Jimmy's Girl
By Stephanie Gertler
Published by Signet (Mass Paperback edition) 
February 2002; 0-451-20516-2; 304 pages

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Jimmy's Girl by Stephanie GertlerChapter One

I am Emily Hudson. I live in an old stone house in Connecticut. My yard is fenced with broad white pickets, lined with pink azaleas and blue hydrangeas but, still, it's not the best yard in the neighborhood. The shrubs are old. The lilac tree looks weary. The garden is strewn with soccer balls and old pails and shovels. There is a basketball hoop at the bottom of the gravel driveway embedded in a square of cracked pavement. Two of my sons are shooting baskets, perspired, shirtless, red-faced. My third son sits at the kitchen table studying his biology book, a pencil stuck behind his ear, a can of root beer too near the book. My daughter, the youngest, is upstairs. She is on the phone. Even though I can't see her, I know she is tipping back in her chair, bare feet up on her desk. I can hear her laughing.

The kitchen is deep green and blue with wide-planked oak floors. I am chopping green peppers and tomatoes on the cutting board. The radio is playing low, a golden oldies station. The late-afternoon sun is sinking in the sky, hidden behind the pine trees outside the bay window. I can't see the sun setting but I know it is because of the way the shadows dance on the wall and the counters are spotted with gold drops.

I have become a quintessential suburban housewife, mired in school schedules, orthodontist appointments and bake sales. All this in between working at my painting. Lately I paint oils from a perch on the bluff at Tod's Point. I write words to go with my paintings. Short texts that tell a story, not believing that only pictures paint a thousand words. I drive the half hour's drive from New Canaan to Tod's in Old Greenwich every day. It was there at that beach where my parents rented a house each summer from the time I was an infant. It was there I disobeyed my parents for the first time when I walked with my friends to the pond.

"We told you never to go to the pond," my parents said. "The pond is thick and slimy and had you fallen in you could have drowned."

 

I felt so surefooted, though, even at the age of eight when I was small. Sneaking off to the pond. Climbing the rocks on the beach. The rocks were slippery with lichen but I never feared I'd fall. Digging furiously in the sand, convinced that I'd reach China. Determined. Until recently I was afraid to dig too deeply into anything, to venture anywhere remotely perilous. Though lately I navigate my way to places in my past where I probably shouldn't go. Looking back has come to give me solace. It is easier than looking ahead to a future where the crystal ball I once felt in my hands is now filled with blue fog and uncertainty. I am filled with a sense of reality. An awareness of middle life when something tells you that you have come to a fork in the road and you have to choose which path to take. I know all too well that looking back is a sure thing. The memories are trustworthy. They are faithful. Dependent only on the way I remember. And I am grateful that the past is etched with certainty since the future sometimes seems so hazy.

There was something else at Tod's as well. Something that until the last few months I tried not to think about as I looked across the horizon where it's hard to tell where the sky stops and the sea begins and they fuse into dubious infinity. I remember the summer of 1967. I think about the boy I loved who said he was a Cherokee. That might have been the only lie he ever told me. I was sixteen and he was seventeen. I had known him and loved him for merely four months but it seemed like forever. He stayed with us in the summerhouse for the week before he went away. My mother gave him the guest room next to hers. Ever-watchful. Ever wondering aloud why he was with us and not his own family.

Has he told you why he's here? she would ask me.

I've never asked him, I would say.

I thought it was so obvious. It seemed so right that he was with me. We stood on those rocks where I now sit with my easel and paint and I remember that boy who was tender and tough. That summer, when we stood on those rocks overlooking the horizon and I leaned my head on his shoulder while his arm held me so tightly, I was certain that he and I would be endless. But as the summer wore on after he left, I felt differently, not quite so sanguine. It was a sense that maybe the feeling I had for the boy who said he was a Cherokee would simply be one I would never have again, not with him or anyone else. It was a sobering epiphany I dismissed with denial that only adolescence can capitulate.

I go to Tod's now in winter while my children are in school and in summer, when they are at camp. I set up my easel, a wooden folding chair, the palette of oils and I paint the beach. I paint the lighthouse and the sand sculptures, the people picnicking on the dried-out redwood tables that have faded to a dusky gray.

In the summer, the air smells like hot dogs and cotton candy. The beach is filled with little girls in ruffled bathing suits, the kind I wore when I learned to swim. Mothers kneel at the shoreline beside naked babies carrying heavy pails of water. Older women sit together in groups, coated with oil. The straps of their bathing suits hang down their shoulders, tops drooping with the weight of their bosoms. I see the teenage girls in their bikinis, their bodies so smooth and firm, their even tans glistening the color of toast. They lie on sandy beach towels with their boyfriends whose stomachs ripple, a radio crackling beside them, their fingers entwined tightly as the sun beats down on them.

In winter, the picnickers are older people, wrapped in rough wool sweaters drinking steaming coffee from thermos bottles that serve as weights for the day's newspaper, eating sandwiches wrapped in foil. An old man tries to light his pipe in the wind.

But there's something that isn't quite the same now despite the sameness of the seasons and the same sweet smell of the cotton candy. The snack bar is old now. Its Formica counter is pitted and discolored. Signs for Fresca and Tab are worn and peeling. The town has taken away the old phone booth. The one with the seat and the black dial phone where you'd put in a dime, shut the door and the fan goes on inside. The one where you stepped in barefoot and felt the wet sand on the floor. There are three phones now, gleaming stainless steel, hanging on a wall with a sign that warns you of the fine for vandalism. It's just not the same. Sometimes I sit there on my folding chair and feel like a ghost lording over what used to be. Watching my memories the way I used to watch my children play at the shore."Come back," I'd wave as they ventured too deep into the water. "Come back. Don't go above your head."

I paint mostly from my memory of summers. But when I go back there in the winter I see the beach for what it is, empty and untainted. The winters let me start with a clean slate, a white canvas. Memories undisturbed by time. By progress. Memories can be what I want them to be. Though sometimes I question them, wondering if perhaps some of them aren't merely dreams.

It is spring now but just quite spring. The air no longer has that edge of winter. Somewhere within the cool breeze there is a pocket of warmth, a portent of what is to come but still, I need my cardigan over my shoulders. The beach still holds that November sparsity. It's hard to tell where winter left off. The water swirls thick like mercury. It is still the color of charcoal. The sky is still more opal than turquoise. But lately when I go there, I am courageous as I look back. I picture the boy and myself sitting there. I can see his face so clearly, his long, shiny black hair, his hands jammed in the pockets of his blue jeans. White T-shirt. The way he walked with his head down as though he was afraid to look up at the sky, afraid to see how vast it was. Everything must have seemed so vast to him back then and riddled with doubt. Eternity and mortality. But suddenly he'd lift his head and smile at me and his eyes would blink and, looking back, I wonder if he was blinking away tears, but again, I am not sure what is memory or fancy. We were the only certainty for each other back then. This I know. This I clearly recall. I grip the cardigan that has slipped down past my shoulders, I check my wristwatch and push the images away. I pack up my canvas and oils, rinse my brushes in the sea and head back home.

I throw everything into damp brown cartons that sit in the back of my old Volvo station wagon. The car is pale blue, old and rusted through in little patches, but it holds my children and my paints. It reminds me of the one my mother drove when I was a girl. It makes me feel attached. Connected. It is continuance. We drove the boy to the train station in my mother's Oldsmobile wagon, a relic of a car like mine. That was the day I realized there could be something other than happy endings. The day I was no longer certain.

I have been married for nearly twenty years now to someone else. Years where lately I believe there have been too many long and silent nights ending in angry dawns. There are mornings when I awaken and find the bed empty beside me. Scrawled notes ("Had to leave early, see you later") on the mashed pillow where my husband Peter's head has slept have become all too familiar. There were the nights when I watched my youngest baby cradled in an eyelet bassinet next to my toddlers who smelled of talc and baby shampoo. They were swaddled in furry pastel blanket sleepers in little beds with crib sides, foamy beads of milky spittle around their soft mouths. Shallow breaths, little sighs. And I watched them alone. Grateful for them, but alone.

There were too many nights when the white wine on the kitchen table grew tepid while I waited for Peter to come home. Nights after long days alone with babies who barely spoke. Days when I longed for a pipe to burst so the plumber would come over for conversation. I chatted while he banged away, metal on metal, pinging and clanging, allowing me to hear my own voice, the man answering with an occasional, distracted "Uh-huh." He was a man with broad shoulders who made some repairs.

There was the man who polyurethaned the kitchen floor. He held a bag of ice on my hand after I burned it on a short-circuited sconce. I had turned on the switch and the light exploded like firecrackers, the baby in my arms shaken by the eruption. The man shook his key chain to calm the baby who sat on my lap and cried. Call the electrician, the man said. I'll stay until he gets here. A knight in shining armor with an ice pack.

I tease Peter sometimes. He says the teasing is really accusation. You missed the day we moved, I say. The day the light exploded. The day Jack took his first step. And except perhaps for Jack's first step, Peter doesn't feel he's missed too much. He doesn't see the importance of the mundane as I do. But with Jack's steps, he ached. "I was working, Emily," he said. "I know. I know. You think it wasn't worth it."

There were so many days when I looked in the mirror, longing for a reflection to gaze back at me for a brief moment and tell me I was worth seeing. Worth looking at. So many times I wished the reflection in the mirror spoke to me. I often longed to talk to someone other than my children. I could see my shoulders, sculpted still, no longer from youth or dance classes but rather from carrying babies on my hip, baskets overflowing with laundry, pails of trash. Lifting babies into playpens, catching them as they hurled down the slide in the park, pushing their swings, first one, then the other.

Every night, I stood at the picture window, a glass of wine in my hand, looking out at the dead-end street where the streetlamp flickered every few minutes to remind me that it wasn't the moon. Sometimes I cried. Not flowing tears, but hot tears that stayed trapped and burning. I stood and waited while the babies slept, their narrow chests rising and falling. I stood by the window, cracked open, blowing blue cigarette smoke into the cool night air, waiting for Peter to come home. I would listen for the crackle of the gravel in the driveway and I would light the candles on the kitchen table and hope for conversation. I would hear his key open the door. The house was so quiet. Babies sleeping. The warm wine waiting.

We would sit at the kitchen table and I would ask him about his day: What happened at the office? Where did you have lunch? Any interesting new cases? And he would be too tired to speak: Nothing happened. I had lunch at my desk. You know I shouldn't discuss my cases. So I would fill in the blanks: A new word uttered by a child learning to speak. We need more sand for the sandbox. Perhaps we should replace the gutters this year. Repoint the bricks in the fireplace. And after dinner, Peter would read the paper in the den. I would listen to the sheets of paper turning and shaking as I cleaned up the dishes. I would turn on the dishwasher and flick off the lights and then I would hear Peter fold the paper and drop it on the floor beside the arm chair. I would leave the kitchen, peek my head into the den. He would step into the hall. We would crack open the doors to the rooms where the children slept and stand for a moment, listening to the silence. We would leave the doors ajar. Good night. Good night. Another day was done.

People say to me, "You are so lucky. Your husband is charming and handsome." Yes, yes, yes. Successful and intelligent, well-respected, sought-after. But I often feel that my husband does not belong to me, nor I to him.Then there are the times when I am not sure I want to belong to him or to anyone.

My husband joked and said, "I do not beat you, drink up my paycheck or run around with other women. What is it that you want?"

And I wanted to say, "Talk to me. Listen to me. Answer me. It's not a joke." But I would have felt foolish. Sounded like wives on the soap operas. I thought of the early days before we were married. When Peter and I would sit across from each other in a pub and I saw paradise every time I looked into his eyes.

So I tried to explain how I wanted to sit over a glass of wine and dream the way we used to before we had children. Before we were married. Remember how we used to picture who our babies would look like and we argued?

"I hope they look like you," he'd say.

"No, they should look like you," I'd say.

I longed for the times when we were sights for each other's sore eyes and sometimes questioned if those times were ever really there. Instead I asked him why he read the newspaper after dinner and he asked why I couldn't leave the dishes until morning. And then I'd ask him why it is that he looks the other way when I speak to him and he'd say that I am too demanding.

"But sometimes, lots of times, you barely even answer me," I'd say, feeling as though I were reading a laundry list, telling myself to stop as the litany of what he takes as criticism tumbled out.

Sometimes he'd protest, "I do answer but you don't hear me" or "I guess I don't say what you want to hear" or "Can't you simply understand that I am tired?"

People say that I should seek salvation in other places. That this is the way life is.

"Women friends are good enough companions," my sisters and my mother say to me. "Volunteer work, your painting, your children. These are the things that should fulfill you. Make your own life." I think they are so simplistic, my mother and my sisters. They have what they always wanted: the house, the kids, the husband. It is the way it was when we were little and my sisters and I played house: Even then the husbands weren't home. Daddy is working late, we said to the doll in the pink plastic high chair, spooning make-believe peas into her mouth. The Daddies were off working. We were diapering dolls and having tea parties and pushing prams. My sisters can be happy with all that still. I cannot.

My sisters say I am unrealistic. Your expectations are too high, they say. They tell me nothing is perfect. I know all this, but it doesn't matter. They tell me I am insatiable and I wonder if they're right. Maybe I just like the chase. Maybe if I caught the brass ring I would only try to catch it again. Maybe nothing would ever be enough. My sisters say that no one has everything. My sisters are twins. Cookie cutter wives who preach to me. My mother sits behind them like a silent echo nodding her head up and down as though to say, "Listen to Sara and Catherine. No one has everything. You are impractical. Unrealistic." It's not that I want everything. It's simply that I want enough.

Maybe this is why I started thinking again of the boy I loved in that summer of 1967. Not that I ever really stopped thinking about him but, until recently, I managed to push him out of my mind. He is the one I think about still when I paint on the beach. The one I had longed for and yet, until recently, could not paint.

My best friend, Jennie, stayed with us that summer of 1967. Jennie's parents had divorced two summers before. Her mother took off for the Himalayas. Jennie got a postcard and read Lost Horizon. So Jennie came with me. Jennie's father didn't quite know what to do with Jennie, still reeling at the notion that he was wifeless and left with a teenage daughter. We were right there in Connecticut. The house was across the street from the beach at Tod's Point. I pass the house each day when I drive to the beach but it doesn't look the same. For one thing, it is painted gray now and the shutters have been removed. My parents rented that house in Old Greenwich, so close to the water you could listen and count the waves hitting the shore in the middle of the night. So different from our apartment in Manhattan where the night was pierced only by sirens and concrete skyscrapers muffled the wind. The Old Greenwich house was pale yellow with blue shutters, peeling and weathered by sea spray. It had a front porch with columns so wide my younger brother, Robbie, could play hide and seek with Jennie and me and hide behind the columns. Robbie was the baby born when I (the youngest then of three) was ten. I was old enough to know how he happened, sickened and baffled at the thought.

The house had a cobblestone driveway, long and narrow. Jennie and I pulled Robbie in his Radio Flyer, back and forth, bumping over the stones, until the lightning bugs came out at night. Robbie captured the bugs in jelly jars, holes humanely punched into their metal lids. Jennie and I ran through the yard behind Robbie, slapping at mosquitoes that stuck to our arms and legs.

Jennie and I wrote short stories and poems and read Rod McKuen aloud to one another that summer. Jennie and I wore purple granny glasses and love beads. We baked in the sun, walked barefoot in the rain and burst into a wild dance on the beach when "Light My Fire" made number one on the hit parade. The days were so hot and humid that summer it was as though the air stood still and dared you to take a breath. We sprayed lemon juice in our hair and ironed it until it was stick-straight. We fanned ourselves with paperbacks and Seventeen Magazine. Jennie had a crush on Jean-Claude Killy.

The room I shared with Jennie had two pink canopy beds with a sunporch off to the side. The sunporch was wrapped in glass around the treetops, upholstered chintz cushions on carved-out window seats. The rain pounded down at night relieving us for a little while from the heat of the day and you could smell the salt and the strong stench of clams washed up on the shore. Jennie and I would open the jalousies on the porch and feel the breeze on our bare arms. Curled up on the seat cushions in lacy baby-doll pajamas, we listened to the breakers slapping the sea wall. The treetops glowed like silver and shook in the lightning only to be black a moment later. Wind swayed the branches against the house. Dramatic backdrop for the poetry and the strumming of my guitar.

I wrote in my diary and Jennie wrote in hers. And every night, I wrote the boy a letter telling him how much I missed him, how much I loved him, how I waited for him to come home. While my sisters went to movies and parked their Mustangs at the lover's lane on Tod's Point, Jennie and I sat at home pulling Robbie in the Radio Flyer. Watching him chase fireflies. She was the dutiful friend; I was the dutiful girlfriend.

That was the summer Jennie and I made origami fortunes and stuck our slender fingers in their enveloped sides and turned and counted numbers until the fortune answered our deepest questions. That was the summer I wrote Jim's name in all different variations with mine beneath it. James, Jim, Jimmy, James Robert Moran. I'd cross out the corresponding letters, counting "Love, Marriage, Friendship, Hate" and going on and on until I got the right combination. I'd write my first name with his last name over and over to see how it would look: Emily Moran. Emily Hudson Moran. I never dreamed that one day I would shun any man's last name as my own.

"Mrs. Walters?" the voices ask now when I answer the phone.

 "No, I am not Mrs. Walters. I am Emily Hudson," I say. "I am Mr. Walters' wife."

 Jimmy Moran was seventeen when he joined the Marines. His parents signed his enlistment papers because he was failing in school. The other boys who failed at his private school went to boarding schools in New England. Their fathers bought their way in. Legacies of the affluent. But Jimmy's father opted for the military. Not just some academy but the real thing.

 That summer, Jimmy wrote me a letter every day from boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. Jennie and I would run down the stone walk to the mailbox every morning. My hands would shake as I searched the mail for the pale blue envelopes with the military insignia and then I would sit on the ground, my knees bent, buttocks resting on my ankles. Jennie sat silently next to me as I read the scrawled notes. Jennie made sure not to look over my shoulder. She busied herself by picking up clovers, muttering how there never were any with four leaves. Then I would read the letters to her, sometimes leaving out a line here or there. Like the part in one letter where he said he missed kissing the curve of my neck. I wasn't sure what Jennie would say. I was afraid she'd roll her eyes, say something giddy or maybe squeal so loud it would make it all seem too much, too silly. And it wasn't silly. It was all too private to share even with Jennie.

Jennie would look into my eyes when I finished reading the letters. It became a ritual.

"Jimmy loves you, Emily," Jennie always said.

"Are you sure?" I would ask.

"I am positive," she would say nodding her head in one short affirmation, bringing her chin down but not back up, and then she would clasp my hand in hers.

And then Jennie and I would walk slowly up the stone walk to the house, Jennie still looking down for four-leaf clovers and me with my hand over the letter in my pocket. We'd go inside the house and sit at the kitchen table, flip on the television, drink juice from glasses with painted-on oranges, scrape butter on English muffins that by then were cold, and scoop out cottage cheese since we were "dieting."

In between the game shows, we took off our jeans and peasant blouses, revealing bathing suits underneath. We spread Johnson's baby oil on our bodies. The bulletins came over the old black-and-white television with the reporters standing at the battle lines. News reports glowed with gunfire that summer. Bombs burst in midair and cameras panned to sad-eyed children with dirt-streaked faces. Maybe the dirt was blood. It was hard to tell in black and white. Helicopters whirled around the reporters as they crouched in front of a jungle. My breath would catch in my throat. I could feel myself swallowing hard and my eyes would dampen and sting. Salt mixing with mascara.

"I'm turning it off, Emily," Jennie would say angrily. Then she'd slam the button on the television and pull me by the hand and we'd run down to the beach, towels bunched under our arms. Jennie carried the radio. I carried the paperbacks, pens, crosswords, a deck of cards.

Jimmy left on July 5, 1967. My mother and I drove him to the train station. My mother had a strange look in her eyes when she said good-bye to him. Godspeed, she said. An expression I had never heard her say before and haven't heard her say since. And then she even kissed him on the cheek and I think she looked at him for a moment as if she wanted to remember him. As if she was memorizing his face.

Jimmy walked me behind the ticket booth, away from the Oldsmobile and my mother's sight. He placed his arms around my waist and his lips to my lips. He whispered in my ear that he loved me. He ran the back of his hand down my cheek as he always did. The train came too quickly down the track. We saw the shiny dot in the distance becoming closer, brighter, glaring. My ears were still moist from his whisper when the train roared in. And Jimmy was gone.

I had my ears pierced later that day because I made a bet with myself that no one knew about: If I pierced my ears, Jimmy would come back, although deep-down inside I already knew he probably couldn't come back to me. Jennie knew that, too. I wrote in my diary that day after Jimmy left. Words that could only belong to a sixteen-year-old: "Loving him and knowing it will end wears away at my innocence. He leaves an indelible stamp on my soul." I never showed that part to anyone. Not even to Jennie.

My sons throw the screen door open with a pop and it bangs on the metal frame. My oldest, Jack, puts a sweaty arm around my shoulder and steals a pepper from the cutting board. The middle boy, Sam, is fifteen. He swills Gatorade from the bottle. My fourteen-year-old son, Charlie, closes his biology book and stretches. Julie, who is twelve, comes downstairs and I can tell it is two steps at a time. Her feet are bare. Her hair is gathered on top of her head in a bright blue elastic.

I set the table for dinner. For six, even though we all know one place will not be used.

"Mom, hey! Look at you! Where are you now? Your eyes are very far away," Jack says to me.

I notice that he is wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt. It hits me that Jack is seventeen.

I smile at him but I am barely here. I am on the beach with Jimmy Moran. I am waiting for someone to come home.

Copyright 2001 Stephanie Gertler
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)

Synopsis

Ever wonder what became of your first love? Emily did.

Emily Hudson should be happy. She has achieved modest success as a painter and lives a good suburban life with her husband and four children. But one day, somewhere between the train schedules, orthodontist appointments, and bake sales, Emily stopped and remembered who she was when she was sixteen and how she felt when she found love with James Moran -- the young man she kissed beneath her parents' Ping-Pong table -- the boy who made her Jimmy's girl.

It's been thirty years since they both went their separate ways. But Emily can't stop herself from thinking about Jimmy ... nor can she resist using the Internet to find his address and telephone number . . . and placing the phone call that will change both their lives forever.

When Emily and Jimmy decide to meet again, they risk the lives they've made for themselves and the happiness of their respective families. In one unforgettable weekend, they will learn what went wrong between them and find out together if first love deserves a second chance.

Told from the perspectives of both Jimmy and Emily, each in turn revealing their lies and their truths, this remarkable novel shows with tenderness and heart-rending accuracy the differences between what men and women say and what men and women hear. The debut of a writer of extraordinary talent, Jimmy's Girl is a novel for anyone who ever left love behind and dared to wonder "what if?"


Reviews

"Most people think of teenage romance as fleeting, but Stephanie Gertler's Jimmy's Girl is a perfect reminder of how strong first love can be . . . Definitely a page-turner."
--Redbook

"Engaging . . . Wry wit and hardheaded sensibility make this debut a keeper."
--Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Stephanie Gertler's Jimmy's Girl is a sharp-eyed, impeccably detailed novel about a harried mother/wife/artist who trades reality for a little romance when she impulsively contacts her first love."
--Marie Claire

"Gertler's first novel is a sweet response to one of life's constant what-if questions."
--Booklist (starred review)

"Gertler has created wonderfully tangible and sympathetic characters. This story, dynamically and articulately told, will appeal to everyone who has had and lost a first love."
--Library Journal

"First-novelist Gertler offers a tender evocation of lost love, and what it means to find it again."
--Kirkus Reviews

"An assured debut . . . Gertler weaves a winsome morality tale."
--Publishers Weekly

"Insightful and heart-wrenching...this novel is a carefully crafted piece of art . . . A superb piece of writing that hits the emotional bulls-eye dead center."
--The Baton Rouge Advocate

(back to top)

Author

Stephanie Gertler (photo by Judy Lawne)Stephanie Gertler is a freelance journalist who has been writing all her life. She lives with her husband and their children in New York.

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