Love Stories: "HE and SHE"
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
She was a New Yorker. There were crowds of people on the subway platform. The old red Lex rattled into 23rd Street, the doors opened, all the people getting off fought their way through all the people getting on. It was her first day on her first job at the Big Bank downtown. Her foot got jerked around as she was trying to cram herself onto the car, and her shoe fell off her foot and down onto the subway tracks below. The doors closed, and with one shoe his future wife’s career in the financial district began.
He was a Californian. It was four years later. He had been in town a week with his Very Special Very First Band. It was February in Washington Heights and he was colder than he had ever been. He owned one lightweight jacket and had borrowed a fur hat, gloves, long underwear and a muffler, but they were useless against the wind gusting down 168th Street. He bent his head and hurried towards the A-Train and the shelter of the station, dropped his token into the turnstile, waited among the hundreds of people on the platform as the A rolled in and they threw open the doors. A strong surge of humanity behind him pushed him onto the train. He grabbed a strap to hold on as more and more people filled in around him. Late arrivals ran down the concrete stairs, jumped over the turnstiles and wedged their way through the still-open train doors. Finally, the doors closed and the A jerked forward. Then, somewhere between 168th St. and 145th St. the train clanked, shivered and died.
The lights went out, Everything went off but the heat, which was stuck on KALAHARI. People were packed so closely together he had no way to get his hands out of his pockets to unbutton his jacket or take off his gloves or unwrap his muffler. It was hard to breathe. The subway car reeked of hot Juicy Fruit.
“NewYawk, NewYawk,” someone said, and someone else said, ”Shee-it.”
He thought she was pretty and smart. She thought he was young. She had a grown-up’s job, he was a musician. She had an apartment, he was living on his guitar player’s sofa. She liked him but had her doubts. He liked her but had never thought about what comes after ‘like.’
They both came from stable, transplanted midwestern families, her parents from Kentucky and Minnesota now in New York, his from Chicago now in Los Angeles. He had dated a string of willowy, long-haired, guitar-strumming hippies, she an eclectic collection of professionals and guys on motorcycles. Neither he nor she had ever been in love. Neither knew how you would know if you were.
The Jewish thing. She didn’t seem to care. The Protestant thing. It was a relief to him. He hated synagogues. She refused to enter a church. Clearly, they were made for each other.
He had a bout of temporary insanity on the Downtown Local. As the doors opened at 42nd St., he told her he loved her. He had never said that to anyone before. He knew he had made a mistake when he read her eyes, which said: “Oh, My God.” She said: “That’s nice.” He figured that was that.
That wasn’t that. But meanwhile, there was his Very Special Very First Band, called “Strawflowers.” He was the writer and rhythm guitar player, Paul played lead guitar and Mayre was the lead singer. All three had long hair. Mayre looked good in hers.
He had met Paul and Mayre in Nashville only a few months earlier. On their very first meeting, they had sung songs and harmonized together all through a long summer’s night at his rented cottage on the Cumberland River. Before they knew each other’s last names, they had become a band. This kind of musical magic, where three dreams become one and one voice becomes multiplied by three, was not as rare in those more enchanted days.
Just two blinks before, he had been on the streets of Oakland attempting to lie down on the railroad tracks in order to stop troop trains from carrying baby soldiers to Vietnam. He decided to run from the draft. Well, drive from it. He put his two guitars in the trunk of his Corvair and ended up in Nashville. There he met Mayre and Paul. Now they were all Strawflowers. He and Mayre were driving up to New York to meet up with Paul.
But it started to snow in Cleveland and became a blizzard in Pennsylvania. By New Jersey they could no longer see the road in front of them. They skidded across the George Washington Bridge and steered right into a snowbank, where the car died. They found a pay phone and called Paul. He ran down and helped them empty the car. There wasn’t much in it. They were New Yorkers now.
She was an economist, not a musician. She could carry a tune but only until she breathed. By now she had purchased a shoe to replace the one on the subway tracks, and several more pairs besides. She was building a career at the Big Bank of New York. She shared an office with a fellow who He knew from college. When He showed up in town, pulling a singer named Mayre and a U-haul trailer, the fellow introduced him to his office mate, Her.
She was already a big city kid, a New Yorker. She knew about restaurants and symphonies and concerts in the park. She had a doorman. He thought he was a big city kid too, but Sherman Oaks is not New York. He put mayonnaise on pastrami. He stood on the street and gawked upwards. He sat on a park bench listening to arguments in foreign languages that turned out to be English. He rode each subway line end to end, getting into conversations with people who in their entire lives had never spoken to another human on the subway. He felt like he had come home.
She had a job and he had a new band. She made enough money and he didn’t. He couldn’t believe she would pay a quarter for an apple. He got a job at Columbia University Press and phoned her when someone told him about a music festival called Woodstock.
“Do you want to go?” she asked.
“It’s gonna be crowded.”
“It’s probably gonna rain.”
“Let’s skip it.”
He told her he was on the run from the draft. She wanted to help.
She told him her mother was dying. He wanted to help.
He was desperate to stay out of the army and be sent to Vietnam where he knew he would die for absolutely nothing. She told him if he had to go to Canada she would go with him. A button got pushed in his thick monkey brain that said, “She loves you.”
Her father had served on a destroyer during World War Two. In his mind he had imagined many appropriate suitors for his elder daughter, but none of these was a musician with long, curly Jew hair who refused to go in the army. Something he and his wife could not miss, however: He loved She. Not only that: he formed a lifelong bond with her younger sister who became a persuasive little voice in her parents’ ears. He was interested in her father’s rhododendrons. He thought bacon with peanut butter on white bread was delicious. Her parents looked more closely and thought, “Dear, he might do.”
Cancer carried her mother away and it wasn’t pretty. She, twenty-eight, took it hard. Her sister, fifteen, was crushed.
He already knew something about death. There is always so much stuff to do. He knew how to stay useful. They grew closer.
He accompanied the family to Southern Kentucky for the funeral. He had never even imagined a world like that. Neighbors brought pies, cakes, chicken and dumplings, casseroles, cookies. He discovered that her family was just like his. They ate when they were happy and even more when they were sad.
A short time later it was time for his Army physical In Brooklyn. He was twenty-five and desperate. So he took several tabs of mescaline and, in absolute terror, confronted the United States Military, now disguised as giant cockroaches with thousands of teeth. The mescaline was a bad idea. He was convinced the cockroaches were chasing him carrying loaded weapons. It turns out they were.
But he escaped them, by the absolute grace of God, who appeared in the body of an anti-war Army psychiatrist.
He was free. He ran all the way home from Brooklyn. He asked her to marry him. She said yes.
There is more to that last sentence. She was a smoker. He told her that if she gave up smoking for one month, they could become Mr. and Mrs. He and She. She was probably looking for a more romantic proposal, but she stubbed out her last Viceroy and hasn’t smoked one since.
She made magic out of cloth. She sewed him a beautiful white suit and herself a stunning white dress. They found a Unitarian Minister who had a time slot open and who promised not to mention the word “God.” The small family gathered in her parents’ backyard.
He was so terrified that there are photos of their wedding with her holding the sleeve of his white suit with no one inside it. He had shrunk into invisibility with fear.
His mother and brother flew in from California. Her two aunts came from Minnesota. His best man got locked in the freezer at the florist’s. He banged and banged until someone let him out. The minister kept looking at his watch.
Why was He so frightened that afternoon? He didn’t know then and doesn’t know now. He wanted to be married. He was ready to sign on the dotted line. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him and he knew it. She was strong where he was weak. He was solid where she was wavery. It was all good.
But when he saw the minister, the impatient Unitarian who seemed to be the compromise between the three Jews and the fourteen Presbyterians, standing patiently in front of the rhododendrons, and both of their mothers sitting on lawn chairs, and her sister dressed up as Maid of Honor, and his brother and her father and the aunties and the champagne glasses and the wedding cake, he wondered how far he could get if he broke straight through the living room and out the front door, running helter-skelter through leafy, suburban streets, before they caught up to him.
But maybe they wouldn’t even bother. Maybe they’d just smile, wipe the dust off their palms and lock the front door. He’d better stay.
The minister said, “Do you, He, take She to be your lawful wedded wife, do you promise to love her and cherish her, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, as long as you both shall live, so help you ...GOD?
He looked up at the Minister who had thrown God in there anyway. The minister smiled, the way Unitarians do, just a twitch of the spiteful nose. “Well, do you?”
“I do (you sneaky bastard),” he said, keeping the section in parentheses to himself.
“And do you, She, take He to be your lawful wedded husband, do you promise to love AND OBEY HIM, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, as long as you both shall live, so help you...GOD?”
To this day, She swears He made up the part about her swearing to OBEY him, but he knows he is right, he was there, hiding somewhere inside his homemade white suit..
Not that, by now, it matters all that much.
“I do,” she said.
“I now pronounce you Man and Wife,” he said. “You may kiss the bride.”
He did and She did. And still do.