12/51 to 9/52 #1: Encounter: Susan
December 8, 1951
Downtown Evanston was packed with Christmas shoppers.
Looking for vacant parking spaces, cars crawled along Chicago Avenue; finding none they turned east or west onto the smaller side streets.
The jingling of bells in the hands of Salvation Army Santa’s, though a part of the season, constantly reminded the throngs of shoppers that there was a much poorer life beyond the confines of this wealthy—Northwestern College—college town.
Snowflakes fell from a darkly-leaden sky, but as there was no wind they fell straight, and as the temperature was above freezing the snow stuck to nothing but did give a definite white-coated promise that added to the festive, seasonal atmosphere.
They had driven the five miles to go shopping in Evanston because it was close by and also because Myra wanted to get out of the house and into the crowds for a dose of Christmas season fervor, but they carried few packages because she found shopping in the department and specialty stores that lined both sides of the street, “Just a little too rich for my blood.”
“Know what I’d like?”
Standing in front of a Marshall Field window, Myra, Walter and Mitchell watched an animated display depicting Santa on his sleigh snapping a whip above the heads of his troop of reindeer led by the newly born Rudolph, thanks to Gene Autry’s recently popular recording of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Looking at her husband’s reflection in the window, “Let’s see if I can guess.” Myra said not unkindly. “You’d like a cup of coffee.”
Turning to her, “Jesus, Myra,” Walter said seriously, “sometimes you scare the living bejabbers out of me. That’s exactly what I want! How in the hell would you know that?”
Patting his cheek, “Walt, I know you better than you know yourself.”
Shuddering at the thought, “Yeah, maybe you do.”
He didn’t want coffee but, “Yeah, a hot fudge sundae sounds pretty good.” Pointing across the street, “Walgreens got a good fountain.” Knowing she liked malted milk, Mitchell looked at his mother. “And they make great malts.”
Shrugging his shoulders, “Coffee’s coffee.” Walter said.
“I haven’t had a malt in years. Okay, it’s okay with me.”
They waited for the traffic light to change, crossed Chicago Avenue and, once inside, went to the rear of the large drugstore, waited until three adjacent stools became available, then sat on the long side of the L-shaped counter with Walter between his wife and son.
A skinny, frizzy-haired waitress standing on the opposite side of the counter with a pencil poised over a small, green pad asked, “What can I get you folks?”
“Just coffee, black.”
“Vanilla malt, please.”
Removing his jacket, laying it across his lap, “I’ll have a hot fudge sundae with chocolate ice cream, please.”
Wearing his usual, Mitchell wore Levi’s and a sport short opened two buttons down that revealed his chest hair and mezuzah. His shirtsleeves, rolled twice, showed the watch he had received for his Bar Mitzvah on his left wrist and a large-linked, silver I.D. bracelet on his right. On his feet were the ever-present, dirty white-buck shoes.
Within minutes, “Here you go,” their orders came.
The couple sitting kitty-corner vacated their stools and two women sat down.
The movement caused Mitchell to move his rapt attention from the hot fudge sundae to the lady and girl… The long-handled spoon pausing mid-way to his mouth, a blob of fudge dropping onto the cherry- and nut-topped mound of whipped cream, the sundae before him instantly forgotten because then, at that precise moment, Mitchell Lipensky fell totally, completely, in love.
Having a clear complexion, her hair impeccably coiffured, wearing an expensive-looking white wool coat with a beige fur collar over a pink, knit dress, the lady was beautiful. But…
Oh, God! The girl!
The girl! Obviously the lady’s daughter, the girl immediately reminded Mitchell of the only movie star he’d ever had a crush on: Elizabeth Taylor. In Mitchell’s eyes, positively beautiful, the girl was sixteen, possibly seventeen, and as if knowing who she so strongly resembled, the girl’s hair was cut short and styled in ringlets, as was Elizabeth’s in her new movie, A Place in the Sun. Her eyebrows were thick and arched and, Damn, she even had a small mole on her left cheek. Okay, so Elizabeth Taylor’s mole is on her right cheek. But so what! From where he sat could see that she didn’t have Elizabeth’s violet eyes, but the girl’s were a beautiful, light brown. Her leather coat open, the white fur collar was pulled up, somewhat framing her face. Beneath the coat she wore a powder blue, cashmere sweater, and there was a fine gold chain with a small, diamond studded Star of David about her neck.
As he stared at her, the girl’s face turned in his direction and she looked at him.
Their eyes locking and holding, the boy and girl looked at each other for an eternity that lasted three seconds, then, hastily, each looked away.
Swallowing, nudging Walter, “Dad,” whispering, “see those two women across from us? She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. I’ve got to meet her!” Telling his father, subconsciously, to make him do it, to keep himself from backing out.
If he were alone, most probably he’d have finished his sundae and with a long backward glance left the store. But now, with his father at his side, Mitchell felt compelled, first, because he was absolutely desperate to meet the girl, and also, since he had said he would, to prove to his father and himself that he could.
Putting his cup down, Walter looked at the two women, then at his son, and remembering his own youth, centuries ago, so it seemed, “If I were you, I’d sure try,” he said, then added, “Good luck, kiddo.”
Not allowing himself time to think, standing, committed, he placed his jacket on the stool and, without the slightest idea of what he was going to say, walked around the counter.
“Mitchie, where are you going… Walt, where’s he going?”
Turning to his wife, motioning over his shoulder with his head, “Shhh… He wants to meet that girl.”
Looking at the two women on the other side of the counter, Myra felt a pang of jealousy for the older woman’s beauty and obvious wealth. “She’s beautiful,” she said, referring to the older woman.
“Don’t watch him; it’ll make him nervous.”
Looking at the woman another moment, listening to Walter, Myra turned away.
Oh, yeah, as though anything could make him more nervous, Mitchell stood between, and a pace behind, the two women. Wanting his mezuzah to be in plain sight, he’d spread his collar, giving the girl and himself that much, at least, that they had in common. His heart pounding, “Excuse me.” his voice, oddly though, was unwavering.
The women and the girl turned towards each other, and the voice behind them.
Quite often distance will help people appear to look prettier or handsomer, but upon coming closer the illusion frequently changes; blemishes and facial lines appear, eyes become shadowed and light-colored hair will sometimes show roots of black… But it was not that way with these two. The older woman did wear makeup, but as a complement, not as a cover-up. And the girl… Oh, God! From across the counter she’d appeared to be beautiful, but now, standing near her, looking at the girl from a scant three feet away…
Mitchell’s thumping heart jumping from his chest to his throat, moisture erupted on his forehead and his armpits. He looked from the girl to the woman and back at the girl…
As, waiting for Mitchell to say something, they looked back at him.
To him it seemed forever, but in fact it was no more than three or four seconds until, somehow, someway, the words and accompanying gestures materialized.
Knowing in order to meet the girl—at least in a place such as this and in a way such as this—he must first gain the good will of the mother, forcing his eyes from the girl’s—Oh, God, they’re beautiful—eyes and, looking directly into the same light brown eyes of the mother, praying it was his best, all-time, prize winning smile, “Excuse me Ma’am. My name’s Mitchell Lipensky and I’m here with my mother and father…” He’d been told, at least a million times, that it was not polite to point, so rather, as though presenting royalty, he extended his right arm, palm upward towards Myra and Walter.
Turning their heads in unison, the women looked across the counter.
On the other side of the counter, Walter and Myra were doing their best to appear nonchalant, but when they saw their son’s “presenting gesture,” not quite sure what to do, smiling, nodding their heads, turning to each other, they went back to their non-existent conversation.
“We live in Skokie and came here, uh, to Evanston to go shopping.” Doing his best to look and sound sincere, which he most positively was, “So please, Ma’am, I hope you don’t think that I go around doing this all the time because as a matter of fact I’ve never done anything like this before!” Stopping, he caught his breath. “But your daughter…” turning from the woman he looked at the girl, got lost in her beauty and for a moment his mind went blank and his mouth went slack, and, Ulp, swallowing audibly, he turned back to the woman, “Uh, your daughter…” Oh, my God! What if it’s not her daughter and I’m insulting her? “Uh, unless she’s, uh, your sister?” Trying to make amends, just in case.
“No,” the woman couldn’t help but smile at the boy’s now bumbling effort, “she is my daughter.”
A relieved, muttered, “Whew,” caused both the mother and daughter to smile.
“She’s… Your daughter is, uh…” Looking into the girl’s brown eyes, “You’re beautiful.”
Looking into the boy’s green eyes, So are you, Mitchell, the girl thought, so are you. Cocking her head, moistening her lips with the tip of her tongue, Who’s he remind me of? she wondered.
Pulling his eyes from the face of the girl, turning back to her mother, “I know this isn’t right, uh, the way I’m doing this, but there isn’t anyone here to introduce your daughter and me… uh, your daughter and I, uh, me…”
Smiling a sparkling white, perfect-toothed smile, “Either way,” the woman said. “Either Me or I seems to be the correct way to say it.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. Anyway, you’ve got to think that I’m some kind of a jerk, but I’m not, I’m really a nice guy who’s out with his mother and father, and would a bad guy ever be out shopping with his mother and father?” Speaking quickly, answering his own question, “No! Of course a bad guy wouldn’t be out shopping with his mother and father! So please…” catching his breath, looking from the woman to the girl, “please let me have your phone number.” To the mother, “You don’t even have to give me your address or tell me your last name. Just let me have the phone number so I can talk to her.” To the girl, “And then, if you decide that you don’t want to see me or talk to me again, I’ll throw it away and never bother you again.” Taking a deep breath, he studied the girl’s face, then turned to her mother. “I promise,” holding his right hand up, “that if your daughter doesn’t want me to call again after we talk on the phone, just once, then I’ll never bother her again!”
If she were alone there’d be no question; certainly she’d give him her phone number, but, “Mom,” she asked, “what do you think?”
Looking at Mitchell, He’s well dressed, she thought. Well, as well dressed as most of the kids nowadays, and his parents are well dressed, looking at Walter and Myra—who were now watching the unfolding drama with rapt attention—and the father’s good looking, could even be a doctor or a lawyer, and the boy is certainly handsome enough. Well… turning to her daughter, “Susan…”
“… if you want to…”
Oh, God! Her name’s Susan!
“Mitchell,” Susan said quickly, a bit louder than necessary.
Both Mitchell and her mother looked at her, and she blushed.
“Yes, ‘Mitchell.’ If you want to give Mitchell our phone number, it’s all right with me.”
I’m going to get it! He couldn’t believe it. I’m going to get, oh, God, Susan’s phone number.
Reaching into her purse, Susan rummaged a moment, found a pencil and a blue envelope, tore the flap off the envelope, swiveled to the counter, wrote on the flap, swiveled back and handed it to him.
Looking at it, Susan Friedman… She’s even given me her last name. Sh 3-5758. Mitchell recognized the Sheldrake exchange as a north side number. He’d been afraid that she might be a rich girl from Evanston, Wilmette, or someplace along the wealthy north shore, and now felt that she and he were on somewhat equal ground.
“Thank you, Susan.” Turning to Mrs. Friedman, “Thank you, Ma’am.” He folded the flap in half, put it into his shirt pocket, patted it once and, “When’s a good time to call you? Uh, later today or this evening?”
Looking at her mother, “We should be home five, five-thirty?”
Shrugging her shoulders, “Yes, about then.”
“Okay, Susan.” God, what a beautiful name! “I’ll call about then.” Looking at Mrs. Friedman, “You won’t be sorry.”
“I know, Mitchell. Go on, your sundae is melting.”
He looked at Susan, turned away, and as he walked back to his stool, his eyes rolling upward, Thank you, God. Thank you!
(A "Becoming" extract)