Have you ever wondered whether there are people who experience love at a higher plane than the rest of us? One lofty enough that it must have a thinking basis, as well as an emotional one? If so, what kind of drama would their love story make? Wouldn’t they have unique challenges to overcome in scaling the zenith they seek, and in keeping it vibrant through time? Coinage of Commitment is the love story that establishes a new sub-genre in telling such an account.
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Wayne and Nancy have separate adolescent experiences that both inspire and confuse the romantic ambitions they feel drawn to. During the turbulent nineteen-sixties, they meet while he is attending blue-collar Drexel, and she is at neighboring, Ivy League Penn. Though irresistibly drawn to each other, they must overcome obstacles posed by the class, financial, and religious differences that separate them, as well as opposition from both families, and later, a twist of fate that will be the cruelest test of all. Can they reach the goal they seek? Can they overcome time’s downward pulling inertia? Soaring and poignant, Coinage of Commitment is dedicated to all those readers who ever wondered, perhaps with whimsy, perhaps with hope, just what is the level that love might possibly reach.
Sullivan’s pulsed electric with a release only Friday night can bring. The merriment had an undulating quality, a rippling volume that drowned out the jukebox. Nestled against Drexel’s urban campus, the place also drew Penn students, who could walk over from their Ivy League enclave. The campuses didn’t quite adjoin, not in the late nineteen-sixties. The four of them—male, undergraduate sophomores—sat in a line at the bar, whooping it up with the rest, glad to be settled in the rhythm of another fall semester. This was the happy time, before the tests came in earnest.
The lounge’s bar was L-shaped and they occupied its short leg, located farthest from the entrance. From there they could track the unattached coeds, particularly abundant that night, and the socializing was so lively that her arrival attracted only incidental glances. But when Wayne noticed the girl’s entrance, he swiveled his gaze from his bantering companions to get a better view. She carried a light jacket, doubtless to shield her sleeveless arms from the late evening chill, and she wore a short, plaid skirt. Tall, at about five-nine, she had long blond hair that flared thick and full around her cheeks because of how she clasped it at the nape of her neck. Her stride and bearing were poised and confident, unhurried, and her half smile told how relaxed she was with the lounge’s festive mood.
It got better, for she slid onto a stool on the bar’s long section, not thirty feet away. Better still, he sat in a dark portion of the room, allowing him to study her without risking offense. She had a lovely figure, medium build, and her limbs had muscular definition suggesting athletic vigor or training. Yes, he could see it in her hands, their somewhat wider build, and the swell of veins over the tendons. But her attractive figure paled compared to the beauty of her face and hair. His gaze stayed on her face, intent, and he wondered at the effect this girl was having on him. The voltage she generated within him was strangely high, make that sky-high, he thought, savoring the puzzle. Finally it came to him. Though barely discernable, a wisp of sadness tinged her beauty. Yes, he could see it now in her soft eyes, the tension in the corner of her mouth as she extended a thin-lipped smile to the inquiring bartender. It was the way her beauty was shaped by something vulnerable that caressed his heartstrings. In a unique mannerism, she periodically gave a small, rightward swirl of her head, apparently to keep her long tresses in place.
Henk leaned over to him, breaking the spell. “Do you recognize her?” His Dutch accent had changed little since their time in high school.
“Should I?” Wayne asked, looking at her again. “She doesn’t look familiar.”
“Think back to last spring. Remember the drama club production, the medley of scenes and musical numbers? We attended because I got free tickets.”
“Of course!” he exclaimed. “She was in the production. Why, she was practically star of the show. She even sang. I didn’t recognize her because she wore her hair all done up on stage.” He paused. “So she’s one of your Penn classmates.”
“Ja, that’s right. I…think she’s a junior. I’ve seen her at parties, and we have been introduced. I should remember her name but it won’t come to me.” He paused, and they both looked back at her. Henk’s news changed everything in terms of how Wayne saw her. On stage she had been so different from the girl he saw here. Magnetically convincing, and truly vivacious, she had projected the persona of her roles to riveting effect. And so versatile, playing a Lady Macbeth parody in one short scene, and then a musical number from Hello Dolly in the next. He could remember noting this girl as something special, a cut above the other players, a major talent, probably coasting through Penn on her way to Broadway or Hollywood. The thought made her even more unapproachable in his mind. Not that it could possibly matter worth a hill of beans, he thought, chuckling to himself.
“You seem quite taken with her,” Henk said softly.
Wayne smiled openly, not minding such scrutiny from Henk. They were like brothers. “Well,” he said, turning up his palms, “she is beautiful. Off the scale.”
“Off the scale?” Henk said, glancing again in her direction. “C’mon Wayne, no need to go off the deep end, here. We’ve looked at plenty of girls together and this one does not make it all the way to beautiful.”
“Talk about hard to please,” Wayne said, still smiling. “What makes you say that?”
“Oh, she’s nice looking-—if you like ’em serious. But her mouth is too tense and set for her face to be beautiful. And she has this muscularity about her. She looks physically strong, like an Amazon, almost. I don’t know. I think I better shut up here before I get any deeper.”
“Incredible!” Wayne exclaimed, giving him a mock punch. “Well, you just go ahead and cheat yourself, amigo.”
“Since you’re so interested,” he said, sliding off the stool, “I’ll go and see if I can fetch her for you.”
“No,” Wayne answered, smiling but grabbing him firmly by the shoulders.
“Sure?” Henk’s grin was a playful dare.
“It…doesn’t feel right. I think she’s waiting for someone.”
Their commotion attracted their other two companions, both Drexel classmates of Wayne’s and house-mates as well. Tom Delmoore leaned toward Wayne. “Hey, Cavanaugh,” he said, “Don’t you think you ought to give your eyes a rest?” And he looked toward the girl.
“What’s a little eyestrain when it comes to scenic wonders?” Wayne answered, but abashed that his ogling had been obvious to Tom.
“Yeah,” Tom answered, “I see what you mean. But she’s way out of your league, good buddy, by a long shot. And the Penn snoot-factor on this one looks to be through the roof.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” Wayne responded, laughing, and he felt the gravity of his emotions lighten, tilting him back to his normal balance point. After all, what had come over him?
Now Ivan leaned forward to add his two cents.
“Cavanaugh, get a freakin’ hold of yourself, will ya? That poor girl’s going to be sunburned beneath her clothes from that x-ray stare of yours.” His tone had just the wry inflection for triggering a floodgate of laughter from them all, reasserting the Friday night spirit of things. Wayne stayed immersed in the bantering, losing himself. Tom and Ivan were trading ethnic jokes: Italian versus Polish. Ivan was of Russian descent but Tom considered anyone of Slavic origin to be Polish, so they went at it.
Wayne eventually eased out of the conversation when two more Drexel undergrads joined them. He hadn’t sipped his beer, he rarely did, but he felt mellow anyhow, especially with his situation. His summer co-op job at the Allied plant had been lucrative and good experience for an engineering major. So far he liked his new living arrangement. Instead of commuting from his grandfather’s house in Darby, as he had as a freshman, he now had the financial means to stay at Omega House, one of the university-sanctioned apartment houses. Although located off-campus, it was within reasonable walking distance. And Tom was an okay roommate. Best of all, Wayne already felt inured to the grinding study routine necessary for all those A’s he needed to launch a good career.
It occurred to him that he hadn’t thought much about dating, hadn’t even attended one of the mixers. The soccer season occupied much of Henk’s time, but Wayne would suggest they attend the Penn mixer the following weekend. They needed to get the semester cranked up and off the runway socially.
Now a man who looked as though he would stay joined the blond girl at the bar. Several guys and couples had stopped by her stool but then moved on, seemingly at her skilled deflection. Normally awkward about judging other men’s looks, Wayne thought this guy handsome enough to be outstanding by anyone’s appraisal. His hair was fashionably Beatle length, dark brown, and coifed to photogenic perfection. He wore a black shirt and trousers whose severity was neutralized by a small ivory belt buckle and a blue-gray cardigan. She gave him a subdued greeting: a smile but no kiss or caress, then they moved off to a table.
“What are your plans?” Henk asked. Their companions had left for a party.
“I’ve got my bag with me. I’ll take the Woodland Avenue trolley to Darby to see my grandfather for the weekend.”
“I know you like to keep tabs on him. But that means we’ll miss another mixer.”
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. How about if we make up for it next weekend?”
“That works for me. I’ve got an away game next Saturday, but it’s only at Princeton.”
“I’ll call you Sunday when I get back. And let’s do dinner one night next week.”
They talked awhile, then Henk left, needing a full night’s sleep for the varsity soccer game he had in the morning. Wayne glanced to the left, toward the girl and her companion. She sat quietly, listening, while her companion spoke and motioned with some animation. It looked like a pretty hard sell. Oh well, he thought, better get going. He stood and picked up his canvas bag.
Just then a movement at the girl’s table drew his attention. The guy had grabbed her long hair at the neck, twisting her head back and slightly to the side. His other hand was palm up, fingers spread, pleading his case. Wayne turned from the bar and headed in their direction. Her response surprised him. She remained still, her unblinking eyes radiating fearless calm. As Wayne approached, the man released his grip, lowering and shaking his head apologetically. The girl silently smoothed her tresses with one raised hand, never taking her stoic gaze from him.
Wayne arrived at the edge of the table. Surprised, they both looked up at him.
“Is everything all right?” he asked her, his voice calmer than he felt.
Her green eyes bored into his, transfixing him with the crystalline depth of her gaze. The moment slowed, dilated and stopped. Strains of The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin” carried from the jukebox.
“I’m fine,” she said, her soft voice barely audible. “But thank you,” she added, with just a hint of a smile, her gaze lingering one more instant. Then she looked away, reached out her hand, and took that of her companion, as though to calm him.
Gently done but certainly dismissal enough, Wayne thought, as he moved off toward the exit.
Once out on Market Street, he looked east toward the railroad trestle that ran above the subway station steps at Thirty-First Street. He knew he should get on with catching the trolley but felt a nervous energy from the encounter—almost a tingling, so he decided to walk awhile. Turning west, he went down to Thirty-Second, crossed, and headed southwest onto the block that comprised the new Drexel campus. He wandered along the brick walkway toward Chestnut Street and enjoyed the sight. Stratton Hall, Matheson Hall, and the Basic Science Annex: by day ugly renditions of the International Style, when lit like tonight, became majestic, almost lovely. He slowed and let thoughts of the encounter dabble in his mind. He would not soon forget the girl’s incipient smile as her eyes searched his: the closeness of her beauty, her calm amidst the tension, and a certain…feminine mystique. The evening chill intruded and he withdrew a light jacket from his bag, donned it, and headed back toward Market and the subway station.
The Thirtieth Street subway station had two transit systems side by side: the subway train, called the El, and a trolley system. An overhead wire powered the trolley cars. The El had a third rail, off to the side, and it provided high voltage from lateral contact with a slider that hung down from the bottom right side of the train. From the trolley platform, he looked across two sets of tracks to the El platform. As he watched absently, the girl from Sullivan’s came down the El station steps directly opposite him. She paused at the foot of the stairs, getting her bearings. Although adequate lighting bathed the platform, most riders took stock of others in the vicinity for safety’s sake. It was a natural precaution, instinctive for most, and especially important this late at night. She saw him, acknowledged recognition by a slight widening of her lips that was not quite a smile. Then she lowered her gaze, turned, and strolled slowly out of sight to the other side of the stairway.
Seeing her again like this pricked him with an off-kilter joy, whimsical and refreshing, partly because she had recognized him, but also because she seemed so buoyantly out of place down here, her bright beauty undefeated by the dank-smelling gloom of the subway. He smiled, turned away and sauntered to the south side of the trolley platform. The minutes dragged but no trolley car arrived. He began mentally composing a theme paper for his International Politics course, the only non-technical one he had that semester. The ideas came to him, prancing, and he thought about getting a notebook from his bag.
“Police! Help! Help me!” A woman’s screaming and it came from the El Platform.
Thinking frantically of the girl, he ran to the north edge of the platform and jumped the two feet that got him down onto the trolley tracks. A steel grate fence separated the two transit systems, but it had seen better days. A section was ajar, just ten feet to his left, and it swung open enough at his push that he easily passed through it.
Now things got difficult. The El platform was too high and far to jump to directly. The train tracks gleamed below him, the electrified rail closest, then the two steel tracks. He saw only one way to get there and he didn’t slow down to analyze the risk. He threw his bag onto the opposite platform, then leaped forward, over the electrified rail, and down into the square trench that ran a few feet below and between the steel tracks. The platform loomed a few feet above him and the smell of ozone was stronger this close to the electrified rail—the one he must not fall back against. With his momentum still carrying forward from the jump, he kept moving, aware that his footing and balance must be perfect as he stepped up on the rail before him and sprang upward, grasping the edge of the El platform and levering himself onto it, landing on his right shoulder and side. Feeling no pain, he bounded to his feet and sprinted west down the platform toward the woman’s screams.
As he ran, he recalled what he had seen: the girl from Sullivan’s, a nondescript man, and three black youths: teens with their heads wrapped in dark bandannas, signifying he knew not what. They were what fueled his urgency. Where was she? The commotion was still ahead of him.
He ran at top speed past the central vending area and spotted figures near the far steps. He could see her blond mane, somewhat disheveled now, and she stood with her arm across a smaller girl’s shoulder. The nondescript man ran up and joined them.
“He took my purse,” the other girl wailed. “I can’t believe I was so careless that I let him get my purse that easily.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the blond girl said, her arm still across the small girl’s shoulder in comfort.
“All my ID. A credit card. And I just got my paycheck cashed today. How stupid can you get?”
Another woman came down the steps and joined the group. As Wayne approached and slowed, a balding, thirtyish-looking man passed him from behind, joined the scene, said he had heard the commotion from above, and that a companion had gone to the surface, presumably to locate help. Then two of the black youths he had seen earlier ran up from the west.
“He high-tailed it onto the tracks,” said the shorter of the youths. He looked to be in his late teens. “He’s got his choice of Thirty-Third Street trolley or Thirty-Fourth Street El station, so you can kiss that one good-bye. Fuzz’ll never collar him now, I’m afraid.”
As though on cue, a police officer, complete with German Shepherd, came down the steps and assumed authority. The third black youth also joined the crowd. Wayne held back, not seeing what he could contribute by his late arrival. The blond girl had seen his running approach. Her gaze had flicked briefly to his chest, but not to his eyes. The tension eased with collective relief and the officer started questioning the stricken girl, unpacking a metal cased notebook as he spoke.
Wayne thought of how the blond girl had been too distracted to notice him, and he felt bemused by the irony of his situation. He had arrived about 7.2 seconds too late to be of any use, even to the wrong damsel in distress. His breathing slowed. Still not seeing anything he could contribute, he turned and walked slowly in the direction he had come. He needed to retrieve his bag from where he had tossed it onto the platform. When he got there, he picked up the bag and looked out over the multiple tracks toward the trolley station. No way, he thought, realizing with a shiver the danger he had risked. The price of another transit token wasn’t nearly worth the peril. And then, as though to underscore the irony, his trolley arrived and then quickly departed. Oh well, he thought, might as well get up the stairs to the mid-level pay booths so he could get back down to the trolley station. He took his sweet time since he probably had at least a twenty-minute wait. He approached the corner of the stairway, trying to remember whether the trolleys discontinued service during the wee hours, when suddenly the blond girl stood in front of him, her eyes wide and anxious.
“It just dawned on me,” she said. “How did you get over here?”
“I…took a shortcut,” he said, mesmerized by the intensity of her gaze.
She looked down at the tracks, then over to the trolley station where she had seen him before.
“How did you get across those tracks without being electrocuted?”
“I—” and he threw caution to the wind, grimaced a Jimmy Cagney pantomime and, forming his hands into a mock Tommy-gun, drawled, “I could tell ya, but then I’d have ta kill ya.”
She gave a clipped laugh, almost like a disbelieving hiccup, obviously taken aback. She brought the back of her left hand to her open mouth, staring intently into his eyes. Then she laughed again, this time full-throated and relaxed, regaining her composure as a smile bloomed across her face.
“Well, that sure wins the comedy award for the evening,” she said breezily. “But honestly, now. You’re just being discreet about coming across those electrified tracks.”
She laughed again and the way she tossed her head stung him like jagged slate, shredding him with the fear that her laugh was directed at him and his lame attempt at humor. He wilted, lapsing way beyond the end of himself, first merely speechless, then blushing deeply, as he stared into her eyes, feeling helpless, like a beached whale.
“Oh, look what you’ve done,” she said, her gaze and her hand going to his right shoulder. His gaze followed hers to a rent in the jacket seam that ridged its shoulder. It must have opened up when he landed on the platform. He looked back into her face but said nothing.
“Are you hurt?”
“No.” It came out grainy and breathless as his insides continued to droop under her gaze.
“That’s twice tonight you’ve tried to rescue me. And we haven’t even been introduced. My name is Nancy,” she said her tone higher now. “Nancy Hammond.”
“Wayne Cavanaugh. I’m a sophomore at Drexel.”
“Junior, at Penn.”
There was a long pause as she stared at him expectantly. Finally it hit him stupidly that she was giving him an opening. At least it took him out of his lethargy.
“Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”
“Well, I could do with a bite to eat. I haven’t had a thing since lunch.”
“Well, there’s Cavanaugh’s”
“The railroad restaurant? I’ve never been there. Are they open this late?”
“Oh yeah. I don’t know for sure that they ever close. And they’re just above us, on Market.”
“Not that I know of.” And they started up the stairs.
Once they were seated at the restaurant, it dawned on him that he needed to call his grandfather. No way would he make it to Darby tonight. He excused himself to make the call.
* * *
She took advantage of his absence to collect her scattered equilibrium. Or try to. Roiled by the night’s events, her emotions spun like a vortex that wouldn’t stop. She thought back to Sullivan’s. Guys were so comical the way they thought their intentions were invisible. Naturally she had noticed his interest, felt stimulation because of his good looks, but had been relieved at his discretion, given her mission for being there. His foursome had struck her as odd. Three of them were obviously Drexel undergrads. They had that look: the less refined manners, the cheaper clothes. But the one sitting beside Wayne was a Penn student she vaguely remembered being introduced to somewhere along the line. That was unusual because the two student bodies didn’t mix that much.
She thought about him, testing her feelings, surprised at the excitement thrumming within, her emotions galloping quicker than the brakes put on by her reasoning. Maybe she was just succumbing to the drama of the night’s events: the encounter at Sullivan’s, so brief yet captivating, that small, arresting flutter she had felt within when his blue eyes met hers. She recalled the athletic grace of his running approach on the subway platform, his reddish brown hair flying, followed by the scalding comprehension of how he must have gotten there so quickly—a bolt of bravery that spoke louder than any words, rushing her, steaming up to flush her face. When she had looked up, the dismay at finding him already gone sent her after him without a thought, only determination. Now, awaiting his return, the logic of her actions still seemed opaque, a puzzle to her, but she pushed forward to the delicious anticipation of uncovering who he was inside, of plumbing his emotional depth. The mere fact of wanting this amounted to an awakening, and she felt those armored layers of herself peeling away to a bright expectancy.