Monday, September 1, 2014

My Parents' First Date

The year was 1965. They had known each other in college, as friends.  Mom had always had a little bit of a crush on Dad.  He was Jewish.  She had such a passion for all things Jewish.  He was bright and sensitive.  But he did not seem available to her as anything more than just a friend.  There was always something, she later observed, a little bit sad and broken about him.  His inner sadness attracted her to him; he was a kindred spirit.  Perhaps she knew unconsciously that he had suffered some of the same abuse as she, in his own formative years. 

They had met through friends in the late 50s, while attending Adelphi University on Long Island.  Dad had been the president of the student United Nations.  They shared the same group of friends, or at least their circles mingled.  After graduating college in 1961, they lost touch.  1962, 1963, 1964, all went by. 

Sometime during these years, Mom had fallen in love with a brilliant, but distant narcissist named Garapet.  He was an intellectual, a bohemian who had emigrated from Persia, from a wealthy Armenian family.  Their first real conversation, they sat in a park in New York City and birds alighted on his finger, like some Greek god of nature, he was like Dionysus with his exotic looks and confident, free spirit.  She fell in love with him, though her strict Catholic morality prevented her from doing anything more than kiss him.  After all, she was a virgin and intended to stay that way until her wedding day.  And he wooed her with his debonair ways.  But predator that he was, he urged her to let him make her his mistress.  He offered to set her up in an apartment and give her the finest things, if only she would be his lover.  She could not abide by that.  For some reason, he would not marry her.  Was his family Muslim? Were they Orthodox Christian?  That was still a mystery to her, decades later, when she told me the story.  But it just would not work, he told her.  His family would never accept her.  But he told her that he loved her and the apartment was his offer of commitment.  She cried.  How could he love her and still make such demands upon her?  And so he cut off all contact with her.  He stopped returning her calls.  She was heartbroken. 

For weeks, she could not reach him.  Finally, she went to his apartment to confront him.  He answered the door, surprised to see her.  He did not invite her in, but spoke to her at the threshold.  She could see inside that he was entertaining.  In contrast to the rainy winter weather outside, the apartment was warm, inviting, but meant for another.  His guest, a very handsome young man, as exotic as he was, who must have been a friend from out of town.  With dark eyes and hair, he seemed South American, a Spanish prince, a descendant of conquistadors.  Absorbed in himself, he seemed unconcerned with what was going on at the front door.  Garapet explained to her that he could not give her what she was looking for, and that she would just have to deal with it.  Take it or leave it.  And so she left and went to her car to cry.  She cried for a long time. A stranger, a woman, even approached her to see if she was okay.  She would not admit that she was not, claiming that she was fine; she pulled herself together and then thanked the woman, driving off. 

She even considered for a moment giving in, putting aside her morals, just to be with him.  She loved Garapet that much.  Then, she spoke to her cousin, Nicholas, who was a friend of Garapet’s. They all had attended college together.  Didn’t she know?  Nicholas asked her.  Garapet was dating the man she saw in the apartment.  Had he not told her?  Garapet was bisexual.  She was stunned.  In those days, this was still considered to be very avant garde and was largely unheard of.  But even still, with her crowd of bohemian friends, this was not what shocked her.  After all, their friend Corey was gay and it fazed none of them.  It was Garapet’s secretiveness that hurt her.  That she was not his only love, that he had lied to her and kept this from her.  That was what stunned and injured her.  And so, the beautiful man she saw inside the apartment was her competition, as she described it.  And he was some pretty stiff competition, she would later joke.  As beautiful as my mother was, in my eyes, I can only imagine what a beautiful specimen of manhood he must have been to garner that kind of attention.  And so she resolved within herself never to love another man again.  For weeks, months, she could not forgive herself.  Time went by and she received a salient piece of advice from a friend of hers, an elegantly mannered and highly cultured friend from Africa named Tobias Mechekana.  He said to her, pithily, “Barbie,” as he called her with his rolled Rs and poised embouchure, “Do not be afraid of every pair of pants you see.”  This advice from a wise friend convinced her of her folly.  And she resolved that maybe, just maybe, if the right man came along, she would open her heart again. 

And in the early months of winter—in January, 1965—Richard Greenberg called her, out of the blue.  A few weeks earlier, he had run into two mutual friends at the New York Public Library and inquired if Barbara Merget was still unmarried.  One of them, Bruce, said she was and gave Richard her phone number.  When he called, they talked for hours, like old friends.  She agreed to go with him on a date. 

And so on this cold, January evening, he picked her up in his car and took her to a restaurant in Nassau County called Andre’s.  It was a French restaurant, swanky, the best he could afford, which wasn’t much on his salary as a reimbursement agent at the state mental hospital.  That wasn’t what he wanted to be doing, but it was a living.  And so he saved up his money and took her out. 

The restaurant was a little bit dark, an attempt at mood lighting.  It was a bit hard to see each other, but they did not care.  Even the fine French food, replete with butter and cream, as good as it was, paled in comparison to the conversation.  As they sat across the table from each other, engaged in lively and brilliant discussion, they made a connection like they had never been able to before, with each other or with anyone else.  Dad said to his date: “I want you to know that I’m really enjoying myself.  The company is particularly delightful.” 

“Well, they’ll be very happy to hear that,” she responded wryly, almost deliberately avoiding the compliment, as if she had not even realized that the compliment was meant for her.   Her humility was charming to him. 

When they left, exiting the back entrance of the restaurant which opened out onto the parking lot in the rear, there was “black ice” on the white concrete back steps.  Mom’s shoe caught a little bit of the ice and she slipped down several of the concrete steps, and wound up sitting in the snow and ice that covered the black top of the parking lot, with a wet bottom.  The maître-d’ witnessed, having stood by to see his guests off, and hurriedly rushed down the steps to her aid, fearing a lawsuit and for the establishment’s reputation, as well as expressing genuine concern about her well-being.  Dad had rushed ahead of him, already at her side.  And she just laughed.  Her bottom was a little bit bruised, along with the dampness, but she was unhurt.  Just her pride.  And she laughed at her own clumsiness.  And as the maître d’ tried to help her to her feet, she just sat there and laughed in the cold, Long Island winter night, the air crisp with a smidge of moisture from the last snow that adorned the ground.  And the blackness of the night sky was pierced by the street lamps surrounding the parking lot, like spotlights on the crucial scene in a romance movie.

Dad watched this marvelous creature whom he had never fully noticed during their college years, so full of verve and joy and humor and brilliance.  At that moment, he had fallen in love with her.  And I, hearing this story so many years later, fell a little bit in love with her myself.