Chapter One — An Arranged Meeting
On a Saturday noon in October, 1952, Rosalind Green stepped nimbly down Twenty-sixth Street in downtown Birmingham wearing her new black patent leather pumps. It was the fall of her senior year at the University of Alabama. She had taken the bus from Tuscaloosa up to Birmingham that morning because it was a football weekend, and the Crimson Tide was playing the Georgia Bulldogs at Legion Field. Rosalind had a date to meet her mother for lunch at the Bohemian Bakery. After the lunch she had a real date with Howie Friedman, a member of Zeta Beta Tau, for the football game.
Mother’s been scheming again, Rosalind thought, as she approached the bakery. She’s been dropping hints. She invited me for lunch because there’s some new man she wants me to meet. And Rosalind sighed.
Her mother’s plots and designs annoyed her, but she went along with them anyway.
Rosalind swung open the sun-streaked glass door of the Bohemian Bakery and inspected the interior. The establishment was actually a bakery and a deli with fifteen tables that catered to the after-temple crowd. Her mother was nowhere in sight, but her mother’s guest was waiting for her. She spotted him at once. She was certain of it.
A tallish, slender blond man stood next to the display cases of cookies and strudels. He cast a nervous glance around the room, avoiding everyone’s eyes.
Automatically, before she even met him, she began to size him up. He’s shy, she decided. Unsure of himself. Still, he’s not bad-looking.
Rosalind never considered not approaching him. It had been bred into her to view every eligible man as a potential conquest. Dating was a game at which she’d always excelled. In her social world—that of the Jewish community on campus—she was popular. She never lacked for men to ask her out. In her own way, she was as prominent in her set as her mother Alice Green, the executive director of Birmingham’s United Jewish Fund, was in the Birmingham Jewish community.
She went right up to him. “Excuse me,” she said. “You must be the one my mother’s trying to fix me up with.”
She watched him blush, at a loss for words. “It’s all right,” she assured him. “I won’t hold it against you. We might as well sit down while we’re waiting for my mother. How did she meet you?”
“At temple two weeks ago, at Friday night services,” he replied, as she led the way to a round, formica-topped table and chairs with heart-shaped wire backs. He helped her take off her jacket and held a chair out for her like a gentleman. “It was her week for Temple Beth Sholom. She also belongs to Temple Torah Emeth, and alternates weeks between the two congregations.”
“I know all about my mother’s habits,” Rosalind said. “Why don’t you introduce yourself to me? I don’t even know your name.”
He blushed again. “I’m sorry. I’m Robert Appel. I’m an attorney-at-law with Kasselman and Pryor. Last year I clerked with Judge Ingraham in Montgomery. I just moved to Birmingham in June.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?” she wondered. She couldn’t recall having heard his name before, but then he was obviously older than she.
“I’m from Bessemer.”
Just twelve miles from Birmingham, Besssemer was another world away. It had its own Jewish community, smaller than Birmingham’s, which Rosalind didn’t know very well.
Rosalind waited for Robert to continue, but he didn’t. She had been inculcated with the precept that it was the girl’s responsibility not only to help the conversation along, but to make it witty. Nevertheless, she was just going through the motions. “Tell me about yourself,” she said.
That ought to keep him going for a while, she thought. While she politely tolerated him, she was saving her radiance for her date with Howie.
“I don’t know that there’s that much to tell,” he explained. “I grew up in Bessemer, where I graduated from Bessemer High School. I was halfway through Northwestern University when I enlisted in the Navy. After the war, I finished college with a degree in chemistry. I worked in an industrial lab for about a year, but being shut up with chemicals all day wasn’t for me. It was a dream come true when I got accepted at Harvard Law School.”
He intoned the last words with a reverence that irritated Rosalind. “My brother Irvin is at Harvard Law School now,” she said.
Now it was his turn to inform her of what he already knew. “Yes, so your mother said,” he replied, smiling. “We have that in common. He’s in his second year, she said, and you’re soon to graduate from Alabama.”
The implicit comparison rankled Rosalind. Impatiently, she glanced at her watch. “She’s late. We might as well order.”
Just then Alice Green came in the door. Rosalind saw her mother standing inside the doorway, blinking in the reflected light from the glass: a petite woman with short, iron-gray hair, wearing a navy-blue all-weather coat and a red, white, and blue silk scarf around her neck.
She took a few steps forward. Looking as if she were all business, she scanned the room. Soon she spotted Rosalind and Robert sitting together. “So you’ve already met!” she exclaimed.
Robert jumped up to pull out a chair for her as she approached. “Rosalind picked me right out,” he announced.
“I knew I was walking into a trap,” replied Rosalind. “I didn’t go blindfolded.” Yet she smiled, softening her words.
Alice Green sat down at the round table and picked up one of the menus that Rosalind and Robert had not yet touched. “Well, children,” she said, “what will you have?”
Small and rather severe-looking, Alice Green emanated an aura of authority. As usual, Rosalind felt herself dimming in the force of her mother’s personality. Even though Rosalind knew that she was prettier than her mother had ever been and far more feminine, she couldn’t compete against her.
They ordered sandwiches—Rosalind and Robert asked for corned beef on rye and Alice chopped liver—and soon Alice had Robert discussing the Bessemer Jews, a conversation which effectively excluded Rosalind since she knew so little about them.
It’s always like this, Rosalind thought to herself bitterly. My mother acts as if she’s doing something for me, and then she takes over.
Years later, she would accuse Robert, “You fell in love with my mother before you noticed me.”
Now Alice’s voice intruded on Rosalind’s thoughts. “Rosalind, dear, you know the Greenbaums, don’t you? Wasn’t Morty in the boys’ chapter of B’nai B’rith?”
“Yes,” said Rosalind. She wondered if her mother had an agenda or was just chattering. As she ate her sandwich, she stole quick glances at Robert, trying to tell what he was thinking. He seemed intent on Alice, but when Rosalind caught his eye, he smiled ever so slightly. In that instant, he allied himself with her. Then she looked away.
Before their plates were cleared, Rosalind stood up, compelling her mother’s and Robert’s attention. She made them wait, preening a little in a new pink-and-gray sweater set with a sweetheart neckline and a gray pleated skirt, forcing them to admire her.
“I have to go now,” she announced. “I have a date.”
Alice appeared taken aback. “You didn’t tell me,” she accused her daughter.
“Oh no? I must have forgotten,” said Rosalind airily, relishing her mother’s surprise. “It’s for the football game.”
“Who are you going with?”
“Howie Friedman,” replied Rosalind, her attention distracted to the door by the loud honking of a horn. “I believe that’s him, waiting for me! Thank you for the lunch, Mother. Nice meeting you, Robert. I must fly!”
Rosalind kissed her mother’s cheek brusquely and then extended three fingers to Robert. No sooner had their fingers touched than she withdrew hers, and soon she was gone.
Howie was waiting, parked next to the curb in his white Chevy convertible. “Hey, baby!” he called out. “Lookin’ swell!”
Rosalind climbed into the front seat. They kissed on the lips. Howie sped off, the Chevy kicking up dust, as Rosalind tied a scarf around her head. For the moment, she had forgotten about her mother and Robert.
Alice Green was accustomed to influencing people, and Robert was no exception. From the first, Robert saw Rosalind as Alice had portrayed her: pretty and popular. He soon realized that she was quick-witted and audacious, like her mother. He wondered if it was because his parents, immigrants from Russia, didn’t speak English well that he was so often tongue-tied.
After Rosalind left the Bohemian Bakery, Robert remained with Alice, who was drinking her coffee, but his gaze strayed to the door, as if he expected to glimpse Rosalind through it and her unknown date, but the plate glass was too far away, with too many people in between.
Alice collected the check. Politely she turned down Robert’s offer of a lift, claiming she had several errands downtown. Just as they rose to leave, she handed him a folded slip of paper. “Rosalind’s telephone number at her dorm,” she explained. She seemed not to notice it when Robert blushed.
Rosalind was in her last semester of college. She was scheduled to graduate in January. She was succeeding socially as well as academically, and she had done it in her own way, without bending to peer pressure. Even before Rosalind had gone down to Tuscaloosa to begin her freshman year, there was a lot of talk going around Birmingham about who would be rushed for the sororities and fraternities, and who wouldn’t. Everyone said that nice boys wouldn’t date unpledged girls.
When Rosalind left for college, her parents settled an allowance on her, on which she was expected to budget her expenses, and it wasn’t enough to support living in a sorority house. She could only afford to live in the dorms, but she didn’t confess this to anyone. Instead, she insisted that she didn’t want to belong to a sorority.
Nevertheless, she was flattered by the ardor with which the two Jewish sororities courted her, deluging her with phone calls and invitations. While other girls grasped at the straw of any encouraging word, Rosalind was beseeched to join both Alpha Epsilon Phi and Sigma Delta Tau. Why? Because she was pretty and smart and popular. She’d attract the right kind of people; she’d make the sorority look good academically.
Rosalind refused. “Sorority girls snobbishly look down on everyone but themselves,” she said, following this observation by other comments in the same vein.
In spite of these denunciations, the sororities only seemed to want her more. She partly believed her own words; the real reason she kept to herself. Nevertheless, news of her economic situation must have leaked out, because Alice Green heard through the grapevine that her daughter had been invited to join Alpha Epsilon Phi at a steep discount. In a rage she telephoned Rosalind, informing her that no daughter of hers was going to accept charity.
Rosalind, who had already turned the sorority down, was aggrieved. Who did her mother think she was? The offer was also unacceptable to her. She didn’t want it to be known—and she was sure that it would have gotten out—that she was a poor ward of the sorority. She didn’t want to be obliged to subsidize her room and board by reflecting her charm and glamour on less-favored sisters, who happened to have more money. Mother and I are fighting on the same side, Rosalind realized. I want whatever brilliance I have to enhance myself.
Hurt by Rosalind’s rejection, some sorority girls predicted that she would be ostracized, that Jewish boys wouldn’t ask her out or Jewish girls be friendly with her, because she lived in the dorms. Rosalind appeared unaffected by their prophecies.
The pledge season got tenser and uglier. It reached its nadir when a Jewish girl from Montgomery killed herself by jumping from a fourth-story window on the campus, after being rejected by both sororities. The suicide and the outrage that followed it reinforced Rosalind’s attitude with an unshakeable moral conviction. Her rejection of sorority life gained the status of a cause.
She had set out to prove the predictions wrong, and she had succeeded. She had a different date every night. Members of Sigma Alpha Mu and Zeta Beta Tau, the two Jewish fraternities, weren’t put off by her unpledged status. She basked in her popularity and the sorority girls’ envy.
In subsequent years, as Rosalind continued to live in the dorms, freshman girls sought her out for advice. How had she managed it—to survive, even to thrive outside a sorority? they wondered.
“Isn’t it silly to think sororities so important that you’d kill yourself if you didn’t get into one?” replied Rosalind loftily. “Like that poor girl. What a waste.”
In the changed atmosphere after the suicide, other girls followed Rosalind’s example. She believed she had set a precedent. She took pride in having made it acceptable, even desirable, to live in a dorm.
Howie Friedman passed all of his classes, though not with distinction. He didn’t try to be a brilliant student; he didn’t have to: he had a family business—an auto parts shop in Anniston—waiting for him. It wasn’t like having a department store in the family, of course, but it was still something to be proud of. His grandfather had started the business, and his father and his uncle had built it up. It had always been understood that he and his cousin would go into it.
Howie Friedman drove a new car that his parents had bought him. He was outgoing and well-liked, and he had a history of playing the field. Rosalind didn’t think she was in love with him, but she was possessive of him. Neither were ready to be each other’s only date, but Rosalind wanted to be Howie’s favorite date. He was good-looking, with dark hair and red, kissable lips. She knew they looked good together, and they had a good time together. Each weekend there was something going on: a party for a football game, a dance, a barbecue.
Once this social life had seemed glamorous and endlessly fascinating to Rosalind, but, by the fall of her senior year, it had grown predictable. Dating followed a scenario whose script she had long ago memorized. Beyond a certain point, she couldn’t seem to get to know Howie; perhaps, she wondered, there wasn’t much there for her to know. Still, he definitely had attractions. She was torn. Her own aspirations were vague. She yearned for a deep attachment.
When you ask a girl out for the first time, it’s like stepping over a divide, Robert thought, as he waited for Rosalind to be summoned to the hall telephone on her dormitory floor. There’s that fear you won’t make it across to the other side.
Over the telephone line he could hear voices and footsteps. “Just a minute,” he was told by an unidentified girl. Sure enough, soon he heard Rosalind’s voice: “Hello, who is this?”
“Robert Appel. Remember me?”
“Of course I do.”
Her tone, though friendly, had an edge of impatience. Though he hadn’t intended to, he got straight to the point. “Are you free to go out with me on Saturday night? I’ll drive down to Tuscaloosa. We’ll go wherever you like.”
As silence met his suggestion, Robert grew anxious, but it seemed that Rosalind was only deliberating what they might do together, for after a pause she said, “There’s going to be a big dance at the Student Union, with a live band. It’s open to the general student body for an entrance fee, but I don’t know how much that is.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” Robert quickly assured her, “if that’s what you want to do.”
“Why not?” said Rosalind. “You’ll get a glimpse of college life. It might be fun.”
Rosalind did not tell Robert that the main reason she wanted to go to the dance was because she wanted to find out if Howie Friedman, who hadn’t asked her, was there with someone else. If he was, she wanted him to know that she was not sitting at home waiting for him. This was not only a matter of pride for her; it was the code by which she lived. So that even on their first date, Robert, unbeknownst to him, once again competed for her in Howie’s shadow.
After the sixty-mile drive to Tuscaloosa, Robert waited in the lobby of Rosalind’s dormitory, while she took her time in her room getting ready. Strategically placed in a chair next to the bell’s desk, Robert enjoyed watching the girls passing to and fro. Entranced by their high, light voices as they called out to one another, he recalled his own college days, broken up by the war. That time seemed long ago.
In his lap he held a white corsage box with an orchid nestled inside. He wore a gray suit, intentionally looking the part of a young lawyer because he considered it his sole distinction. In fact, he felt shy and inadequate. He had been a late bloomer when he was in college, and even now he was in awe of all these pretty girls and their apparently effortless chatter. He was glad that he and Rosalind were going to a dance because there was less pressure to talk when you were dancing.
After a quarter of an hour, Rosalind appeared at the top of the staircase leading up to the second floor. Robert rose to his feet. She smiled and waved to him, descending, a vision of loveliness in a yellow dress that bared her shoulders. A camel’s-hair coat was folded over her arm. Other people paused to watch her. I’m going out with the prettiest girl in the room, Robert realized, awed. He could scarcely believe in his good fortune.
He presented her with the corsage and watched as she opened the box and breathed in the orchid’s faint fragrance. Her head was bent, her face partly hidden from him by her curly brown hair. “It smells like lemons,” she said in a faraway voice.
The curve formed by her head and neck seemed to him both maidenly and mysterious. She was close to him, yet remote. He longed to reach out to touch her, yet did not dare.
Abruptly, she shut the box. “I’ll wait till we get to the dance to put on the corsage,” she explained. “I don’t want it to get crushed under my coat.”
Taking the cue, he helped her on with her coat. She allowed him to take her arm, as they walked out together.
“I’m parked just down the block,” he told her.
It was dusk. The yellow leaves of late autumn lay lightly on the darkening lawns of the red-brick university dormitories. A faint foul smell hung in the air. Robert wrinkled his nose. Noticing, Rosalind explained, “It’s the paper factories. The smell never really goes away, even on weekends. During the week, it’s worse. But you get used to it after a while. You hardly notice it.”
As she spoke, they passed under a street lamp. The light shone briefly on her cheek before sliding to the sleeve of her coat, revealing her creamy skin and full red lips painted with lipstick. Robert thought it was like the moment when he had given her the corsage, when she had appeared equally beautiful and unattainable.
Lost in this impression, he nearly walked past his own car. “Whoops!” As he fumbled for the keys, she allowed herself to smile. He has it bad for me, she thought.
It usually pleased Rosalind to attract attention, and it was no exception now. He opened the door of the car for her, she slid into the front seat easily, and soon they were on their way.
Robert’s car was not as big or new as Howie’s but it was perfectly all right. Not recognizing the make, she asked him what it was.
“A Swedish car.”
It sounded exotic to Rosalind. Men love to talk about their automobiles, she thought. Sure enough, he told her about his car all the way to the dance. They parked down the street from the Student Union. She got out and waited for him to come around to the sidewalk.
“I don’t know how to drive,” she confessed.
“I’ll teach you,” he offered so quickly that he surprised himself.
She shook her head. “You’d have to be a glutton for punishment—to drive down from Birmingham and then back, just to give a driving lesson.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad.”
There was an awkward pause as she pondered his intentions. Changing the conversation, she tugged his arm abruptly. “Come on, let’s go.”
They headed towards the Student Union. About a dozen people were gathered at the entrance. Immediately she looked for familiar faces. There were Greeks and non-Greeks, but no sign of Howie. Inside she and Robert stood in line to check their coats and enter the auditorium where the dance was to be held. Robert paid the admission, and the backs of their hands were stamped.
“This must all seem pretty juvenile to you,” remarked Rosalind, glancing around the large auditorium decorated with crepe paper streamers and balloons. The band was setting up; the dance had not yet begun. Two long tables lined opposite walls, supporting bowls of punch and platters piled with sandwiches.
She handed Robert the box with the corsage and inclined her neck, waiting for him to pin it on.
Inadvertently, he held his breath as he placed the orchid against the fabric of her dress. His finger grazed her neckline. “Here? Is this all right?”
She nodded. He was aware of the distinct shape of her collarbone, her warm, smooth skin. Her proximity to him was dizzying. He made himself concentrate on pinning the orchid to her dress.
As he bent to the task, Rosalind started abruptly. She suppressed a gasp of surprise. There, not three feet away, was Howie Friedman, looking sleek and suave, and on his arm was Maureen Shinbaum from Chattanooga, smiling a syrupy smile.
Just to see her made Rosalind sick. That little tramp, she thought. I’ve heard about her. She’s fast. It’s said she’ll sleep with a man on the first date. Now she looks as if she thinks she’s gotten Howie wrapped around her finger.
Rosalind felt positively poisonous with hatred. It took her a while to realize that Robert had stopped trying to pin on the corsage and was sucking his thumb. In her sudden movement, he’d pricked himself. He’s waiting for an explanation, she observed.
She turned away from him. She saw that Howie and Maureen had already disappeared into the crowd. She didn’t think Howie had seen her.
She brought her attention back to Robert. She saw him gazing at the spot where Howie had been. She felt her cheeks flame. Now she remained as still as a statue while she let him pin the corsage to her dress.
As he was driving back to Birmingham in the early hours of the morning, Robert relived in his mind his first date with Rosalind. Best of all had been dancing with her, holding her securely in his arms, leading her to the music. That’s the way it should be, he thought, a man should guide his wife like that through life.
There was little traffic on the road. His headlights cast a lonely glow. He could hear the swish of the wind outside as it rushed against his moving car. Thinking that the cool air would refresh him, he opened the window a crack. He estimated, An hour from now, I’ll be in bed.
He cherished this interval of silent thought and exhilaration. With a thrill he recalled how he had kissed Rosalind good night—just a soft insistence against the lips, that was all. He had been deliberately restrained; he had not wanted to press his luck too quickly. He was glad about that now. He could tell that she’d been surpised, then relieved. She was used to having to fend men off, he guessed. Seizing his advantage, he’d asked her out again for the following Saturday. Now, driving home, he recalled with pleasure how she’d instantly accepted.
On their second date, Rosalind and Robert went to see The Prisoner of Zenda, a new remake starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr of one of Rosalind’s favorite stories. She’d read the book at least five times; Robert, it turned out, had never read it.
He wanted to impress her and please her, but it was tough. He felt pressured to live up to her expectations, to like what she liked. He wanted to win her, and so he was willing to try.
He bought the tickets, popcorn, and Cokes, and let her decide where they would sit. She preferred the seats towards the back; she was farsighted, she said. Soon they were settled in the row she selected. As the theater went dark, and the coming attractions began, Robert found himself glancing at Rosalind’s profile, its perfect outline dimly lit in the light off the distant screen. It was like looking through a hazy filter; again he experienced the double sensation of her proximity and her remove from him.
Not wanting to annoy her, he resisted the impulse to keep looking at her. She passed the popcorn to him, and, nervously, abstractedly, he helped himself to large handfuls. Soon all the popcorn was gone. He laid the carton on the floor and wiped his hands on a napkin. About fifteen minutes into the movie, he brought his arm around the back of her chair. The languid gesture was deceptive: he was dying to touch her. Of its own accord, his arm seemed to rise, until it rested upon her shoulder, where, to his great relief, she allowed it to remain.
The skin over the nape of her neck seemed to him the most sensual skin he had ever caressed. Under his palm, her neck seemed to come alive. Just by itself, it seemed to him like an animal, silky to the touch, responding instinctively to his fingers.
For a long time he stroked her thus, while they both stared ahead at the screen. She seemed to be watching the movie intently, but it was all a blur to him. He just couldn’t focus on it.
At one point, he leaned towards her, as if to kiss her, but she averted her face. This was her only overt reaction to his caresses.
At the end of the movie, after the credits had played and the lights had come up, she looked at him at last. “Well, what did you think?” she questioned him rather peremptorily.
He felt he was undergoing a test. To be honest, he’d hardly watched the movie. But it didn’t matter: the question was about whether he agreed with her. If he said he didn’t like it, she could argue that it was wonderful; if he praised it, she might roll her eyes and treat him like a fool for not having better taste. He replied carefully, “I thought it was good, but I’m sure the book is better.”
This, evidently, was the correct response. She visibly relaxed. “You’re right,” she confirmed.
He was exhilarated by the sense that he would be able to figure out the right thing to say to her. In the years to come, this conviction would become increasingly rare.
Howie never asked Rosalind for a date again. She never heard from him, but she did hear a rumor that he and Maureen were engaged. She didn’t try to confirm the news; by this time, she didn’t want to. She put Howie behind her. He became part of the past.
But the notion of marriage she couldn’t forget so easily. It was in the air: all around her, girls she knew were getting engaged. Graduation loomed before her—for Rosalind, it would be one semester early, in January—and there was emptiness after that.
What would she do? She had been toying with the idea of looking for a job in Atlanta. Atlanta was where people from Birmingham usually went when they wanted to go to the big city. Atlanta had a reputation as a place where there were job opportunities for the young. It was acceptable to be a single, working woman in Atlanta.
Atlanta’s Jewish community was larger than Birmingham’s. Many Birmingham Jews had relatives in Atlanta. Rosalind didn’t, but she had connections there—friends of her family. There was a possibility that, with her home economics degree, she could get a job at Rich’s department store.
The idea excited and frightened her. She had never lived on her own before or been responsible for herself. She wasn’t sure it was what she wanted.
When Robert first appeared in her life, he seemed an interesting diversion, but his persistence, coupled with the demise of Howie, soon made him more to her. He monopolized her Saturday nights. Rosalind found that she liked going out with him.
Anne Whitehouse was born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. She graduated from Harvard College and Columbia University. She is the author of The Surveyor’s Hand (poems) and Fall Love (novel), now available free from www.feedbooks.com/userbook/1900 .
Poems from her series, Blessings and Curses, have appeared widely in journals. Her second novel, Rosalind’s Ring, which is excerpted here, is set in Birmingham. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. For more information, please visit Anne’s site at: www.annewhitehouse.com .)