Retrieving the Sweater

This recently revised piece recaptures a slice of my life in the early 1960s. I”m not sure what to call it: personal essay, memoir, fictionalized memoir, or short story. Take your pick.

Cassie and I had been eyeballing each other for several weeks, ever since we stepped into the same New School class (on Albert Camus) along with a handful of other recent Greenwich Village immigrants. We quickly became a group, Cassie the only woman (though we’d have said “girl” then). Except for Jeff, who came from Brooklyn, we had each called home some bastion of comfort in an Eastern Seaboard suburb. Palling around in a group of four or five, we’d pace up and down 8th Street looking for some cheap mischief or a friendly bartender. We’d huddle together in the Bleeker Street cinema or just sit out on the benches in Washington Square, admiring the pigeons.

We’d talk about Anais Nin, who was having one of her several breakthrough moments and whose new editions were prominently displayed at the trendy bookshops. Once, as we walked past the Bobst Library of NYU, we spotted her, caped and coiffed in her delightfully mysterious fashion. Her novels and stories (not at all like the bold unexpurgated diaries to be published decades later) were filled with poeticized longing and gauze-cloaked sensuality.

Being in the same class bonded us unexpectedly. We had already developed other friendships, and Cassie, who had been in the Village for six months, occasionally talked about a boy friend, an older guy, whom we never saw. I think, perhaps, he was married and Cassie was his big adventure on the side, though she seemed to take him seriously. In spite of the ways in which our lives did not otherwise link, we kept feeling this tight tugging, something sashing us into a privileged, knowing circle.

I couldn’t take my eyes off Cassie, yet meeting her gaze was a problem, too. She was very cool, worldly, bold in her look and stride and language. Sleek and tormentingly sexy, she said I dare you with every flounce of her long, straight, light-brown hair. Her look said are you up to it? whenever she caught me staring.

I didn’t know.

We were all busy writing poems. Well, maybe “busy” is too strong in terms of how much writing we got done – let alone rewriting. However, we were certainly busy enough reading and talking about poetry. None one of us had any discipline, just a borrowed sense of style and the dreamy, late adolescent angst that Nin’s work captured perfectly. Certainly we wanted to impress one another, and in particular the guys wanted to impress Cassie. We’d meet to share our work, and at some point Cassie and Jeff and someone outside of the immediate group started a little magazine. When Cassie became the chief editor (because her father’s money floated this little operation and because we couldn’t deny her anything), whatever I wrote seemed like a trial answer to one of her silent I dare you smiles. I loved to watch her push away her hair and rub one of her gold loop earrings as she concentrated on a manuscript. Could she tell, from a poem, if I was up to it? I’d have to find out.

By now we were well into the spring semester, which of course is a misnomer. It was the dead of winter and we were getting one of those ugly, windy city blizzards that was covering over the ubiquitous Kennedy and Nixon bumper stickers.  Though we no longer were taking a class together, the “gang” still hung out. Cassie’s poetry magazine, and her edgy, earthy magnetism, kept us in the same tight orbit. Actually, I had become more comfortable as her friend now. I’d heard a lot about her parents and her interest in Asian art. And, since I hadn’t made a move, I had given up thinking of her invisible “Frank” as a rival. Having fought down the attraction, I could look her in the eye.

It was four or five in the afternoon, the storm hastening darkness, when lights began flickering in the New School cafeteria where we sat looking over line drawings and woodcuts for the magazine. Jeff had a poem about a little boy who sat on a golden stone in a golden circle – something heavily symbolic that sounded good when he read it aloud – and we were choosing some illustrations to go along with it. The intensity of the storm increased, and we decided to split up and go back to our living quarters. Jeff left for the subway to Brooklyn, and something possessed me to become Cassie’s escort to her Hudson Street studio apartment. Had she asked me? Dared me? I can’t remember.

We half-ran, half-walked across the few blocks, crossing Sheridan Square, eyes blinded by the wind-whipped snow that quickly melted and soaked our thin jackets. We splashed through gutters and the heavy slush climbed up our jeans right to the knees. Cassie leaned against me and grasped my hand as we endured the last block, turned onto Hudson, and found the shelter of the tiny lobby. I stamped and shook off the worst of it while she checked her mailbox. Just then, as she pulled out her key ring, I wished I had sent her my best poem. But I hadn’t been able to bring myself to send any. As I warmed a bit, the absent weight of her hip against mine and the echo of her fingers in my hand suddenly registered. Was I up to it? Then we climbed the three floors to her apartment.

Ohmygod how splendidly unselfconscious Cassie appeared as she stripped out of her wet clothing down to her bra and panties. Her look told me I was really stupid not to be doing the same thing. Did I want to catch my death? She hung my wet jacket on a nail and threw my sweater, which was mostly dry, onto the corner of her platform bed. I was spellbound, trying to be all businesslike and nonchalant as I kicked off my loafers and pulled off those soggy denims. I shot a glance at the three-quarter view of Cassie’s back as she raised her arms to dry her hair in a thick towel. Her breasts, now unfettered, perfectly framed in a hallway mirror, followed her movements. My shirt came off.

Cassie put on a recording of someone reading translations of Garcia Lorca’s poetry and then we were under the down comforter, warming each other, finding out where everything was, and yet there was no love-talk, only talk about the usual stuff. I wondered why I had left my wet socks on, but then tried hard to focus on the possibility of meeting Cassie’s dare. After a while, we were getting lost in our caresses and excitations. Cassie was making movie-moans and I was wondering if she was expecting me to have prophylactics. It was about that time. Then, as a key began to turn the tumblers in the lock, my heart knew disappointment and also, strangely, relief.

Cassie sprang up, then composed herself and slipped into my sweater as her roommate pulled open the door and dripped into the apartment. By the time she was in far enough to see us, I was half into my still-damp jeans and Cassie, legs tucked under her, sat with the bottom of my sweater pulled down under her knees. “Sorry,” Maggie exclaimed sarcastically, then turned to put some things away in the Pullman kitchen.

Now I had to put on my best nonchalant act. Was I up to it? A blur of small talk about Nin’s new Seduction of the Minotaur, which Maggie had just read. Leave soon, but not too soon. At the time, it seemed best to leave the sweater behind.

Something changed after that. Something became my fault that hadn’t quite been anyone’s fault. My expectation that a romance was brewing was quickly exposed as utter nonsense. I could not find the words or gestures to resume that intimacy, if that’s what it was, on any level. The gang went through wooden motions of having fun and being committed artists, but all that earnestness about comradeship and transcendence got to be painful, like a stiff neck. Cassie, the lodestone and center, frowned a lot, looked uncharacteristically perplexed, and after a while drifted onto the periphery of our lives.

For all my disappointment and sorrow, for all my worry over just how much embarrassment was proper, my principal focus was on that darn sweater. I wasn’t sure if it was a legitimate forfeit – a part of me forever gone with my self-esteem and silly romantic notions – or just a sweater that I liked and needed and should get back.  Sometimes, I imagined that Cassie was intending to call me and arrange to return it. She would give me back my self, and perhaps even more. Other times, I felt that she was holding onto it as a kind of inverse and perverse trophy. Then again, it was just as likely she simply didn’t care. Or maybe it was another dare. Come and get it. Was I up to it?

Did I even want that garment that had spent more time wrapped around her precious body than I had? Did I want it with her smell . . . the inevitable strands of her hair? Did I want this talisman of an unfulfilled desire? Did I want to turn back the clock, reclaim the moment? What had she taken from me, really?

What happens next?

I cannot tell you truthfully what happened next, because if I did I’d be telling a different kind of story.  But I can tell you this: it’s over fifty years later and I have an eleven year old granddaughter, and I’ve published a shelf of criticism on Anais Nin and quite a few poems. But it is as if the outcome is still in doubt. Even today, every poem I write, even this morning’s poem, is awaiting sanction in Cassie’s magazine. And will you believe me if I tell you that on a day like today I feel as if I’m still in the process of either retrieving the sweater – or not?

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