Love, Loss and Longing in the Age of Reagan © 2014
By Iris Dorbian
It was an era before cell phones, the Internet did not exist, disco was dying, about to be swallowed whole by New Wave and AIDS, which hadn’t yet broken into the mainstream, would soon become a death sentence ending a person’s life within two years of infection. Carter had only one year left of his failed, one-term presidency. Reaganomics—and yuppies—were looming.
Though still heavily ravaged by the urban blight that had nearly decimated it earlier in the decade, New York City was starting to undergo a period of renewal and rebirth thanks to its new feisty mayor Ed Koch.
Into this fray I entered as an NYU student, naïve, curious, not knowing what the future would bring. But then I didn’t care, choosing to live in the present. Willful obliviousness suited me just fine.
Peter, my first real boyfriend (translated into the vernacular: the first guy I slept with), used to always tell me I was an existentialist. But that confused me especially because I knew that underneath this veneer that classmates used to say was so deep and cerebral lurked a fluttery airhead, more influenced by appearances and artifice than she let on.
I had briefly studied existentialism when I was a high school senior taking advanced humanities with Mrs. Stein at Fair Lawn High School, an unusually good public school made possible by the enormous taxes levied against its local citizenry.
Mrs. Stein was very eclectic with the syllabus. We read Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” (a book about wronged innocence that resonated strongly with my callow self), Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” and Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” the latter considered both a literary classic and a benchmark of the existential movement.
“The Stranger” was about an emotionally impassive Frenchman, Mersault, who experiences all sorts of tragedies—he even murders someone and goes on trial for it—while remaining curiously detached throughout. Was he a sociopath? Did he feel any kind of remorse for his actions? Why didn’t he cry when his mother died?
When Mrs. Stein would describe the protagonist as someone who embodied the existential doctrine of self-determination and assuming responsibilities for one’s choices, all I could think of was a sleek and tall Frenchman, fashionably attired in black from head to toe, wearing a beret and sitting in a Parisian café, sipping lattes and eating croissants while having animated philosophical discourses with friends and borderline foes. It was an image of sophistication I was desperate to emulate ever since my parents took me two years earlier to Café Feenjon on MacDougal Street to hear Israeli musicians play cheesy Middle-Eastern music.
Although the music underwhelmed me, what was unfolding outside, the cascading sensory overload, transfixed my 15-year-old self. The streets of Greenwich Village were ablaze with an inferno of activity and electricity. Everywhere you turned was a kaleidoscope of memorable images: daredevil roller-bladers zigzagging through the labyrinthine corners and alleys; musicians plying their wares; artists selling their crudely daubed but oddly alluring paintings; young people converging in excited knots of conversation, craning their necks to find the next stimulus; and bohemians displaying their home-made jewelry and crafts on tables to rubbernecking tourists.
The pulse of the area was so vibrantly alive it sent the blood rushing through my adolescent veins. I needed to be here. I needed to experience the rest of my youth here. Forget Fair Lawn. Forget the insular, homogenous comfort of Bergen County. Forget the malls. I have to be here. I MUST get here.
The following week I looked at my grades and knew I had to do a serious overhaul if I wanted to get into NYU. Sure, NYU was not the Ivy League but it was a respectable institution of higher learning and a menu of B’s, C’s and one D (for geometry) wasn't going to admit me into Valhalla. I needed to get straight A’s or else.
Until my sophomore year, straight A’s were the norm for me. But then feeling bored and listless with my sheltered suburban lifestyle, I fell in with a crowd of misfit kids, potheads and pill-poppers, some dropouts, others permanently jaded with the status quo—all railing against authority.
Before I was the archetypal geek who dutifully read every assignment, handed in homework on time and always raised her hand in class. Afterwards, my daily regimen consisted of cutting classes and getting high in the bathroom with my new pals.
Sometimes we’d bolt from the premises altogether to go to Paramus Park Mall, where we’d drop speed in the bathroom before driving back to catch the last class or two.
That soon changed when I made going to NYU and moving to my Shangri-La, the Village, my all-consuming goal. I removed myself from the dead-end clique and got back on the academic track. Soon my mediocre grades were replaced with straight A’s.
In the late winter of my senior year, my guidance counselor collared me in the hallway before I made my way to algebra. He told me that he had just gotten off the phone with NYU admissions. They had accepted me and I was going to get a pretty nice financial aid package. I don’t think anything else stuck in the hollows of my brain the remainder of the school year.
Moving to the Village to attend NYU in September of 1979 was more than just a fulfillment of a teen goal: It would be a watershed in an incomplete life, introducing me to three relationships that would haunt me like a specter long after they were over, leaving me with an emotional legacy I would never get over.
There are periods in one’s life when things are so fortuitously timed you would swear it’s fate intervening. Jews call it bashert or destiny. I believe my father meeting my mother the second day he arrived in Israel back in the late 1950s to visit his cousin Isaac was bashert. My teenaged mother was riding her bike down the streets of Herzliya, honking her horn for my dad and his cousin to get out of the way. Dad’s cousin turned around and immediately recognized my mother (he and her mother, my grandmother, worked in the same factory together); Isaac stopped mom and introduced her to dad; sparks flew and they got married several months later.
Similarly, I believe my meeting Peter the second week I started NYU fall of 1979 was bashert. Not only was he in my History of Western Civilization Part I course but he also lived down the hall from me in the dorm. Yes, I know, hardly earth-shattering given the incestuously close quarters and cocoon-like atmosphere of college. But events from almost day one intertwined us in such a way it later made me feel that Peter coming into my life was foreordained. Total bashert.
I met him at a welcome to NYU shindig that the resident fellow on my floor in Weinstein dorm decided to throw for the incoming freshmen. It was held in the RF’s room, a rabbit warren that was only marginally larger than the off-white prison block cell I was sharing with a senior, Marianne. Because only students on the 7th floor in the A wing, where I was living, were invited, the human traffic flowing and ebbing out of the room was manageable. Diane, the RF, waved at me as I entered the room although she was too engaged in conversation to introduce me to the others. While the opening strains of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” blared on the turntable, streaming into my head, I threaded my way though the mini-throng of freshmen to the refreshment table to get a glass of Tab.
Suddenly I got accosted by this strange guy named George. With his blandly attractive features framed by finely layered, blow-dried short brown hair and sporting a sea blue buttoned up Lacoste polo shirt, a white cardigan over it and light turquoise corduroy slacks, George looked like a poster boy for good, clean preppie living. He recognized me from my Civilization of Greece and Rome class, which he was also taking. He asked me if I would like a drink.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t drink,” I yelled over the din of commingling conversations in the room and Debbie Harry’s vocals.
He screwed his grey eyes at me in disbelief, narrowing them into darkened slits. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No, I don’t like to drink. I don’t like the taste.”
Kids my age always thought that was weird. But ever since I got drunk at age 12 on my father’s bottle of Stolichnaya, which I had stolen from my parents’ mahogany liquor cabinet when they were away one weekend, I just couldn’t muster the gusto for booze. After forcing myself to gulp down two glasses of pure Stoli and feeling so nauseated afterwards that I literally genuflected before a toilet, waiting for the puke to burst forth from my esophagus only it never did, I thought: “How gross. And all for what? This shit doesn’t even taste good.”
“Okay,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as he opened up a can of Budweiser and chugged away at it. “So what are you going to major in?” he asked, as he wiped his mouth soiled with the beer while gawking at my chest.
You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s not even subtle about it.
“Uh, I’m not sure. Maybe English or history,” I replied, stifling the nervousness creeping into my voice and body language.
With his eyes fixed on my boobs, George yammered on about wanting to major in journalism. As I was plotting an escape, Peter entered the room. He made a beeline for George. I didn’t know who he was but was eternally in his debt.
“I know you,” he said, in a honeyed baritone and with a slightly lascivious glint in his cobalt blue eyes. “You’re in Professor Jackson’s class. You sit in the front.”
Looking like a cross between Keith Richards right before his descent into unregenerate drug addiction and a homeless vagrant with a permanent 10 o’clock shadow, Peter flashed a confident smile at me, revealing two rows of jagged, yellowing teeth. Wearing a snug black shirt with a V-neck that showed generous tufts of dark chest hair, a Free Sid button referring to the arrest nearly a year ago of Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols’ bassist for the murder of his girlfriend and skin tight blue jeans, I recoiled at the sight of Peter but also couldn’t turn away. He was that perversely transfixing.
“Edie, this is my roommate Peter. Peter, this is Edie,” said George whom I had practically forgotten at that point.
Peter duly nodded back at me. “So, what do you think of Professor Jackson’s class?” he asked, gazing back at me with his Rasputin eyes.
I was flustered. His freaky eyes and sexy caveman aura threw me off balance. On one level, I was grossed out by his teeth and he seemed really hairy. But on the other hand, I liked his feathery dark straight Beatle mop, his trim, cute body and his softly masculine deep voice. He was short though—only slightly taller than me and I’m barely 5’7.
“Uh, I-I like her,” I stammered. “She seems really good and funny. And smart…yeah, really smart.” I tried averting my eyes from him and going back to George who was still standing there but it was no use.
“What are you interested in doing when you get out?” I said, the words rushing out of my mouth before I could clog them. What a heavy-handed question to ask someone I just met. I should be muzzled.
“I want to be an English professor,” Peter said forcefully, the leering gleam in his eyes temporarily dissipating. “And write.”
While Peter talked, I continued to eyeball him even though my better Emily Post instincts kept telling me I shouldn’t. It wasn’t polite but I couldn’t help it.
My nose noticed, much to my delight, that Peter reeked of pot, which I soon learned he smoked nonstop. I hadn’t smoked pot in a long while—not since my stint with the misfit crowd I briefly hung out with in high school. My nostrils flared a bit as I tried to inhale more of that familiar sticky-sweet scent.
“We should study together sometime,” Peter said, the leer returning to his eyes. He frazzled me with how he looked at me. There was something unseemly about it but at least, he was looking at my face and not another part of my anatomy.
A few days later, I ran into Peter at the dorm cafeteria. It was near the end of lunch time, 1:30 pm—and it wasn’t as crowded as usual. I was sitting alone at a table, scarfing down a tuna fish sandwich when Peter materialized out of nowhere, holding a tray containing a slice of pizza, a can of Coke and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. He was wearing jeans and a partially buttoned white muslin shirt. The dark chest hair was even more visible than it was at the get-together. This time he was clean-shaven. At the sight of him, I almost choked. He cleared his throat and grinned warmly, this time with not a smidgen of lechery emanating from his not so pearly whites.
“Can I join you?”
I nodded and then immediately shoved my chapped lips onto the straw sticking out of my can of Tab. My stomach felt fluttery, like it was churning in ripples of anxiety—but it wasn’t the kind of anxiety that makes you want to jump off a building in despair.
He was ravenous as he tore through the pizza. But he wasn’t sloppy about it, as he kept wiping his mouth every other second with a napkin. He let out an abbreviated, self-conscious chuckle as he caught me observing the way he was eating.
“I’m hungry. It’s been a long morning,” he sighed. “What else are you taking besides Western Civ?”
“Well, Civilization of Greece and Rome…”
“Yeah, my roommate is in that class—“
“Um, also, Intro to Sociology and Expository Writing.”
He nodded and then ran his slender fingers from his left hand through his shiny, perfect hair. “How do you like Civilization of Greece and Rome?”
I told him that I thought the professor was dry and I wasn’t that thrilled with what we were reading—Plato’s “The Republic.” Yawn.
“I can’t wait until we get away from Ancient Greece and more into Ancient Rome,” I added, taking another sip of Tab.
Peter’s expression brightened.
“You like learning about Ancient Rome?”
I nodded enthusiastically and described to him how addicted I became to the BBC series,”I, Claudius,” when it aired on PBS two years before. It piqued my interest in Ancient Roman history so much that I went out and read Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Claudius, The God,’ both of which were the basis for the series.
Peter stopped eating and looked at me in amazement. He told me he had also become a fan of the series and had read those same books.
“Really?” I answered with such a chirpy tone you would think I was three.
A brief silence followed. “Did you ever read ‘The Annals’ by Tacitus?” he asked. “That was one of the sources Robert Graves used when he was writing ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Claudius, The God?”
I almost jumped out of my chair. “Yes, I read that too. I thought he was much more objective than Suetonius who was more like a gossip columnist in his ‘The Twelve Caesars.’ Graves also used that as a source.”
Peter rubbed his chin. His eyes twinkled at me: “Have you ever read ‘The Augustan History?’”
I panicked. I had never read or heard about that book. Damn. I was slipping. Must make a mental note to pick that up from the library. But I couldn’t let Peter know about this lapse in my knowledge of Ancient Rome.
“Yes, I have.”
He dropped the spoon he was using to inhale the ice cream and studied me, his eyes glowing with what I hoped was admiration.
“Wow. I’m really impressed. I’ve never come across anyone else who has read ‘The Augustan History.’”
“Oh…thank you…” I quickly changed the subject. “George tells me you’re 20.”
Yesterday I had run into George on the elevator as we were heading to our class together. He asked me what I thought of Peter. I didn’t say much but told him he was “interesting.” George reluctantly agreed with me and added in an ominous voice that Peter was 20 years old, as if the two-year age difference would be a deterrent to my getting closer to him.
At my question about his age, Peter nodded, his eyes fastened to my every facial movement. He told me that after high school he worked as a security guard at a bank in Buffalo where he’s from. He did this for two years to save money for college.
Then Peter leaned closer to me without blinking and when he did, I got alternately excited and jittery. “Edie, can I ask you a question?”
I could feel microscopic beads of sweat crystallizing on my forehead. My solar plexus felt so tremulous I wondered if I needed to down a few Tums to calm it.
“Do you get high?”
I shook my head, relieved that was the question he was going to ask me and not something else although I wasn’t sure what that something else was. I did worry that he might mean a drug other than pot, like coke, which was becoming hugely popular. I had never taken coke and wasn’t sure about trying it because I thought snorting anything was disgusting. He had to have meant pot, I assured myself considering how much he had reeked of it when I met him the other day. He didn’t smell of it today though; maybe he hadn’t smoked his daily quota yet.
“Um, yeah,” I answered, trying very hard to contain my anticipation. I needed to act poised and sophisticated, not behave like an idiot rube from suburbia. “You mean, pot, right?”
He smiled again, this time showing no teeth, his hypnotic gaze boring into my flesh. “Of course. What else? Pot is truly the modern equivalent to the nectar of the gods.”
As we bussed our trays and left the cafeteria together, I walked with Peter to the elevator going back to our floor and then to his room. When he opened the door, he spun around to me and said:
“It’s so refreshing finding another enlightened soul here. I was starting to feel famished for intellectual companionship.”