“A Happy Marriage"

Fiction by Jackie Friedman

What makes a happy marriage? Is it children or no children, or in-laws or lack of in-laws? Is it lots of money or lots of sex?

Is it love? But what is love? Is it loyalty, or understanding, or common interests, or is it faith? What would Carrie Bradshaw, of “Sex and the City” fame, say about the condition of marriage?

The trick is to make a marriage a good one. What does it take? It doesn’t always take what one thinks. . . .

For Elizabeth happy unions were the stuff of fairy tales. Princes rescued lovely ladies and both lived happily ever after. But in her world, in her family, Elizabeth didn’t have a frame of reference when it came to happy marriage. It had eluded her parents. She had lived amid the squabbles of her parents bickering, people who didn’t get along, oil and water that did not mix. Mother was the oil, a slick schemer, a social climber always seeking status. Father the water in the mix, a man looking for truth in an impure world. He could wear tattered khaki pants in the garden or in a restaurant with the same abandon. He was a seeker of worthy people, station didn’t matter.

To Elizabeth’s dismay, the marriage her mom envisioned for her involved the boy next door. They had played on tricycles and swings as youngsters. He was a fun playmate for the park, but not for the bedroom. Coming from a wealthy family with status, he was Mom’s idea of the perfect husband. Though a nice fellow, the next-door Romeo was not for Elizabeth. He had chased Elizabeth all thorough high school. When they both left Illinois for separate colleges Elizabeth looked forward to meeting others. But alas, with her mom’s encouragement, Romeo called on her in the college dorms. 

Now that she had returned from college he had returned as well. The neighbor, the perennial wolf was at her door salivating, and Mom wanted to give him the keys to the house! Elizabeth had to leave to get away from the future her mother was planning. The only way to avoid mother’s meddling was distance, and a good deal of it. At 21, she took a train to New York, the Land of Oz, a place to hide, a place where she could find herself and her soulmate.

“Que sera sera.” What will the future be? Will he be handsome? Will he be tall? Will he be rich? Will I love him? 

The words of that song danced in Elizabeth’s head as she stood in the center of Grand Central Station’s main room, just to the right of the clock and under the ceiling of blue with a speckle of stars. Here she was in New York, the cliché New York from the movies. Fresh out of college, new clothes, new suitcase, new life! She would live at the Barbizon, a single room hotel sheltering young women alone in New York in the 1950s. If you didn’t live with Mom and Dad, you lived at the Barbizon. Her straw hat was perched askew on her perfectly coifed hair. It featured roses in red and pink on a white straw frame fringed with thin pink ribbon.

She would make it in New York! The city breathed life into her lungs, although she trembled a bit inside from all the newness. Elizabeth was from a very small town in Illinois. New York was only in the movies. A believer in fairy tales, she loved the films where small town girls came to the big city, got jobs, shared apartments, met handsome men and married said men, all in a matter of 96 minutes. Oh, maybe it would take her longer than that, but she knew the man of her dreams was out there. 

In a tiny room she shared with her roommate, Megan, Elizabeth tried to envision the man of her dreams. She knew what an unhappy marriage was, but did not know what made a happy one. She was a hopeful optimist, maybe a naive one. The movies were her guide to better living. 

Inhabiting the tall office buildings were many eligible bachelors. One would be the prize at the end of her story. One out there was the perfect match, one held the glass slipper, one had the golden hair. She had bought into the fantasy. 

Before finding Prince Charming, Elizabeth had to find a job. This was no small task as the city was filled with small town girls clutching new diplomas. Elizabeth knew that the typing pool was not the place to meet her future husband. The road to nowhere was paved in the corridors of companies filled with stenographers and typists in nylon bowed blouses, wedged at desks, doing grunt work for executives who never acknowledged them. The search began for a desk outside the steno pool.

New York was blazing that summer. Sidewalks spun under her pointy-toed shoes. She glided up Fifth Avenue, balancing adroitly on the tiny tips of skinny heels. The dampness of her skin seeped through her full slip and onto the sheer blouse. Blotting her forehead with a scalloped linen hanky, Elizabeth hurried to her first job interview.

In her excitement she almost passed the tall building on Fifth Avenue where she was to interview. A herculean statue of Prometheus holding the world on his shoulders guarded the entrance to the Art Deco building. Everything in New York was colossal! She slipped beyond the huge figure and entered the lobby. The interior architecture reiterated the Art Deco facade of the building, geometric adornment covering the walls and ceiling. Hard surfaces echoed footsteps as she checked in at the lobby desk with a jittery voice; her nerves were starting to show.

The guard at the desk sent her up to the fifth floor. Entering the office, the rare cool of air conditioning brought welcome respite from the damp heat of the street. The crisp coolness was a treat. Elizabeth was greeted at the desk by a prim woman, eyeglasses perched on her head, a pencil pushed through the tightly wound bun at the back of her neck.

Elizabeth introduced herself. “Good morning, I am here to be interviewed.” She followed behind the dark coif into a windowed room with two large leather chairs. 

“You may take a seat here,” the receptionist said in a disinterested manner. It was as if Elizabeth were a fly on the wall, not a young woman who had spent much time primping for the perfect interview outfit. While seated, she tried to steady her knees by locking her ankles, as she answered the questions about her abilities pensively. Yes, English was her major and she had several roles in musical productions. No, typing wasn’t her forte. 

“My strength lies in writing. I consider myself a creative writer. I think outside the box and enjoy challenges. This is where I want to be now in my career. I was an editor on our college newspaper and won the prize for poetry junior year. Unfortunately I am all thumbs so I would not say I type well.” This was intentional, as she did type well, but she did not intend to get stuck in the typing pool. But that was where she landed. It was where all the newbies landed. 

She took the job anyway. It would be a steppingstone to what she really aspired to, writing ad copy for glossy magazines. America was buying products and she wanted to sell them. 

It wasn’t poetry, but she saw the optimism that was the future of a country on the mend after the war. Production was making Americans consumers, creating families that needed products. There was something positive about it after her parents’ decade of war and austerity. She saw something romantic in it.

Back at the Barbizon, Elizabeth and her roommate discussed what outfit Elizabeth should wear on her first day. What excitement, her first job! Although it was not the job she anticipated, Elizabeth anxiously awaited the next morning. Carefully pressed clothes were laid out, shoes polished, white gloves were set next to a new handbag She certainly felt grown-up now, no longer Daddy’s little girl. Elizabeth was in for a big surprise. . . .


Jackie Friedman is a part-time resident of East Hampton. She is active in writing groups in Westchester County, Connecticut, and in East Hampton, and has been published by The Darien News as well as previously in The Star.