“...and in local sports, the Mets and Yankees both dropped road…”
Debbie Morris automatically switched off the alarm radio she’d carefully set last night to turn on later than usual and glanced at her wristwatch. Satisfied she was now, as planned, exactly ten-minutes behind schedule, she nodded and went back to re-checking her hair and make-up. As usual, she didn’t like what she saw in the small make-up mirror on her desk.
Despite visual evidence to the contrary, her self-image remained that of a pudgy schoolgirl with unexciting brown eyes, short dark auburn hair framing a face with a light sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of an otherwise okay nose.
No matter how she might really look, what she saw in the mirror never pleased her.
She shook her head in resignation, stood and briefly checked her uniform in the full-length mirror hanging on the bedroom door. After dieting all winter, her figure had reached the point where she had briefly considered buying a bikini for trips to the beach. She hadn’t, of course, settling instead on a much more modest outfit, verging on a two-piece. Still, even that marked a vast improvement over the dowdy, one-piece swimsuits she’d always worn in the past to hide her persistent, hateful baby-fat. With a resigned sigh, she grabbed her purse and suitcase, and headed for the living room.
“So, you’re going to skip your cousin Sammy’s birthday on Wednesday, am I right, and not come home until Friday?” The sound of her mother’s hectoring voice made Debbie cringe.
They had fought all weekend about her decision to skip the bar mitzvah of a particularly unappealing cousin.
While avoiding that loathsome lifeform had its appeal, so did not having to deal with a two-hour commute or an extra night under her mother’s supervision.
Thanks to an agreement between her college’s school of nursing and the VA hospital located across the street, students hired as summer Nurse Techs were allowed to stay in the school’s still all female nurse’s dorm.
“That’s right, Mom. But I’ll call tonight from the dorm." Her well planned, if uncharacteristically late departure had been designed to give her mother no time to re-start hostilities. Glancing at her watch, she said in feigned annoyance, “Don't tell me I'm running late! Sorry, Mom. Gotta scoot or miss the bus." After giving her mother a quick kiss, she hurried out for the bus stop across the street from their co-op apartment building.
In Debbie's, opinion, getting onto a New York City bus during rush hour constituted a form of urban hand-to-hand combat. People in front and back push and shove while you battle to hang onto the handrail, whatever you happen to be carrying, plus your tokens or change.
Doing all this with a suitcase in one hand and a purse on your shoulder, while trying to keep your white uniform clean and the hem of its almost fashionably short skirt in place, made the experience even more interesting. Sometimes it didn't all work.
Today, however, she had a relatively easy time getting on board the big, orange Q65A bus. Then to her delight she spotted an unoccupied window seat near the front. Grabbing it, she deposited the suitcase on the floor, automatically tugged at the hem of her skirt, strategically positioned her purse on her lap, and then pulled out a paperback edition of, The French Lieutenant's Woman.
A few stops later, the bus swerved sharply before making an abrupt halt. The sudden stop broke Debbie's concentration. Looking up from the middle of page 92, she idly glanced out at the early Monday morning commuters, but then noticed a slim, stunning blue-eyed blonde standing near the bus, and couldn't look away. The young goddess’ wore designer jeans and a tailored blouse Debbie felt certain had not come from a bargain basement rack.
Mesmerized, she watched as the Venus in designer jeans tilted her head up to be kissed by a handsome tanned man in a pin-striped, three-piece business suit. Debbie noticed everything: the stylish cut of his suit, the length of her golden hair, the color of his leather briefcase, and the size of the diamond on her engagement ring. A wave of intense envy swept over Debbie.
Moments later, the good-looking man got on board and moved past her. Debbie didn't notice. As the bus pulled away, she watched the beautiful woman toss her long, blonde hair, smiled and waved goodbye. The big diamond on her engagement ring sparkled in the morning sun.
Like many others from her background, Debbie suffered from a deep shiksha complex. To her, true female beauty meant a slim figure, blonde hair, and blue eyes.
Well, at least I’ve got a fiancé, thought Debbie. And we’re going to get married, someday.
As the crowded bus accelerated past cars parked inches apart, she continued to stare, unseeing, out the window, remembering the first time she met her fiancé, Johnny DeAngelo.
It had been four years ago, near the end of 10th grade, at a party in Shirley Horowitz’s rec room. Debbie had been depressed and didn't want to go.
"But you've got to go," Mandy Finkelstein insisted, for the third time that week. "Shirley promised some cute guys are coming from her school. Besides, I don't want to go by myself."
Debbie could sympathize with her sweet if a bit mousy best friend. Not having a boyfriend was tough on them both. The party would be a chance to meet new boys. Guilt-tripped by Mandy’s nagging, Debbie said she would go, except she didn’t have a decent party dress.
A few days later, her mother ended that last excuse by letting her buy a new outfit, a light-blue print, gathered just below the bosom, empire style. Debbie loved it and hoped the design would help hide her tummy bulge. And she admitted to herself that the white go-go boots she already owned and the outfit’s mandatory short mini-skirt would flatter the long legs that were her best feature.
The day of the party, Debbie arranged a Beatles’ style slouch hat so it didn’t muss her long, brunette hair which, as usual, she wore in a flip with bangs. She carefully studied her image in the hallway mirror and had to approve. Despite misgivings about going, at least she looked ready for a party.
She glanced at her watch and shifted into a higher gear. Grabbing her purse and the box of 45-rpm records Shirley had asked her to bring, she kissed her parents goodbye and headed out the door.
While looking nice was important, so was not standing out in the crowd. Her goal was to arrive neither too early, nor too late. But thanks to the usual delaying tactics by Mandy’s mother, the party was well underway by the time they made their appearance.
They had felt oh-so conspicuous and sought sanctuary next to the card table that held Shirley's record player. As Debbie added her collection to the modest one already stacked on the table, Shirley hurried over.
After a round of hugs and hellos, she said someone wanted to meet Debbie. Trying to avoid the invitation, Debbie picked up some records, said maybe later, and began scrutinizing the labels.
But Shirley, a natural matchmaker, wouldn’t be denied. "He’s a super great guy," she said. "He asked me who you were the moment you walked in. So, put down those old records and come with me."
Debbie sighed in submission and handed the records to Mandy. Moments later, she was being pulled through the crowd of flailing dancers. When Shirley stopped yanking on her arm, Debbie found herself standing in front of a slender stranger with a shy, nervous grin. For some reason, he held a pocket comb in his right hand.
He seemed very well dressed, maybe even overdressed, in a tan Nehru jacket, navy-blue turtleneck sweater and burgundy, polyester pants. Thanks to his shiny, black platform shoes, he might have been an inch or two taller than Debbie. No doubt thanks to the comb he seemed uncertain what to do with, his dark, Beatles style hair-do looked very ‘together’.
After completing her quick wardrobe appraisal, Debbie looked up and found herself staring into a pair of the softest, brown eyes she had ever seen. Over the din of the music, Shirley made the introductions. "Debbie, this is one of the coolest guys at my school, Johnny DeAngelo. Johnny, this is one of my best friends, Debbie Morris. Now you two get to know each other, I've got to split." With that, Shirley melted back into the crowd.
In the pause that followed, Debbie pretended to wave at someone to give him time to do something with that comb. Once it had vanished, she smiled and extended her hand. “Hi Johnny. Glad to meet you,” she said completing her part of the introductory ritual.
While waiting for him to respond, "A Hard Day’s Night” had been replaced by Shelly Fabares singing of her unrequited love for "Johnny Angel”. Out on the dance floor, individuals stopped gyrating in solo splendor. Embracing their partners, they began moving to the new song's slower and more intimate rhythm.
To Debbie's surprise, the obviously nervous Johnny took her hand, but instead of shaking it, he held on and gestured toward the dance floor. "It's a nice song. Some of the guys kid around and say it's my theme song. You know, Johnny Angel and Johnny DeAngelo. Anyway, you, uh, wanna dance?” Debbie nodded, and followed him out among the swaying couples. Turning to face one another, they paused, then she entered Johnny DeAngelo's arms and he entered her life.
The bus made a sharp turn and braked to a stop at the always busy Forest Hill transfer point. Debbie turned down the corner of page 92 and put away the book. Suitcase in hand, she shuffled out with the other passengers.
As she hurried toward the gaping entrance to the subway the rumble of a low flying jet made her stop and, out of habit, search the skies until she spotted one of the new 747 passenger jests. Debbie lived between two of the world’s busiest airports, but had never flown. To her, the idea of flight and travel was fascinating.
Once again, she promised herself that someday she’d fly. Who knew, she thought with a smile, maybe it would be with Johnny when they left the city on their honeymoon. It was a happy thought to take down into the gloomy subway tunnel.
She had known better than to think her good luck would continue. Finding a vacant seat on the bus had been a big break. Getting one on the subway had been too much to expect.
Now she stood clutching a strap on the crowded F train into Manhattan, her body swaying with the motion of the noisy car.
An airline ad above the door reminded her of the plane she’d just seen. A look of resignation crossed her face as she recalled thinking about flying away with Johnny after their wedding. With her being two years away from graduation and Johnny still stuck in his job at a supermarket, if they got married now, they'd leave for their honeymoon on the subway instead of by plane.
If Johnny could ever keep a decent job, Mom might not hate him so much, thought Debbie. The moment her parents, especially her mother, learned Debbie's new boyfriend was a Catholic, thinking about leaving school, and four years older, she went ballistic. “What do you see in that little schmuck?” was about the nicest thing she said.
Sarah Morris's opposition did nothing but harden Debbie's resolve to make a success of her new relationship. Whatever it took, she would never, ever, let her mother have the chance to say those four dreaded words, "I told you so."
Of course, Johnny didn’t make the situation any better by dropping out of school a few weeks after they met. They were in love by then and going steady. But his decision worried Debbie and it made her home life even tougher.
Later that summer, Johnny said he was joining the Navy to get training in computers and finish his high school diploma. After he left, Debbie kept playing "Blue Navy Blue" on the small record player in her room, writing him long letters, and crying over his absence.
At least she didn't have long to cry. With men in the Army and Marines being killed every day in Viet Nam, the Air Force and Navy could be choosey about who they took, and kept. The Navy soon realized Johnny DeAngelo was not a keeper. Two months after he joined, they declared him unfit for military duty and he came marching home.
Following his general discharge, Johnny went to work bagging groceries at a local supermarket. Later that year, he started night school, once again stating his intention to get his high school diploma and take some computer training. A few weeks later he gave up, claiming his instructors were all jerks. To Debbie's dismay, it was back to the supermarket.
When one of her uncle’s helped him land a job at the post office, Debbie felt sure it would be the turning point. However, the job was as a mail sorter. According to Johnny, sorters sat on a stool all day with one foot on a rung and the other flat on the floor. With disgust in his voice, he would complain about how supervisors kept walking behind the sorters chanting, "One foot up, one foot down, and sort."
Debbie tried to be supportive and encourage him to tough it out. But Johnny soon went out the post office door and back to the supermarket.
Despite his sporadic work record, Debbie knew she still loved Johnny. He was kind and sweet and she never doubted how much he loved her. She might have once had a crush on someone else, but Johnny was the only man she ever truly loved. It felt good going to parties and out on dates with a steady boyfriend. Sitting in class, she would sometimes think of him and feel a wave of warm almost cozy security. And why not? She was in love with a special someone who was in love with her.
Everything would be perfect, if only Johnny could keep a good job. Then they wouldn't have to wait for her to graduate before making real plans about getting married. And maybe, just maybe, her mother would finally accept him.
After four years of maternal hostility, Debbie knew her strong-willed mother was becoming resigned to the idea of her equally strong-willed daughter marrying Johnny DeAngelo. Just last month, she overheard her mother telling a relative, "That daughter of mine seems determined to spite me and dishonor this entire family by throwing herself away on that lazy, good-for-nothing, no-account putz."
So, Johnny's gone from a schmuck to a putz. It's not much of an achievement. Definitely no cause for celebration. Still, It marked progress of a sort, she supposed.
At the 59th Street station under Bloomingdale's, she changed to the Lexington Avenue I.R.T. and rode to the 26th Street stop. When the car doors opened, she allowed the surging crowd to sweep her out onto the platform.
After negotiating the long stairway to the surface, she checked her watch and decided to walk instead of waiting to catch a cross-town bus. She had plenty of time, the day couldn’t have been nicer, and she could use the bus fare to buy an onion bagel with a smear of cream cheese to make up for the breakfast she’d sacrificed to make her careful morning plans work.
Satisfied her plans had all gone as expected, she rearranged her suitcase and purse, then strode off toward 23rd Street and 1st Avenue and her job at the Manhattan veterans hospital and then into a future beyond anything she could have ever imagined, much less planned for.