It was almost impossible to get to Lexington and Sixty-third Street. The wind was howling, and the snow drifts had devoured all but the largest cars. The buses had given up somewhere around Twenty-third Street, where they sat huddled like frozen dinosaurs, as one left the flock only very rarely to venture uptown, lumbering down the paths the snowplows left, to pick up a few brave travelers who would rush from doorways frantically waving their arms, sliding wildly to the curb, hurling themselves over the packed snowbanks, to mount the buses with damp eyes and red faces, and in Bernie’s case, icicles on his beard.
It had been absolutely impossible to get a taxi. He had given up after fifteen minutes of waiting and started walking south from Seventy-ninth Street. He often walked to work. It was only eighteen blocks from door to door. But today as he walked from Madison to Park and then turned right on Lexington Avenue, he realized that the biting wind was brutal, and he had only gone four more blocks when he gave up. A friendly doorman allowed him to wait in the lobby, as only a few determined souls waited for a bus that had taken hours to come north on Madison Avenue, turned around, and was now heading south on Lexington to carry them to work. The other, more sensible souls had given up when they caught their first glimpse of the blizzard that morning, and had decided not to go to work at all. Bernie was sure the store would be half empty. But he wasn’t the type to sit at home twiddling his thumbs or watching the soaps.
And it wasn’t that he went to work because he was so compulsive. The truth was that Bernie went to work six days a week, and often when he didn’t have to, like today, because he loved the store. He ate, slept, dreamed, and breathed everything that happened from the first to eighth floor of Wolff’s. And this year was particularly important. They were introducing seven new lines, four of them by major European designers, and the whole look of American fashion was going to change in men’s and women’s ready-to-wear markets. He thought about it as he stared into the snowdrifts they passed as they lumbered downtown, but he was no longer seeing the snow, or the stumbling people lurching toward the bus, or even what they wore. In his mind’s eye he was seeing the new spring collections just as he had seen them in November, in Paris, Rome, Milan, with gorgeous women wearing the clothes, rolling down the runway like exquisite dolls, showing them to perfection, and suddenly he was glad he had come to work today. He wanted another look at the models they were using the following week for their big fashion show. Having selected and approved the clothing, he wanted to make sure the models chosen were right too. Bernard Fine liked to keep a hand in everything, from department figures to the buying of the clothes, even to the selection of the models, and the design of the invitations that went out to their most exclusive customers. It was all part of the package to him. Everything mattered. It was no different from U.S. Steel as far as he was concerned, or Kodak. They were dealing in a product, in fact a number of them, and the impression that product made rested in his hands.
The crazy thing was that if someone had told him fifteen years before when he was playing football at the University of Michigan that he would be worried about what kind of underwear the models had on, and if the evening gowns would show well, he would have laughed at them. . . or maybe even have busted their jaw. Actually, it struck him funny now, and sometimes he sat in his huge office on the eighth floor, smiling to himself, remembering back then. He had been an all-around jock when he was at Michigan, for the first two years anyway, and after that he had found his niche in Russian literature. Dostoevski had been his hero for the first half of junior year, matched only by Tolstoi, followed almost immediately by Sheila Borden, of slightly less stellar fame. He had met her in Russian I, having decided that he couldn’t do the Russian classics justice if he had to read them in translation, so he took a crash course at Berlitz, which taught him to ask for the post office and the rest rooms and find the train in an accent which impressed his teacher enormously. But Russian I had warmed his soul. And so had Sheila Borden. She had sat in the front row, with long straight black hair hanging to her waist romantically, or so he thought, her body very lithe and tight. What had brought her to the Russian class was her fascination with ballet. She had been dancing since she was five, she had explained to him the first time they talked, and you don’t understand ballet until you understand the Russians. She had been nervous and intense and wide-eyed, and her body was a poem of symmetry and grace which held him spellbound when he went to watch her dance the next day.
She had been born in Hartford, Connecticut, and her father worked for a bank, which seemed much too plebeian to her. She longed for a history that included greater poignancy, a mother in a wheelchair. . . a father with TB who would have died shortly after she was born. . . . Bernie would have laughed at her the year before, but not in his junior year. At twenty he took her very, very seriously, and she was a fabulous dancer, he explained to his mother when he went home for the holidays.
“Is she Jewish?” his mother asked when she heard her name. Sheila always sounded Irish to her, and Borden was truly frightening. But it could have been Boardman once, or Berkowitz or a lot of other things, which made them cowardly, but at least acceptable. Bernie had been desperately annoyed at her for asking him the question she had plagued him with for most of his life, even before he cared about girls. His mother asked him that about everyone. “Is he Jewish. . . is she. . . what was his mother’s maiden name?. . . was he bar mitzvahed last year?. . . what did you say his father did? She is Jewish, isn’t she?” Wasn’t everyone? Everyone the Fines knew anyway. His parents wanted him to go to Columbia, or even New York University. He could commute, they said. In fact, his mother tried to insist on it. But he had only been accepted at the University of Michigan, which made the decision easy for him. He was saved! And off to Freedomland he went, to date hundreds of blond blue-eyed girls who had never heard of gefilte fish or kreplach or knishes, and had no idea when Passover was. It was a blissful change for him, and by then he had dated all the girls in Scarsdale that his mother was crazy about and he was tired of them. He wanted something new, different, and a trifle forbidden perhaps. And Sheila was all of those. Besides she was so incredibly beautiful with huge black eyes, and shafts of ebony hair. She introduced him to Russian authors he had never heard of before, and they read them all–in translation of course. He tried to discuss the books with his parents over the holidays, to no avail.
“Your grandmother was Russian. You wanted to learn Russian, you could have learned Russian from her.”
“That wasn’t the same thing. Besides, she spoke Yiddish all the time . . .” His voice had trailed off. He hated arguing with them. His mother loved to argue about everything. It was the mainstay of her life, her greatest joy, her favorite sport. She argued with everyone, and especially with him.
“Don’t speak with disrespect about the dead!”
“I wasn’t speaking with disrespect. I said that Grandma spoke Yiddish all the time . . .”
“She spoke beautiful Russian too. And what good is that going to do you now? You should be taking science classes, that’s what men need in this country today. . . economics . . .” She wanted him to be a doctor like his father, or a lawyer at the very least. His father was a
throat surgeon and considered one of the most important men in his field. But it had never appealed to Bernie to follow in his father’s footsteps, even as a child. He admired him a great deal. But he would have hated being a doctor. He wanted to do other things, in spite of his mother’s dreams.
“Russian? Who talks Russian except Communists?” Sheila Borden. . . that was who. . . . Bernie looked at his mother in despair. She was attractive, she always had been. He had never been embarrassed about the way his mother looked, or his father for that matter. His father was a tall, spare man with dark eyes and gray hair, and a frequently distracted look. He loved what he did, and he was always thinking of his patients. But Bernie always knew he was there, if he needed him. And his mother had been dying her hair blond for years, “Autumn Sun” the color was called, and it looked well on her. She had green eyes, which Bernie had inherited from her, and she had kept her figure well. She wore expensive clothes that one never really noticed. They were navy suits and black dresses and had cost an arm and a leg at Lord and Taylor or Saks. Somehow she just looked like a mother to him. “Why does that girl study Russian anyway? Where are her parents from?”
“Where in Connecticut?” He wanted to ask her if she was planning to visit them.
“Hartford. What difference does it make?”
“Don’t be rude, Bernard.” She looked prim and he folded his napkin and pushed back his chair. Eating dinner with her always gave him stomach pains. “Where are you going? You haven’t been excused.” As though he were still five years old. He hated coming home sometimes. And then he felt guilty for hating it. And then he got mad at her for making him feel guilty for hating it. . . .
“I have some studying to do before I go back.”
“Thank God you’re not playing football anymore.” She always said things like that that made him want to rebel. It made him want to turn around and tell her he’d gone back on the team. . . or that he was studying the ballet with Sheila now just to shake her up a little bit. . . .
“The decision isn’t necessarily permanent, Mom.”
Ruth Fine glared at him. “Talk to your father about it.” Lou knew what he had to do. She had already talked to him at length. If Bernie ever wanted to play football again, you offer him a new car. . . . If Bernie had known, he would have gone through the roof, and not only refused the car, but gone back to playing football immediately. He hated being bribed. Hated the way she thought sometimes, and the overprotective way she treated him, in spite of his father’s more sensible attitudes. It was difficult being an only child, and when he got back to Ann Arbor and saw Sheila she agreed with him. The holidays hadn’t been easy for her either. And they hadn’t been able to get together at all, even though Hartford was certainly not the end of the world, but it might as well have been. Her parents had had her late in life, and now they treated her like a piece of glass, terrified each time she left the house, frightened that she would get hurt or mugged or raped, or fall on the ice, or meet the wrong men, or go to the wrong school. They hadn’t been thrilled at the prospect of the University of Michigan either, but she had insisted on it. She knew just how to get what she wanted from them. But it was exhausting having them hang all over her. She knew just what Bernie meant, and after their Easter holidays they devised a plan. They were going to meet in Europe the following summer, and travel for at least a month, without telling anyone. And they had.
It had been blissful seeing Venice and Paris and Rome for the first time together. Sheila had been madly in love, and as they lay naked on a deserted beach in Ischia, with her raven black hair falling over her shoulders, he had known that he had never seen anyone as beautiful. So much so that he was secretly thinking of asking her to marry him. But he kept it to himself. He dreamt of getting engaged to her over the Christmas holidays, and married after they graduated the following June. . . . They went to England and Ireland too, and flew home from London on the same plane.
As usual, his father was in surgery. His mother picked him up, despite his cable not to. Eagerly waving to him, she looked younger than her years in her new beige Ben Zuckerman suit with her hair done just for him. But whatever good feelings he had for her disappeared as she spotted his traveling companion immediately. “Who is that?”
“This is Sheila Borden, Mom.” Mrs. Fine looked as though she might faint.
“You’ve been traveling together all this time?” They had given him enough money for six weeks. It had been his twenty-first birthday present from them. “You’ve been traveling together so. . . so. . . shamelessly. . . ?” He wanted to die as he listened to her, and Sheila was smiling at him as though she didn’t give a damn.
“It’s okay. . . don’t worry, Bernie. . . I have to get the shuttle bus to Hartford anyway . . .” She gave him a private smile, grabbed her duffel bag, and literally disappeared without saying goodbye, as his mother began to dab at her eyes.
“Mom. . . please . . .”
“How could you lie to us like that?”
“I didn’t lie to you. I told you I was meeting friends.” His face was red and he wanted the floor to open up and swallow him. He wanted never to see his mother again.
“You call that a friend?”
He thought instantly of all the times they had made love. . . on beaches, in parks, next to rivers, in tiny hotels. . . . Nothing she ever said could take away that memory and he stared at his mother belligerently.
“She’s the best friend I have!” He grabbed his bag and started out of the airport alone, leaving her standing there, but he had made the mistake of turning back to look at her once, and she had been standing there crying openly. He couldn’t do it to her. He went back and apologized and hated himself for it afterwards.
Back at school in the fall, the romance had flourished anyway, and this time when they came back for Thanksgiving, he drove up to Hartford to meet her family. They had been cool but polite, obviously surprised by something Sheila hadn’t said, and when they flew back to school, Bernie questioned her.
“Were they upset that I’m Jewish?” He was curious. He wondered if her parents were as intense as his own, although that hardly seemed possible. Nobody could be as intense as Ruth Fine, not in his eyes anyway.
“No.” Sheila smiled absentmindedly, lighting a joint in the back row of the plane on the way back to Michigan. “Just surprised, I guess. I never thought it was such a big deal I had to mention it.” He liked that about her. She took everything in stride. Nothing was ever a big deal, and he took a quick hit with her before they carefully put out the joint and she put the roach in an envelope in her purse. “They thought you were nice.”
“I thought they were nice too.” He lied. Actually he had thought them boring in the extreme, and was surprised that her mother had so little style. They talked about the weather and world news, and absolutely nothing else. It was like living in a vacuum, or enduring a perennial live commentary of the news. She seemed so unlike them, but then again she said the same thing about him. She had called his mother hysterical after the only time they met, and he hadn’t disagreed with her. “Are they coming to graduation?”
“Are you kidding?” She laughed. “My mother already cries talking about it.” He was still thinking of marrying her, but he hadn’t said anything to her. He surprised her on Valentine’s Day with a beautiful little diamond ring he had bought for her, with money his
grandparents had left him when they died. It was a small, neat emerald-cut solitaire, it was only two carats but the stone was impeccable. The day he bought it his chest felt tight he was so excited all the way home. He had swept her off her feet, kissed her hard on the mouth, and thrown the red-wrapped box in her lap with a careless toss.
“Try that on for size, kid.”
She had thought it was a joke, and laughed until she opened it. And then her mouth fell open and she burst into tears. She had thrown the box back at him and left without a word, as he stood with his mouth open, staring after her. Nothing made any sense to him, until she came back to talk about it late that night. They both had rooms, but more often than not, they both stayed in his. It was larger and more comfortable and he had two desks, and she stared at the ring in the open box on his. “How could you do a thing like that?” He didn’t understand. Maybe she thought the ring was too big.
“A thing like what? I want to marry you.” His eyes had been gentle as he reached out to her, but she turned away and walked across the room.
“I thought you understood. . . all this time I thought everything was cool.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means I thought we had an equal relationship.”
“Of course we do. What does that have to do with anything?”
“We don’t need marriage. . . we don’t need all that traditional garbage.” She looked at him disgustedly and he was shocked. “All we need is what we have right now, for as long as it lasts.” It was the first time he had heard her talk like that and he was wondering what had happened to her.
“And how long is that?”
“Today. . . next week . . .” She shrugged. “Who cares? What difference does it make? But you can’t nail it down with a diamond ring.”
“Well, pardon me.” But he was suddenly furious. He grabbed the box, snapped it shut, and threw it into one of his desk drawers. “I apologize for doing something so innately bourgeois. I guess my Scarsdale was showing again.”
She looked at him as though with brand-new eyes. “I had no idea you were making so much of this.” She looked puzzled by him, as though she suddenly couldn’t remember his name. “I thought you understood everything . . .” She sat down on the couch and stared at him as he strode to the window, and then turned to look back at her.
“No. You know something? I don’t understand anything. We’ve been sleeping with each other for over a year. We basically live together, we went to Europe together last year. What did you think this was? A casual affair?” Not for him. He wasn’t that kind of man, even at twenty-one.
“Don’t use such old-fashioned words.” She stood up and stretched, as though she were bored, and he noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra, which only made things worse. He could suddenly feel his desire mounting for her.
“Maybe it’s just too soon.” He looked at her hopefully, led by what he felt between his legs as much as what he felt in his heart, and hating himself for it. “Maybe we just need more time.”
But she was shaking her head. And she didn’t kiss him good night as she walked to the door. “I don’t ever want to get married, Bern. It’s not my bag. I want to go to California when we graduate and just hang out for a while.” He could suddenly just imagine her there. . . in a commune.
“What kind of life is “hanging out’? It’s a dead end!”
She shrugged with a smile. “That’s all I want right now, Bern.” Their eyes held for a long time. “Thanks anyway for the ring.” She closed the door softly as she left, and he sat alone in the dark for a long, long time, thinking about her. He loved her so much, or at least he thought he did. But he had never seen this side of her, this casual indifference to what someone else felt, and then suddenly he remembered how she had treated her parents when he had visited them. She didn’t really seem to care a whole lot about what they felt, and she always thought he was crazy when he called his folks, or bought his mother a gift before he went home. He had sent her flowers on her birthday and Sheila had made fun of him, and now it all came rushing back to him. Maybe she didn’t give a damn about anyone, not even him. She was just having a good time, and doing what felt good at the time. And up until then he had been what had felt good to her, but the engagement ring did not. He put it back in the drawer when he went to bed, and his heart felt like a rock as he lay in the dark thinking of her.
And things hadn’t improved much after that. She had joined a consciousness-raising group, and one of the subjects they seemed to love to discuss most was her relationship with Bernie. She came home and attacked him almost constantly about his values, his goals, his way of talking to her.
“Don’t talk to me like a child. I’m a woman, goddammit, and don’t you forget that those balls of yours are only decorative, and not too much so at that. I’m just as smart as you are, I’ve got just as much guts. . . my grades are just as good. . . the only thing I don’t have is that piece of skin hanging between your legs and who gives a damn anyway?” He was horrified, and even more so when she gave up ballet. She kept up with the Russian, but she talked a lot about Che Guevara now, and she had taken to wearing combat boots, and accessories she bought at the army surplus store. She was particularly fond of men’s undershirts, worn without a bra, with her dark nipples showing through easily. He was beginning to be embarrassed to walk down the street with her.
Excerpted from Fine Things by Danielle Steel. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.