Itís a perfectly clear, hot summer day. Iím late. Iím supposed to meet my babysitter at the pediatricianís office, where she is bringing my daughter whoís due for her one-year check up. If Iíd left the office twenty minutes earlier, I could have taken the subway and been there on time, but guilt kept me at my desk until the last minute. Iím the only working mother in my department, and Iím sure everyone notices how often I slip away from the office early. Now, Iíve got to take a cab and Iíll probably still be late for the appointment.
When I step out of my office building, Iím still thinking about work. A memo I faxed to the staff in my department has caused confusion. There are never any cabs on the street in front of my office, so I head toward Broadway. On a good day, you can get a cab within a minute of stepping on the curb. The warm air feels nice on my skin after the too cold air-conditioning of my office. I put out my hand and watch a yellow car arc over toward me with the odd grace that cabs use to navigate the congested streets. I slam the door and relax. The city has saved me from my own foolishness again. Iím going to make the appointment.
I stare out the window as we wind through downtown. If I change the first paragraph of my fax, everyone should be happy with it. I try to untangle the snarled language in my head. Outside, sunshine falls in bright, random splotches in the narrow streets. The sidewalks are no longer crowded; lunch hour is long over. On the radio, Frank Sinatra is singing about love. People stroll.
"The drive looks jammed. Iím going to take the avenue." A womanís voice. I look up.
"Thatís fine." Iím curious about the driver. Everyone must comment on it: Arenít you worried about your safety, how did you get this job, do you drive at night? Sheís probably tired of answering those questions. Let her have one fare in peace, I think.
I decide I wonít say anything. Instead, I stare as discreetly as I can. My driver is squat, her broad shoulders covered with a drab, shapeless jacket. Stocky arms reach out of her sleeves for the wheel. Her hands are thick, the nails short but neatly trimmed. She has to crane her grizzled head a little to see over the dashboard, and her short hair looks more chopped off than cut. I guess itís a good idea to look like that if youíre a woman driving a cab. Still her voice is musical, feminine.
I glance out the window, wondering about the time. We seem to be somewhere on the edge of Chinatown, but the streets are unfamiliar. Experienced cabbies always take me on routes Iíve never seen. Part of my mind realizes that these streets must usually be dismal, but drenched in sunshine, they seem charming. Next to a little park, Ww wait for the light to change. That park surely will be sad and dusty in a few weeks, but now the scrawny trees are covered with bright, new leaves. Tiny old Chinese ladies rest their shopping bags on benches and watch black-haired children scamper about. Soon Iíll see my little girl. Another Sinatra song starts.
"I love that song."
"Yes," I say, glad for conversation." I like Sinatra too. He can really sing."
"Yeah, Sinatraís a good singer. But for me, that song . . . itís not the music. It's about a look, an electricity, between you and another person. It's about an allure. A fascination that can grip you from across a room. You may never have met the person before, but that thing between you, that fascination, is so compelling that it changes your life forever."
Did my cab driver just say "compelling"?
"I can see, youíre looking at me funny. But Iím telling you, itís not something Sinatra just made up for his songs. Thatís my life, it happened to me."
"What happened to you?" I ask, drawn in by this solid little block of a woman and her unexpected poetry.
The driver is quiet. I hope my question hasnít startled her out of her mood. We make several quick turns in succession. We are in one of those strange, semi-industrial pockets of Manhattan that still linger along the river. Bright blue sky and water frame huge, windowless buildings and giant smokestacks. The river still flashes by occasionally between buildings.
"Of course, it was a long time ago and I was young." Sinatraís crooning fills the cab. The sunshine lightens the melancholy undertones in the song to wistfulness. "Itís just like this song. One evening, one look, and my life was never the same. Hard to believe, looking at me now, right? But Iíll tell you, if youíre interested."
"Please." I look into the rearview mirror and meet her eyes, watching me. She holds my glance briefly, then turns back toward the traffic-filled streets.
"Well, dear, first you have to understand how different things were in those days. We all had a lot of rules. In those days, we took the rules seriously. One rule I had was, I never made a date with a man on the same day that I met him. No, no. He had to call me another day and ask me out."
"I had another rule, too. I never went on a nighttime date on the first date. So, you know, if a man asked me out for the first time, Iíd meet him on a Saturday afternoon, maybe go to the picture show. Or maybe go with another couple to the park, take a boat out on that little lake they have there. But Iíd always end things around five, six oíclock. If the man I was with wanted to stay out into the evening, I always said no. I was firm. Heíd have to ask me out again if he wanted to see me at night."
"That is pretty different from what I remember about dating," I interject, smiling.
"Yeah, thereís no rules at all these days, right? Well, even with all my rules, I had plenty of dates. Oh, I used to be out all the time, running around town, burning the candle at both ends." She shakes her head and swerves smoothly around a double-parked car in our path.
"And with all those rules, I met the man I married at a dance, when I was out on a date with someone else. So you see how much good my rules did me in the end." We both laugh.
"It was my second date with this boy. Like I told you, I wouldnít go out at night on the first date. My girlfriend, she was dating his friend, and weíd all been out together to the park. He seemed nice enough. He called me afterward, he wanted to go out on Saturday night. My girlfriend, she said there was some kind of dance out at the Rockaways. She wanted to go, and she wanted me to go. It was so far away, I had no way of getting there. But this boy had a car, and my girlfriend was determined that I would go with her. So she made a plan that the four of us, weíd all go out dancing on Saturday night.
"Well, Saturday came and my date came to pick me up. I had a funny feeling when I got in the car. I didnít usually ride with my dates. But he was a friend of people I knew, and I wanted to go to this dance, so I didnít give it any more thought. We were going separate from my girlfriend because this boy, my date, he was working in Manhattan and he got home later than the rest of us. The other two, they didnít want to wait for him. So we agreed weíd meet up with my girlfriend and her boy at the dance."
"Like I said, it was quite a drive to the hall where the dance was. By the time we got there, things had already been going on awhile. It was pretty crowded. My date took my coat and went off to check it. I looked across the room, I was looking around for my girlfriend and her date. Thatís when I saw my future husband."
The taxi turns onto a wide cross street. The tall buildings that line the side throw a diagonal shadow over half the street. We sail through cool shadows, while the other side of the street is almost washed out by blinding bright sunshine. The driver glances over her broad shoulder at me. A soft smile plays across her craggy face.
"That man I saw across the room was Victor, my husband-to-be. He was all by himself, in a dark suit, looking down at his watch. He looked so nice, you know. Tall, broad shoulders . . . I must have been staring at him for a minute. I didnít realize it, though, I didnít know I was staring. Then he looked up, our eyes met, and that was it. I couldnít see anyone else, and neither could he.
"I found my girlfriend and asked her if she knew who he was. She didnít know, sheíd never seen him before. Vic told me later he was supposed to meet his friend there, but his friend never showed up. He was just about to leave when he saw me. My date came back and led me out onto the dance floor. All the time, I kept turning my head and craning my neck, trying to get another look at Vic. People must have thought I was crazy, and I was." She chuckles quietly to herself. "I never acted that way before in my life. Every time I managed to get a look at Vic, he was looking straight at me. I wanted to talk to Vic so badly, but no one knew him, to introduce us. I was beside myself.
"Finally, Vic walked over and asked me to dance. I was so relieved, I thought he was never going to ask me. Of course, if he hadnít, Iíd probably never have seen him again.
"We danced together the rest of the night. I knew I was ignoring my date, but I couldnít bring myself to care. I was mesmerized. My date cut in a couple of times, but eventually he started dancing with another girl. He seemed to be enjoying himself, so I forgot all about him. Vic was a wonderful dancer. We didnít pay a bit of attention to anyone else that night, either one of us.
"Finally, the band stopped playing. I had to go find my date. Vic wanted to ask me out right then and there, but I told him I couldnít do it. I told him about my rule against making a date on the same day I met a man. So he asked me if he could have my number, and I gave it to him.
"I found my date waiting with my coat. He didnít say anything. I knew he must be a little put out. Here heíd asked me out and Iíd spent the whole evening with someone else. Still, I didnít think twice about getting in the car with him. He was my date for the evening, I had to let him drop me home.
"We drove for a while without saying anything. I didnít mind, I was still full of the evening, thinking about Vic. Then after weíre well away from the dance hall, he starts up, all sullen. ĎWell,í he says, ĎI guess you had a pretty nice time tonight.í
"And I say, ĎWell, we both did.í I tell him, I say, ĎWe both spent the night dancing with other people. Nothing wrong with that. Weíre not dating seriously. We donít even know each other all that well.í And I say, ĎYou looked to me like you were having a pretty good time with that girl you were dancing with.í
"That shut him up for a while. Then he asks me, ĎThat guy you were dancing with, you made a date with him, didnít you?í
"ĎNo,í I say, ĎI didnít.í Then heís quiet for quite a while, driving. I think thatís the end of it.
"Then he says, ĎDoes he have your number?í What could I say? I had to admit that he did. So he says, ĎYou gave him your number?í
"I say, "Well, yes, he asked me for my number and I gave it to him."
"Then he just blows up. He starts screaming. He says awful things, things I canít repeat to you now, as old as I am. He hits me across the face, then he tries to rip my dress. I am fighting him off, and the car is swerving all over the road, so he stops. A few minutes later, we turn down a side street, and he pulls the car over. I can see how this is going to go. Of course, heís much bigger than me. The minute he stops, I jump out of the car and run into someoneís yard. I run all the way up next to the house and hide in the bushes."
"Oh my God!" I say, glancing into the front seat. My driverís small body suddenly looks even smaller to me. I can see the tiny frame under those thick shoulders. No match for a big man, even now. "He could . . . could have really hurt you."
"Yeah, no kidding," she agrees, shaking her head. "You can bet I was scared, honey. I just got well into those bushes and kept still. My date must have been so surprised when I jumped out, he didnít see where I went. Or maybe he didnít like the idea of hunting around in the bushes next to someoneís house to find me. Anyway, he stayed in his car. He just sat there, idling the engine. Then he drove slowly up and down the block a few times, like he was looking for me. Then he stopped again, right in front of that house. All that time, there I was, huddled in those bushes, terrified to move.
"Finally, he drove off. It was pitch black in the middle of those bushes, and my legs were cramped from crouching under the branches, but I was so worried heíd drive up again, I didnít come out for a long time. I thought I was going to be sick, I was that scared. I couldnít stay there all night, so eventually I crawled out and shook myself off.
"Well, there I was, all alone in the middle of the night on the streets of Queens. There was not one light on in any of the houses. I was miles from anywhere I knew. I was terrified my date would come back and do something awful to me. I just stumbled around, crying and trying to figure out how I was going to get home.
"Then out of nowhere comes a taxi with its light on. Can you imagine? A taxi cruising way out in a residential neighborhood in the middle of the night? He must have just dropped someone home. I never bothered to find out at the time though, I was just so happy to see a cab, I ran right out into the street to flag him down.
"I didnít have a penny on me, but that driver took me all the way home. I think he felt sorry for me. I sure must have been a sight. I told him the whole story about dancing with someone else and my date getting mad. He took me right to my door and waited in front of the house until I went in. I always thought later, I should have taken down the car number and sent him something for his trouble. But who thinks of these things? I was so shaken up I was just thinking about getting home.
"I got in, I shut the door behind me and locked it tight. I just stood there for a minute with my back against the door. What a relief to be home safe, Iím telling you! After a bit, I sat down and was starting to take off my shoes when the phone starts ringing. Now, by this time, itís three oíclock in the morning. I think it must be my date. Who else could be calling at three in the morning? I didnít want to talk to him, after the way he acted in the car. But my aunt was sleeping upstairs, and I didnít want her to wake up and come down and see me in the state I was in. So I picked up the phone.
"It was Vic. He says to me, ĎAre you free tonight?í Just like that. Of course it was three in the morning, so it was the next day. I could make a date with him without breaking my rule.
"I didnít miss a beat. I said, ĎYes, I am free tonight.í At three in the morning, in that dark living room, with one shoe dangling off the end of my foot, I made a date with Victor.
"So now, remember, I told you I had another rule, that I wouldnít go on a nighttime date on the first date? I broke that rule to go out with Vic that night. It was the only time I ever broke that rule. I went out with him that night. I went out with him the next night, and the next night and the next, and two months later we were married."
"Two months exactly. That was over 50 years ago, and Iíve never regretted it for a day."
Weíre on Park Avenue. The boxy glass buildings and traffic of midtown are well behind us and we are soaring up the older, stately part of the avenue. Flower beds and tall, elegant buildings fly by the windows.
"I broke another rule, too." She is silent for a moment, then flashes a bemused smile into the rearview mirror. "I donít usually tell people this. I havenít thought about these things in so long. Years probably. It must be this music." She pauses again, lost in some distant, private world.
"I gave myself to him before we married. I never told my girlfriends or my family. I would have turned myself into a pariah. Itís hard to imagine in these days, but being with a man outside of marriage, that was the end of a girlís standing in the world. Oh, it wasnít as if people didnít do it anyway. There was a lot of hypocrisy, but that was the attitude. None of that mattered to me. I was his from the moment he looked at me across that dance floor. What did I care about marriage papers?"
I am silent, thinking about what nerve that must have taken. We stop at a light. Outside, a woman in a knit suit and high heels is walking a little black dog. The dog is young and is bounding about, pulling at its leash and doing its all to leap into a bed of pink impatiens that lines the sidewalk.
"Now weíve been married over 50 years. People who said to me, donít marry him, itís too soon, you donít know him so many of them are divorced now, but weíre still together. And we still have that fascination, that passion that Sinatra sings about."
The street where my pediatrician has his office appears up ahead. "Yes, thatís what they say, you have to keep a spark in your marriage," I comment lamely, feeling sensible and dull next to this passionate old woman. "Otherwise, youíll never do all the work it takes to keep it together."
"Yeah, Iíve heard that before. Iíve heard people say that, ĎMarriage is work.í Work. I look at my husband and I think, whereís the work? Weíve had children, grandchildren, made money and lost it, and Iím still waiting for the work."
The cab glides to the curb and stops easily in front of the pediatricianís office. I am five minutes early for the appointment. I pay the fare.
"Thank you." I smile, and the driver looks at me kindly over the back of her seat.
"God bless you, dear. Take care."
I step out into the warm sunshine to meet my daughter.
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