason would be two years more than a decade older, too.
Painting from collection Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of J. B. Neumann.
“. . . Went off, presumably to get deflowered, and now, now you ask if I’m a virgin!”
“Ohhh, Greta,” her mother sighed. “You know, honey, I do worry. I feel bad. Maybe it was me. I mean, my fault. Shouldn’t have made a scene.” She bent down to peck Greta aimlessly on an ear.
“Mother.” Greta mustered a laugh out of a semi-sob. “Is that what’s worrying you? All this damn time? You‘re worried about making too much of Jason and me? Afraid you traumatized me or something? Oh, tootsie, don‘t, I beg of you. It‘s nothing to do with you. It‘s just me. I don‘t know, I just dried up or something.”
“But I don‘t understand you, honestly. You‘re so cute to look at and have such cute clothes and cute guys calling you all the time.”
“You’re cute. I don’t know, Mother. Honestly. Let‘s not discuss it any more. Okay? 1 mean, do me a favor, and let‘s just not discuss it any more.”
OUTSIDE, walking to her subway stop, Greta thought, What is the matter with me? Is it Jason, for God’s sake? Jason. With difficulty she built up his image in her mind, the skinny, tall, stooppostured body, the yellowish crew cut. Jason of the big nose, the pipe, Jason who read the New Yorker, at eighteen all there was of sophistication. But Jason had no face. He couldn’t make her heart miss a beat. Jason, who had been her loving life. Oh, tall Jason, beautiful Jason. And now there was no love any more, not even for him. And no life either.
At eighteen Greta had been so full of bubbling, screaming, cute-bosomed, tomboyish, hoydenish life, her mother had despaired. She’d never be a lady. Hard to imagine she’d ever be a lady executive. At eighteen, life had been a marvel and Greta the marvel’s life. At eighteen, her father had still been alive, delighted, amused, catering. And in that year she’d met Jason. And, without even a question — she’d never even stopped to think of saying no when Jason had been sent to the place in Florida, which meant he’d be overseas soon — she’d gone off to Florida with him. No mother’s moans had stopped her. She just floated through the iridescence of her bubbling delight. No time to get married. They just loved in the private terror and wonder of their two weeks of life.
And then there were the letters. Too many. Too much to share when you’re young. And foolish, and believing, Jason hardly older than herself, that lovers have to know all about each other. Ah, foolish lovers. And there had been the absurdity of Jason’s final loving letter. He was only a boy, he loved her still, and he’d been as virginal as she. So, sleeping, one lonely night of his soldier’s life, with an Italian girl, he’d not been able to keep it to himself. It was nothing, he thought. And being nothing, he had to tell Greta. Greta would understand: it would make them even closer. How little he knew Greta.
She never wrote to him again. It killed her. His infidelity wouldn’t have moved her a pebble’s inch at stony thirty years, but at eighteen it had killed her. When Jason returned, he‘d come so fast to her house, fair and breathless as though he’d run all the way from Europe, which, speaking of the heart, he had, but Greta wouldn’t see him. No use asking — for twelve years she’d been asking herself — why not. I’m a fool, she thought, even while she’d been performing, but she couldn’t stop herself. And he’d gone off. That was sure enough. He’d given it one more try. But she stayed in her bedroom with the door closed, and when her mother had finally, in exasperation and defiance, led him up the stairway, she’d tumbled herself into bed - my God, nineteen years old — and put a towel over her face. I won’t see you because I won‘t see what you‘ve done to me because I’m a baby and I can‘t face it. I thought you loved me. And she stayed under the towel.
No towel to hide beneath now, she thought, walking into her office. And nothing to hide from. But the usual disordered, harried sight of her desk, her secretary, her telephone, the somber city-gray view from her windows calmed her.
“The old wart got in before you,” Arlene ventured warningly, handing Greta her slops of instant coffee. Arlene was a brave, blonde girl with an ambitious and romantic crassness that Greta admired and an even greater devotion which Greta also admired and probably craved.
“Speak respectfully, or more softly, of our boss,” Greta admonished amiably and without interest. She was relinquishing a last, fragrant Jason-thought: Jason Heidinger! What an absurd name. Who could possibly hold a romantic dream so named for more than a decade? The whole thing was ridiculous.
“Um?” Arlene was looking up the word “describe” in the dictionary. She had promised Greta six months ago that she would learn to spell it correctly. Greta had resolved to ask only this much.
“Arlene, let’s do something marvelous this week. I know what. I saw something downtown. How would I look wearing a headband? You know, very Hellenic, sort of classical.” Greta had a kind of vision, somewhere, of herself as Aspasia, marvelously witty and terribly attractive to men.
Arlene cocked her head to the side, visualizing Greta in a headband. “I don’t know. I don’t think it would be a must for you.”
“Well, thanks. You’re some secretary! You’re supposed to encourage and uplift me. Listen, I’m depressed. If a headband won’t do it, I’ve got to have something.”
“Okay. If you’re blue, can I misspell this week?”
“Can I stop you?”
“Oh, Greta! Honey, I forgot to tell you. There’s a boy starting this week.”
“What? A jazz trio?”
“You’re so sour. You know what I mean. A man. You know, my age; he’s starting this week. A man!” The wonder of this shone in Arlene’s eyes; her voice, even her skin seemed newly luminous to Greta. My God, she thought, why can’t I feel like that at the thought, just the thought of a man?
“He might be a hunchback, for all you know, Arlene.”
“Mr. Morris would‘ve said,” she answered doubtfully.
Greta laughed. “Come on, girl. Man or not. You’ve got some work to do for this old maid. Please, let’s get to it.” They set to work; Greta allowed Arlene’s enthusiastic hate for their boss, her determination that they show him, to infect her. By the time Greta’s intercom buzzed from the boss’s office, she had forgotten the hunchback.
SHE knocked on the boss’s door. Gracefully. After years of alternate sassiness and fresh servility, it was still a challenge. But Mr. Morris, in his narrow, dedicated vulgarity, always won.
She closed the door behind her and dipped her knees in a rude curtsy.
“All right, all right. No time for your nonsense this morning, Greta.” Ah, she thought, the Great White Father hath a bee in his bald bonnet.
“You commandeth, sire, and I perform.”
“I only wish to hell you would. Sometimes I don’t know why I don’t fire you. You’re so damned fresh. Anyway” — he clapped his hands together briskly, forestalling Greta’s answer — “I want to talk to you now. Sit down.” He motioned her to a leather chair on which she had so often sat she felt it to be part of her, like a cheap prefab combination garment and abode.
“I’ve hired that young man I mentioned to you.”
“You mentioned to me like hell. You never mentioned him at all.”
“Ah-hah,” Mr. Morris grunted in triumph, “I told you you never listen carefully.”
“I do so. I listen very carefully. I may not hear accurately, that’s all. Oh, come off it, Morris. Is he replacing me?”
Mr. Morris slapped the desk with his hand. “I mean it, Greta. I’m going to lose my patience with you someday.”
It was perpetual. A battle. A hostile but neverunconditional-surrender provocation between them. Once Greta had respected the older man. Perhaps mostly for his authority, for his pay checks, for his position. Sometimes for what he could teach her and often for what he was at least willing to teach. She had been younger and had not realized how much her admiration contained the usual need on her own part to influence him. Having learned how impossible that was and being still unable to shake his profound faith in her ability, she had lost her respect for him. Greta thought her feelings about him now could be labeled simply irritation and fear, which she hid beneath her rudeness to him.
“You know he’s not replacing you. Must you waste my time and yours? Who could replace you? This chap’s young, charming, and polite. Replace you indeed!” It hurt. Greta was surprised
at her own intake of breath. She was hurt!
“Matter of fact, not only is he not replacing you, he doesn‘t even have anything much to do with your department.”
“So? If he’s not in my department, why are you telling me about him and for the first time?” she emphasized.
Mr. Morris looked uncomfortable. “Well, Greta, my dear, the fact is, I sort of want to avoid trouble with him. I don’t know, maybe you can help. He’s young, red hair. . . . You know I don’t like personal situations in the office.”
This was shorthand for Mr. Morris’ unconscious and absurd belief that a redheaded male must be irresistible to women and his conscious determination to see that no one made love on his time.
“What do you want me to do about your young man? Keep the girls in line? And keep the line going in the other direction? Yes, I will.”
“Thank you, my dear. You’re a good girl. And you’ll like him, really you will. He’s a bright lad. Twenty-five.”
“Yes, I get it. And gorgeous. Red hair. I’m swooning. What the devil makes you think red hair is such a love philter? I can’t stand it. Always goes with no eyelashes and grainy lids.”
“Greta, are you a virgin?”
“You know, my hero,” she replied, “that‘s the second time today someone’s asked me that and it‘s only” — she bent to look at her watch — “eleven o’clock. If I were, I think I’d wait till later tonight before I gave a definitive answer.”
Mr. Morris frowned and seemed to have forgotten his question. “You‘re very young and still nice-looking. Don‘t fall for this boy, Greta, he’s just a kid.”
Greta rose. “You’re all making me feel like a hundred today. I’m not going to fall for a redheaded child. Why don’t you ask him if he’s a virgin?”
She sat down again, remembering the work to be done, and smoothed her hair. After a half hour of cajoling, pleading, and persuading, she had discussed her ten minutes’ worth of business with him, taken notes, lost five points and won one.
“What’s this sexual athlete’s name?” she asked at the door.
“Whom?” Mr. Morris said vaguely. The lovable grammarian, she thought wryly.
“You know, the hunchbacked redhead.”
“He’s not a hunchback. His name, ah, his name. . . .” Mr. Morris was not strong on names. He leafed through papers on his desk, disorganizing such system as he and she had been able to put into them.
“His name’s Heidinger. Ralph P. Heidinger.” He read it slowly from a typed résumé, mispronouncing each syllable carefully.
OH, GRETA,” Arlene oozed, “he’s got red hair!”
Greta put her head down on the desk, scrunching over in her seat and running her hands through the back of her hair.
“What’s the matter, Greta?” Arlene rushed over, genuinely concerned.
Greta picked her head up wearily, intoning, “ ‘What is matter? Never mind. What is mind? Does it matter?’ ”
“Nothing. But I would like to know, really I would, why this young man’s hair color is such a world-shaking proposition, since I assume it’s about Mr. Heidinger that you’re speaking.” Greta tried out his name on her lips for the first time, as an experiment, rather like gingerly tasting a new greengage plum.
“How did you know his name?” Arlene gasped.
“Never mind. Just tell me, for God’s sake, what’s so ever-lovin’ marvelous about red hair? Are you under the mistaken impression that red hair means virility? You’re probably also under the doubtful impression that oysters are a species of cantharides. What a generation! Don’t you know it‘s a proved scientific fact that the sexiest men are bald?”
“But he’s young, Greta!” Arlene protested.
Right in the back with an ax, Greta thought, depressed.
“Are you Miss Stetson?” He stood in the doorway, very possessive, very commanding on the threshold, Greta thought. Too commanding. Too possessive. He didn’t recognize her either, she realized, disappointed in spite of her command over herself.
“Why? Were you with me in the ships at Mylae?” she answered coldly, determined to test him immediately and find him wanting.
“I don’t believe so, unless you were in the China-Burma-India The-a-ter. I‘m no corpse you planted either, resuscitated or otherwise,” he grinned amiably. Too amiably, she thought.
“Well,” she said, aware of Arlene at her side and feeling a childish need to rout her, “you’re brother to a corpse I planted some years ago. But then you were a blasted, fresh, freckled, wretched brat who probably wouldn’t remember your brother’s girl friends anyway.”
“Greta!” He lunged forward, grasping her hand, grinning, smiling, falling all over himself, she thought, to express his pleasure. “I thought you looked familiar. My God, how marvelous. I was not too young. Boy, will Jason be surprised.” He had the grace to blush.
She waved her hand in airy, sophisticated dismissal. “Don’t look embarrassed. It’s all long ago. Besides, I’ve seen Jason since. Met him in the A train, Independent subway, year and a half ago,” (March 13, she said to herself) “and he told me all about the baby, his wife, his job, and so forth. He looked fine and so, by the way, do you,”
“And so, by the way, do you!” he exclaimed. Despite herself, this pleased Greta.
“Thank you. I’m a vinegary old maid, and your words are a delight to my spinstery ears.”
“Old maid!” The sincerity of his surprise was such pleasure to Greta that she could feel it in her stomach, her groin, her intestines, and it was like traveling miles and miles to a recommended wayside inn and, in thirst, finding the drinks marvelous — a special ambrosia for the disappointed, she thought.
“You, an old maid. Incroyable. You were a doll when you used to . . . go with Jason. But you’re incredible now. What a beautiful skirt,” he said.
Homosexual, she thought in alarm.
“It’s from Copenhagen. Friend of mine brought it over, hot from the plane still,” she laughed.
“Does something for you,” he said, admiringly, eye-rovingly.
Lecherous, she thought, indignant at his presumption.
Arlene had kept still as long as, longer than she knew how.
“Yes, a mutual girl pal; she brought me this.” Arlene indicated her low-cut white blouse.
Greta wondered how she had ever cared for this impossible Arlene and then wondered that she had wanted him to imagine her friend a male. She found herself gazing not at Ralph — quite different, she realized already, from Jason — but at Arlene in some kind of only subconscious speculation. Could she compete with sunny, yellowround, giddy youth? Something opened inside herself, slightly, lingeringly, and then fiercely closed up against the terror of hardship. Too difficult, she thought without despair. Too hard, too painful, not worth it. Oh, I couldn’t.
“I gather I’m not to be in your department,” he said in the proper tone of disappointment, “but how about lunch today if you are free, not busy?” He looked suitably impressed at the array of papers and wire baskets on her desk.
Her phone rang, and as Arlene jumped out of her frozen state to answer it with an officious “Miss Stetson’s wire,” Greta smiled, winningly, up at the young god. “It would be a great pleasure. And I am, as it happens, free.”
THE delight, the feeling of being, yes, absolutely frolicsome which caressed her, teased her gently, made her smile at nobody in the subways and coquet winningly with her mother at home was swift, ubiquitous in its onslaught. There was no period of grace, not even half a day of gradual warming up, thawing out, expanding to meet the sun. Greta’s pleasure exploded lovingly inside her and increased each day, though she had to admit that she was happier alone than with Ralph. Happier examining her happiness by herself than enjoying his company. Just like an old maid, she thought, and was so full of laughter she could not even think of this with bitterness.
They used to go quite often, at noon, to a little restaurant two blocks from the office and grimaced at its dry, unimaginative food. But they drank Pimm’s Cup, and this made them both feel sophisticated and marvelous. Greta cut her hair, wore a headband after all, and polished her nails, which she thought vulgar, middle-class, and disreputable all at once. “You make me feel tall and blonde and skinny and beautiful,” she told him.
He laughed. “You make me appreciate myself,” he said, taking her hand.
She was absolutely determined to behave well; to be, as she described the state of grace to herself, entirely nice. By which she meant “not difficult.”
She had been difficult with Jason, whom she had loved, and with all the men since, whom she had not loved — demanding, possessive, jealous, retreating at the wrong moment. But this time, no matter what, she was determined to be nice, calm, available, relaxed. She would make no scenes and no difficulties, not knowing really what she wanted or expected or hoped for, not wanting to think about how unsuitable this match was, and not knowing how he felt about her at all. She was pretty and witty and gay with him and would never seek him out when she wasn’t with him.
He was, obviously, impressed. He was appreciative and delighted. But what else he was she couldn’t tell, and since she did not want to push him, it was hard for her to find out. But push him she would not.
He stirred his drink with the cucumber rind. “What’s he really like?”
“Who?” she asked, admiring the effect of her headband in the cup’s reflection.
“The old boy, the boss, the tyrant, Mr. J. Frederick Morris.”
Greta felt a twinge — pain, disappointment, nervousness? She wasn’t sure.
“Oh, Lord, he’s nothing . . . much. And, I suppose, like all nothing muches, it‘s a long story. He’s sort of self-made, though not uneducated. Terribly ambitious, terribly rich, difficult, as you say, tyrannical, hard to work with, hard to work for. I don’t know. I‘ve known him awhile, and I’m not really sure myself what he is. His business is terriflly important to him. He has two daughters, no sons, and that depresses him. You know, no one to take over when he’s gone, or rather, no one to train while he’s alive, which is what he’d really love. His wife’s dead, and he has no interest in women. Just business. But he’s smart and generous in his way.”
“Arlene hates him,” Ralph said, rather exploringly.
“Yes, I know. It’s the office fashion.”
“You’re by way of being fair-haired girl, aren’t you?” he said very admiringly.
“Oy do me work same’s the other girls, Oy’m sure,” she said to cover her feeling of stiffness.
He laughed and changed the subject. “Do you mind talking about Jason very much?” he asked.
“No,” she said, knowing this was something they’d have to straighten out. “I was crazy in love with him, but I was eighteen. And it was very long ago.”
“Is it rude of me to ask why you haven’t ever married? Actually, for a long time the family thought you and Jason were married.”
He asks if it’s rude, Greta thought, but he doesn’t know it is.
“Yes, well, I guess maybe we thought we were, too. At least I did. And then by the time I realized we weren’t, I was older and pretty much a different person, and there have been men, a few, but I never cared enough.”
“You’re gorgeous, you know, Greta. But I‘ve said that before. I very much, very much like being with you. So other men must.”
“Yes,” she said. “Ralph, do you bore easily?”
“It depends what’s playing,” he answered after a pause.
I‘m nervous, Greta thought, and I must be more careful. I must be. She sipped her drink.
“Let’s have fun,” she said, smiling.
“Let’s,” he agreed, “starting now.”
When Mr. Morris called her in these mornings, she was almost more playful than rude. But that didn’t seem to please him either.
“What are you so giddy for?” he asked.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Nothing sits right with you, Morris. If I’m droopy or rude or giddy or fresh, you don’t like it. I don’t think you like me much.”
“Well, you’re wrong. I like you, and I’m worried about you, and I hope your mother is, too.”
“Thanks! You’ve certainly changed your tune. You were saying how middle-aged I was just the other day, and now you seem to think I need my mother to wipe my nose.”
“I think you may need your mother to wipe your tears if you’re not careful, Greta,” he said ominously.
“I don’t know what you mean, Morris,” she said slowly, worried by his heavy tone.
“You do. I mean that Heidinger boy. Why are you letting him take up your time?”
“I get my work done,” she said with a flash of the old spirit. But he didn’t bite.
“Nevermind. Greta, my dear. You know what I’m talking about. You are too old for him, he’s too flashy for you, and if I were you, I’d watch out. And that,” he said, opening up a folder of memorandums in front of him, “is all I’m going to say.”
“Well, I’ve got one more thing to say, Morris. I think you might have said that he’s too young for me, not that I’m too old for him, I really do!”
“Have the last word, Miss Stetson. I have said my say. And now shall we justify your exorbitant pay check by doing some work? Greta,” he warned, raising his hand, “that’s all. I won’t discuss it ever again.”
GRETA, Greta, pumpkin eater. It’s hot as hell.” He stuck his head in her office doorway. “Let’s blow this joint early and go someplace nice and unhealthy and air-conditioned.”
“And corrupt?” she asked, rapidly and mentally examining her costuming. Pity she hadn’t worn her new aqua dress that looked like the bottom of the sea.
“And corrupt,” he agreed. “Want to go to the Museum of Modern Art and pretend to look at canvases?”
“Love to,” she replied. “Perfect. And, in between pretending, we can really look at my favorite.”
“Oh, God,” he groaned. “Don’t ask me to guess. I‘ll fail, and you’ll despise me.”
“No, no games. It’s a little browny Klee painting, and it’s called The Mocker Mocked. It’s kind of a scratched-in head with a gaping mouth. And an expression.”
“What kind of expression?”
“Well, that’s it. What kind of expression is it? If you think it’s a kind of tragic gaup, then you look at it and you know it’s a downy thing. But you know, if you think it’s a gag, then you see that it’s a terribly despairing commentary, after all.”
“The Mocker Mocked,” he said slowly, savoring it. “You like ambivalence?”
“No. I like to play at disenchantment.”
“But you’re enchanting, Miss Stetson, and probably enchanted, too.”
“Thank you. Go away, please, while I do a little work. Here comes my secretary. Let me pretend to dictate awhile.”
Arlene bustled in, folders and books and papers loaded in her arms. Ralph winked at Greta and slapped Arlene playfully on the rear as he walked away.
“I like him,” Arlene commented.
“Oh, a little love tap and you’re gone. You young ones are so keyed up.”
“No, I mean, I like him . . . much, Greta.”
Greta looked up, surprised. “You mean interested?”
“I mean interested, definitely.” Arlene nodded.
“I see,” Greta said, conscious of the pomposity of her phrase but knowing it would impress Arlene.
“I mean, Greta, it’s going to be one of those struggling things. You know, the difficult businesses, a mess. I don’t know if I have strength. He’s sharp, you know. And I’m far from the only appleblossom on his bough.”
Greta heard all the echoes of herself in this speech, and the many months of the younger girl’s apprenticeship. She felt all the old tears well up too, but in quenching the new, flickering little flame inside her they dried up themselves. And she was vanquished without a struggle.
“Do you see him much?”
“Oh, you know, couple of dates in the evenings. Cocktails once. He’s got no time. Not just for this girl. Or for the others. He’s a charmer, kind of. I mean, not in a nasty way. But he’s sort of young. And he’s terribly ambitious. Wants to impress old Morris big and fast.”
“Young man on the make?” Greta observed.
Arlene nodded. “Sort of. But it’s all mixed-up energy and ambition. He’s really nice, Greta, and good and smart, and he’ll be straight as a pin when he settles down. I really think he’s got what it takes.”
“I’m serious. I wish I knew if he were. No, that‘s not so. I know he isn’t. But he will be. Oh, I know, you think he’s still in diapers. But he’s fond as hell of you; my God, he looks up to you — you’re the big ideal woman, you know. Do you think he’s the real thing or another damned phony baloney?”
“I don’t know, Arlene,” she said slowly, and, fearful of revealing herself, she dismissed the subject abruptly. The truth was, Greta didn’t know. She had no idea. And in recognizing this she saw, too clearly, the rest of the truth. It wasn‘t for her to find out. It was not for her to make it with Ralph at all. Because she hadn’t even realized the questions, the matters at stake. Yes, he was a problem, another Jason, she could see that. But it wasn’t her problem. It was Arlene’s. Maybe. If Arlene were lucky. Or some other angry, hungry young thing. But not for Greta Stetson. She felt lost and precarious in space, out on a limb now, more than she felt depressed or sorrowful. Fortunately, she had not rushed all the way, yet, to meet the sun, and so her retreat did not have to be so substantial. And then, she thought, too, one did not suffer after thirty as one did before twenty. It’s the first two decades that are the worst, she remembered. That’s when you hide under towels. Afterward, it doesn’t hurt so much. Not even humiliation. But she decided to dislike Arlene. I want to indulge myself, she thought. I’ve earned it.
“Listen, Arlene,” she said finally. “Let‘s get some of this mess cleaned up on my desk and quit early. I’m hot, and I‘ve got a headache.”
“But you don’t get headaches.”
“Well, I’ve gotten to getting them. And I’m going home early. I was going to drop in to the museum with Ralph, but why don‘t you do me a favor and tell him I can’t face it today. Another time. Or you go, tootsie. Look, here’s my membership card.” She dug it out of her purse with only slightly numb fingers. “I wanted to show him a painting. But you show him. The Mocker Mocked. Take a look at it, both of you. In a good summer twilight it has Mr. Morris’ complexion, I think.”
GRETA’S mother hung up the telephone receiver with great caution, tapping it with a long, carmine fingernail. She was nervous and slightly alarmed at Greta’s phone manner. It had been a long time since she had demanded an accounting of her daughter’s comings and goings; not that she didn‘t quietly long for such a balance sheet, but, sensibly, knowing she wouldn’t get it, she relinquished her claim. Still, Greta was eminently reasonable. She rang her up when she wasn’t coming back, so that Mrs. Stetson wouldn’t have to telephone the morgue at night, Greta said, and disturb hardworking civil servants. And she often called to say she’d be home earlier than ordinarily because, she argued, she didn’t half relish the idea of coming on her mother with a man smothering in her broom closet. But she was practically always simply cordial and clinical when she called.
Today she had called twice and been neither, and been different, both times. First, she was coming on home early, sounding, Mrs. Stetson thought, very much like Masha in The Seagull, sniffing, whining, playing a homely, heavy lead. It was always bad when Greta came home early, usually meaning that she was blue and hadn’t any place interesting to go or was in a poky mood and refused to go anywhere interesting that she might have gone. But the afternoon passed, the crepuscular suburban sinking of the sun passed, and then the night. And it was well into what Mrs. Stetson thought of as tomorrow when Greta rang up, impertinent, probably drunk, talking very much more like one of the sillier sisters in Pride and Prejudice. She was coming home soon. And her mother should please do her a favor and wait up for her a little longer, since she had undoubtedly been waiting up all night anyway, pacing in anguish. Mrs. Stetson drew in a deep breath, glad the girl had not met with a horrid accident. I should have had sons, she thought. And now, she realized, I shall never have grandchildren either. She sniffed in sorrow and poured water into the teakettle and lit the burner beneath it.
“Well, my love.” Greta threw her purse and a pair of dirty white cotton gloves on the table. “I have returned, not with the spoils but not, if I may say so, without them.”
“What does that mean? And where have you been?” Mrs. Stetson added craftily, knowing this had nothing to do with the issue but hoping in this confused moment simply to find out.
“Been to the Hell of Despair, the Lethe of Relinquishment, and the Haven of Self-Help and Accomplishment. The fact is, my dear mother, I have, in this one small day . . .”
“Practically twenty-four hours!”
“Well, yes, but a small day really, and one needs all of it for accomplishment. In this small day, I have been in love, fallen out ot love, and agreed to get married. In that order.”
“Whom are you in love with, may I ask?”
“No one. You haven’t listened carefully, as old J. F. would say — will say, in fact. I had a brief, mad, not very gay impulse which was a product of senility, housemaid‘s water on the brain, and I was awakened from same with a rude, as the novelists say, jolt. The jolt, however, had the quality of knocking me, if I may say so, back on the right road of sane, sound, reasonable, bitchy, maybe even more glamorous, trecento.”
“What’s the matter with love?”
“Nothing. Except it’s better to be loved than to love. Don’t kid yourself, maman. It is.”
“Who said no?”
Greta grinned and then wearily threw herself into a dining-room chair and took off her shoes.
“I’m not kidding. Mother. I’m so ever-lovin’ tired of lovin’. If you know what I mean. I’m just tired of loving, and being in love, and waiting to fall in love, and all that. I just realized today how sick of it all I really am. You know what I want? You know whom I would really love? The first goddamned guy who came along and said, ‘Greta, me girl. We’re off to me little love nest in the East Sixties, where I have a ravishing little place just for you and me and a hand-blown Martini pitcher and two glasses.’ ”
“You got picked up?” Mrs. Stetson gasped.
“Are you kidding? I’ve been being picked up for years, little one. Nothing ever comes of that, except a bunch of creeps who want to play followthe-leader in movie balconies or under a tree or oafs looking for lame girls to talk to or foreigners who want to hate America with someone understanding.”
“So who? Who’s in the East Sixties, or is that figurative?”
“Both. Realistic and figurative. Tuesday week at noon, and you’re invited — wear your satin suit, honey — I’m marrying the old wart, the dear old deadpan, J. F., my rich, loving boss, Mr. J. Frederick Morris, and I shall be the sweet empress of his heart.”
“My God, he’s. . . .” Mrs. Stetson’s effort expired in trying to recollect what he was.
Tired, hot, sticky, dirty, exhausted, Greta hugged her mother and then herself with rapture. “Oh, I’m so smart,” she trilled. “And about time, after all. God, it’s taken me long enough to grow up.”
“But Greta,” Mrs. Stetson wailed, “he’s old. You don’t have to marry just for the sake of marrying. You’re not an old maid. You’re young and pretty, and what would Jason think?” It was out before she could call it back. It was out, and it was a mistake. Or maybe, she thought, maybe not.
“Jason!” Greta whirled out of her seat. “Jason. You keep that corpse around for me to fall all over. You do it, don’t you? I mean, you’re supposed to help me get over something. You, you who were so against the whole idea, thought Jason was a damned snotty kid, which I may add he was, and so is his whole family, if you want to know something. But, all these years, it’s Jason you keep comparing my beaux to. Jason is the yardstick. What makes you think Jason was absolutely the only thing in the world for me? If you want to know something else, I met Jason not so long ago, and he looked fat and seedy and dull, and he talked fat and seedy and dull, too. Look, Mother, you know, I’m glad I knew him, glad I loved him. But I’m a different person now. Maybe I’m not a fairy-tale person. But I‘m me, and I’d just as soon be me. I can‘t, in any case, change. I’ve come to terms with myself. And lucky for me, too.”
“So you’re going to marry Mr. Morris?” Mrs. Stetson said slowly, letting herself think about this at last, letting herself imagine it.
“Oh, yes, Mother, I am,” Greta said, recovering, at this recollection, her lost composure, and sat down. “I am, and I’m as pleased as larks’ tongues, as birds’ nests. I’m going to marry him and fight with him and have a beautiful house and tons, tons of money and two marvelous stepdaughters to tyrannize and play tragic stepmother with and a strong, rich, mean, loving daddy for the three of us and a husband for me and I‘ll be the queen of the roost and make love to him before breakfast every morning.”
“Do you know, Greta — I mean, do you have the remotest notion what you’re getting yourself into?”
“Yes, Mother, I really think I do. I’m going to stop playing Little Girl Lost, and Bitchy Old Maid, and all those boring, boring roles. I‘m going to stop looking for marvelously made young men to fall in love with. All foolishness. I’ve a gorgeous part for myself right under my nose. Should have seen it all along. But I was too stupid and too goddamned paralyzed. By you and Jason. And the idea of being in love. To hell with young men and young love. I‘ve got just what I need. At last. It’s tailor-made. Mine, the Royal Grown.” She stood up, collecting her scattered things. “Mine,” she said, “quite mine.”