How I Broke Up With Larry
It was the leather jacket – scuffed brown leather that I knew would be soft to the touch and carry a musky scent. It was the kind of jacket a bohemian would wear, I thought, a poet. And sure enough, one day the jacket’s owner, a lanky guy with rumpled brown hair and an ironic grin who sat next to me in my economics class, his long, dungareed legs stretched into the aisle, passed me a folded sheet of paper. On it he had written a poem.
I don’t remember the words or even the theme, but I was impressed. I soon fell in love and we became a couple. It was 1953; we were juniors at Cornell. Although I was in the school of hotel management and Larry was studying engineering, we thought of ourselves as literary. We read the New Yorker religiously. We pored over E. B. White’s essays and his short pieces in “Notes and Comments,” and J. D. Salinger was our god. We’d just read his story “Teddy,” the one about a ten-year-old spiritual genius who predicts his own death in a fall into an empty swimming pool on a cruise ship. “Wow,” we said. “Amazing.”
One day early in our relationship I was skimming through a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and noticed some familiar words. It was the poem Larry had passed to me in economics class. I wasn’t as bothered by his deception as I probably should have been, and decided not to tell him about my discovery.
Larry and I remained a faithful couple during the whole spring semester, and the weekend after it ended he drove me to my home upstate, where he would meet my parents and two high-school-age sisters. He had filled the back seat of his car with random piles of dirty clothes; I can still picture a pair of grimy boxer shorts. The drive was long and Larry was tired when we got there. While I was unpacking my bags, he stretched out on the floor under the baby grand piano in the living room and fell asleep. The family tiptoed quietly around him. My parents were prepared to forgive him anything. Like us, he was Jewish, after all.
At the dinner table Larry was chatty and charming. He told a vivid story about how he’d taken a year off after high school and hitchhiked through Alaska, working in canneries and fish-processing plants. I was surprised he’d never mentioned this to me.
Later in the meal he told us that he’d taken some kind of test to determine his masculine and feminine traits. “It turned out that I’m thirty-percent feminine,” he said. My parents received this news with polite smiles. My sisters were wide-eyed and silent.
After a few days Larry drove back to his hometown of Mount Vernon, which also happened to be the birthplace of our idol, E. B. White. I had landed a summer job at the front desk of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and after a couple of weeks at home I flew to New York City to start work. I had dressed up for the flight, and was wearing new shoes, the best my hometown department store had to offer, brown-and-white spectator pumps with chunky Cuban heels.
Larry and a few of his friends were there to meet me as I stepped out of the plane and down the metal steps onto the tarmac. They drove me to the YWHA on 92nd Street, where I had reserved a small room for the summer. Later, when we were alone, Larry told me I had disappointed him.
“We were all watching everyone’s feet when they came out the door of the plane,” he said, “We were trying to guess which ones would be yours. But I didn’t think you’d be wearing those old-lady shoes. I was pretty embarrassed.”
I cringed inside and kept picturing how my feet must have looked, stepping jauntily down the steps in those clunky shoes that I’d thought were so fashionable. But living in the city offered me an education in urban fashion. It also gave me a chance to spend a weekend at Larry’s Mount Vernon home. When we arrived on a Saturday morning, his mother, a plump woman with a curly blond perm, emerged from the kitchen to greet me. She told me I could use Larry’s room during my stay while he slept on the couch.
I was in his room hanging up my clothes when I overheard his mother on the phone, telling a friend that her son’s girlfriend was visiting. “He’s crazy about her,” she said. “I don’t understand it.”
While Larry was in the bathroom taking a shower, I was sitting on his bed, looking through the books on his shelves. I picked out his high school yearbook, class of 1950. There was his picture among the rest of the class.
This time I confronted him. “I was looking at your yearbook,” I said. “You graduated in 1950. We’re both juniors in college. How could you have spent a year in Alaska?”
He launched into a rambling explanation, something about starting school a year earlier, a mistake in the yearbook, nothing that made much sense. I was beginning to understand that Larry had a skewed notion of the truth. But he was still cute and sexy so I convinced myself it was not an important problem.
Larry transferred to the City College of New York for his senior year – his father, who was separated from his mother – said he could no longer afford Cornell’s tuition. I went back to Ithaca and we kept in touch with phone calls and occasional visits. After graduation I moved to New York City to start a new job with an accounting firm.
I was sharing an apartment with two girls I’d met at the 92nd Street Y. We lived in a one-bedroom, fifth-floor walkup on East 26th Street; I had the pullout couch in the living room. My job was boring and tedious; I knew I should have majored in English.
Over the next few months I became increasingly sick of my work and annoyed with my roommates. I was also tired of Larry, who was now in his fifth year of engineering school and spent much of his spare time lying on my couch. I was beginning to meet new people, young men with jobs and ambition who also read books and the New Yorker and loved Salinger. I decided to break up with Larry.
It was a weekend afternoon. My roommates were both out. The buzzer sounded and I knew it was Larry. He gave me the usual hug and headed for the couch. I took a deep breath.
“I want to start dating other people,” I said. “I don’t want to see you anymore.”
He rolled over and turned to face me.
“You just want another E. B. White,” he said, “and you’re never going to find one.”