Figuring she would meet Prince Charming in the elevator pressing buttons, Elizabeth acclimated to the steno pool, determined to rise to the occasion. After all, it was only a placeholder till her real life began. Be that as it may, her new job proved to be rather disconcerting. The office did not mimic the hallowed halls of college. Rather, it was fast-paced and noisy. It was tumultuous, a cacophony of typewriters, ringing phones, and dictating machines, accompanied by street noises from below. Huge rings of cigarette smoke circled her head constantly intertwined with gossip. Elizabeth was simultaneously excited and stressed.
The good news about the office was the plethora of men who walked the halls continually. Blond and brunette, with brown eyes and blue eyes, in Brooks Brothers suits and crisply pressed shirts. Ties, like pennant flags, signaled the tribes they belonged to and the train stops they arrived from, Darien and Scarsdale, Greenwich and New Rochelle, midtown and downtown. None came from Illinois.
At home in Illinois, she had been a quiet person who needed time to reflect, to think her thoughts in solitude by a creek. At college she had been an English major, a studious girl who chewed pencils as she sat in the library poring over the works of Baudelaire and Guy de Maupassant. Hiding a paper sack with a peanut butter sandwich in her huge book bag, she had torn off pieces and had eaten bit by bit. In the high-ceilinged, wood-paneled library, she had inhaled the smell of polish from the heavy tables and dreamed of far-off places.
No creeks near her in New York, so she sought the familiarity of a library. The main branch of the New York Public Library mimicked the sanctuary of her college library with the high ceilings and polished wood. The floors clicked as heels met the surface. Here she looked at books, read poetry, traveled to great places, and met the love of her life. Funny, at the library . . . and he didn’t even own a suit.
Jake was a sweet man. He loved poetry and music. He loved museums and parks. He was not a nine-to-five guy. Jake wore jeans and flannel shirts. He carried a tattered paperback book of poetry in his back pocket, well worn and well read. He smelled of pipe tobacco and licorice drops.
Every Saturday, Elizabeth reached up a to pet the massive stone lions that flanked the steps to the 42nd Street library. It became a subconscious connection, a way to ward off the loneliness of life in a big city. Jake was intrigued when he first saw her do that, and for several weeks after, he noticed Elizabeth in the huge main reading room, surrounded by books and nibbling bits of food slipped from her red leather purse. Jake had romances before. Two that really counted to be exact, but none like the one he was about to encounter. She was so ethereal, he was smitten immediately. Jake introduced himself, telling her he was a teaching assistant at Columbia University, working to finish his Ph.D in English literature. “Wouldn’t you rather eat in the park at a bench? Much cheerier than sneaking bits from your bag. I know a bench just behind the building that we could share.”
Their love affair began on that bench, behind a stone library, not in an elevator of a skyscraper as she had imagined. Every Saturday they met in the library and then lunched on the bench, with paper sacks of hard-boiled eggs and ham sandwiches, with cookies and cake slices. Here they shared their love of literature. On Sundays they walked all over New York, shared pizza and knishes, went to museums and concerts in the park. New York City had many free venues and they took in all of it. They came to love the city and each other that summer.
Jake wrote poems and Elizabeth listened with wonder as he wove words into pictures and songs. Elizabeth wrote jingles to sell cars and soapsuds. Jake admired her ability to take quick wit, blend it with prose, and make a long-finned car into Cinderella’s coach. They were a “mutual admiration society” in 1956 when the song was a Broadway hit. It would continue like that for their entire lives.
They married at City Hall and had a wedding lunch on a picnic blanket in Central Park. Elizabeth carried a daisy bouquet and wore a flowing skirt of white gauze. A small group of friends and family members toasted to their love, and the journey began.
It was quite a different journey than the one she had imagined when she got off the train in Grand Central Station, but it was a beautiful journey. The journey was different from the stories on the silver screen, but the real story was an even better one. Jake was not the suited, golden-haired boy she envisioned finding in New York. But he was golden anyway, this man who ended up an English professor, who read her children poetry when they were sick, who built campfires and slept in a tent with the boys in the backyard to watch the stars. As she watched them all from inside the kitchen, teacup sitting in her hand, all she could think was, “What makes a happy marriage?”
It doesn’t always take what one thinks. . . .
Jackie Friedman is a part-time resident of East Hampton. While she usually writes memoir, this fictional story was inspired by 1950s movies. 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.