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SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Autumn 1960

by Peter Najarian

I got my job back as a shipping clerk in the press, and the director, William Sloane III, spoke to the Dean to lift my suspension.

His office was in a cozy attic of an old clapboard house at the edge of the campus. Across the road classes were held in the same kind of homes that had once been full of families, as if we were in an old American village where Rutgers itself was proud of being the oldest college in the country after Harvard. Mr. Sloane, as I called him, or Bill as he signed a letter to me, was himself not only from an old American family, but also, I just learned from Wikipedia, a writer of science fiction and fantasy as well as a publisher and an editor.

He was a kind, soft-spoken man in the way I imagined my father to have been. One day when he had come down to our shipping table in the basement, he chatted with Norm and me about when he was a young editor in the Twenties and a young novelist came into his office carrying a manuscript that was “four feet high,” and he “grabbed a few inches of it” to read that evening.

It was powerful, he said, but he couldn’t see himself plowing through another three-and-a-half feet, so the young author took his pile “across the street to Maxwell Perkins,” who turned it into Look Homeward, Angel.

He had many other stories that Norm who knew him better than I would know, but the anecdote about Thomas Wolfe was enough for me; in awe of him I was shy and withdrawn. Still, he went out of his way to help me with the dean, and when I accidentally bumped a drunk with no insurance on my old Chevy, he wrote to the shyster lawyer with such force the claim was dropped.

I had no father but many father figures, Mr. Sloane among them. I would often wonder who he really was up there in his attic and what he thought about when he commuted to his cabin in the mountains in his little Karmann Ghia.

Under him on the second floor was his assistant editor, Helen Stewart, who commuted by train from her apartment in Greenwich Village, while the secretaries, Joanne and Ginny, were on the first floor. We were all there in service to books of literature and law and science and agriculture. A part of me wanted to stay and never leave.

College was for me, at least in the old days before it became like a corporation, a kind of monastery that was civilization’s contrary to war and misery; yet it was only for students and teachers, so I could stay only until I had to leave. It was a cozy campus nestled by the river and woven into a working-class corner of New Brunswick. I rented a room in a rooming house on Easton Avenue, until the landlady kicked me out after I let a friend of Norm’s, Bill Jones, sleep on my floor one night when he was passing through.

“,” she said, as if she were having a heart attack, “let a Negro sleep in my house? Get out! Get out!”

So Alan Cheuse and Bobby Schectman let me move in with them in their ramshackle at 38 Prosper Street, which was how I met Betty Hippy, who was my first sex with someone my age except for a prostitute in Tijuana. Betty loved jazz and Bobby was a great jazz trombonist. One night when he and Alan were out she lay with me on my cot while I tried to hold back, so I could make her come. Finally, she told me to just satisfy myself.

“It’s not your fault,” she said, “I can’t come with anyone, I never did.”

Her last name was of course not Hippy, nor had that word been coined for its other meaning. She got it because she was hip when it meant what Mailer had written about in The White Negro. She was my age but wiser in the ways of the world. Bobby had told me she once had piano lessons from Thelonius Monk and “gave Miles Davis a hard-on” when she danced with him in Princeton.

Turning twenty her flesh was as ripe as Boucher’s Marie O’Murphy, and with her flashing eyes and boundless energy she was as sexy and receptive; yet like a balloon that would not burst, she kept wanting to reach higher and never come down, which may have led to how she later became an addict.

She wanted more than a grey-flannel husband in the new suburbs that were sprouting across America; she wanted what Miles and Monk were about when they kept reaching to let go; yet however many like me she lay with, she couldn’t find it and didn’t know why, and I was the same. I could ejaculate and feel a release, but I too couldn’t let go of whatever kept me from the big bang. Like a swollen-bellied child starving at the side of a road, I was driven by a hunger that had become a famine.

We were at the age when the rest of the world was making babies who would triple the population by the end of the century, while here in our monastery we chased each other unfulfilled and bridled by curfew, from cuervefeu, a covering of the fire.

“Don’t feel bad,” she said to me afterwards. “You go find a girl who can make you happy.”

A few days later I couldn’t take my eyes off the young cellist in a concert of chamber music, her thighs so open I felt as if she were hugging my lust. Her name was Arva that sounded as exotic as an angel, and she looked like an angel above her thighs. Lo and behold she said yes, she would go with me to an Off-Broadway play in the Village the following Saturday.

It was the first production in the States of Krapp’s Last Tape that had been coupled with the first production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. Having never heard of either of them, she was eager and excited. She had never known anyone like me before and her eyes were bright when I picked her up.

She lived with about a dozen other girls in a family house that had been turned into a dorm. I picked her up in the ’52 Chevy I had bought from my friend Fred Tremallo for a hundred dollars.

The little theatre was small and intimate. We had front seats in little folding chairs just a few feet from the bare wooden stage. I held her hand and she held mine back, and our excitement was the opposite of what the plays would be about.

The Zoo Story was the old agon between the straight and the un-straight. We recognized the actors from the T.V. plays in the Fifties when television in its infancy was still raw, and so too were we still raw. We had come of age in a post-war America when Madison Avenue and The Village each took sides, and the drama between them now played before our eyes like the daily headlines. Look, it said, and choose how to live.

Outside during the intermission the Village pulsed in lush October night. The news in the newsstand buzzed with the debate between Nixon and Kennedy, but we were still not voting age, and not only felt like bystanders but had more urgent needs than politics.

Then came the second play that seemed outside of history, and there appeared the underground man who could have been anyone facing existence and time. We were ready for him. We had come of age in the aftermath of the bomb and the camps, and there was no meaning in anything but how to live without hurting anyone, nor any need for any furniture except a table and a chair.

If I’m not mistaken, the actor was Herbert Berghof. His gravelly voice was just a few feet away as he spoke to himself in a dialogue between his past and present, just as I am doing now when I’m at the same age as he was supposed to be. My own journals speak back to me like his tapes and my own mother is dead and my old face appears two feet away in the mirror of my computer screen.

Berghof was speaking about a young woman named Bianca which meant white in Italian, just as I am speaking now about an Arva who seemed like an angel, and we were watching the story I’m now trying to write fifty years later. Who were the characters and what was the plot and what was really happening that was neither a tragedy or a comedy but a kind of modern mystery play in a world without God or meaning?

Life Study in Acrylic 1992; Painting by Peter Najarian “Life Study in Acrylic, 1992”
by Peter Najarian

I can’t find any Arva in the dictionaries of names. There’s a Scandinavian Arvid and a Celtic Arvel, but no Arva, nor did I know her last name. Who was she whose hand I held as the actor sighed about a young woman he had lost, her eyes, her nose, her lips a blur while my hunger remains as vivid as these words on the bright whiteness of this screen?

I can’t write from imagination in the same way I’m a slave to models when I draw, and she blurs like a dream when I try to turn us into a drama like Beckett’s. Why do I need to turn us into a drama, why was the play so exciting when its subject was so sad?

We walked back to the Chevy in the blaze of youth as if drugged by our hormones. I drove to her campus and parked by a cornfield away from her dorm where the warm autumnal night would be perfect for commingling.

Yet I didn’t know her; it would take fifty years to know her as I know her now buried in these journals and drawings of all the women I’ve slept with and all the models I’ve drawn so many times I remember their vulvas as well as their faces.

I didn’t know anything about women then, or even the difference between a vulva and a vagina. High school had been a torture chamber where girls were carrots dangling out of reach while I kept pulling my burden. I kissed Arva as if my life depended on her kissing me back. And she did kiss me back, just as passionately. She didn’t know me either, but she liked me and trusted I would not hurt her when there was somewhere inside her she was so eager to explore.

We had come of age in the pre-pill America of girdles and brassieres, from the Old French, braciere for armor, when young women were supposed to be virgins until they married and the hems of their skirts draped below their knees. Yet the night was as made for kissing as in any age, and we kissed in harmony with the crickets and the moon.

Then came the same misery as in Beckett’s play that ended with Krapp saying, “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance for happiness.”

I not only kissed her but, ravenous for more, I opened her blouse and felt her breast under her bra as if she were like Betty Hippy. But she was not like Betty Hippy, who was years ahead of her time. Years later my friend Marjorie Katcher asked me: “You actually opened her blouse?”

Marjorie had lived in the same dorm with her, though I didn’t know Marjorie then, and I said, “Yes, why are you so surprised?”

“Arva,” she would say, “was the most virgin of virgins and she wouldn’t have let you go that far if she didn’t really care for you.” It would not be until then that I realized the tragedy of my loss.

I not only opened her blouse but tried to unclasp her bra, until she said no, she couldn’t, and when I tried again she said, no, it was her “time.” I never heard that word before and often slow in catching on I didn’t know what she really meant. I had no girlfriends in high school and though old Doris had taught me a lot she had had a hysterectomy.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” she said when I kept trying, and I finally caught on, but not really. It didn’t matter, I said, but she eased me away and buttoned her blouse.

It was of course not her real reason. She had just met me so of course she wasn’t going to let me go beyond her bra; and I was not only ignorant but already sick with the sickness that would plague me for the rest of my life. Like a boil that had begun years earlier it now surfaced for the first time. I had symptoms of it in my teens when I would feel it in my neck and around my eyes, and now it suddenly tightened and coiled like a worm shrinking into a blackness where I kept sinking and couldn’t pull myself up.

She of course didn’t know at all what was happening to me. I had been good to her, we had been happy together, so why couldn’t I be a little more patient? Why was I suddenly so cold and silent? I myself didn’t know what was happening to me, and I drove her back in the silence that grew colder as if she had something wrong. She hadn’t done anything wrong, but I was too crippled to tell her this. I stayed behind the wheel as she stepped out and walked back to her dorm alone.

I can’t remember if she turned to look at me or not, or maybe I do remember and all the years of art and fiction now blur my mind’s eye when I don’t know if what I imagine and what I remember are the same, her look over her shoulder like The Girl With The Pearl Earring who tore my heart with longing.

I had hurt the one I longed for with a sickness I couldn’t understand, and drove back to Prosper Street in a gloom that was darker than anything Beckett could write.

By chance or what some call destiny, Belen had come to visit Alan and Bobby the next day. Taking a fancy to me she slept with me that night, when by chance or synchronicity her own period surprised her, and my sheet was red with her blood.

She had graduated from Douglass in June. Two years older than I she slept with me as a kind of younger brother she would taste for a night before she left for Fuengirola, where she’d join her boyfriend Bill who had lived with Norm the year before. We all knew each other in our Rutgers version of the Beat sub-culture that had sprouted on campuses everywhere. Like Betty she was ahead of her time in what would lead to the women’s movement where women could sleep with whomever they wanted just as men could do.

Overwhelmed by the sudden high of my night with her, I chased her back to Baltimore while forgetting Arva like a bad dream. Yet it’s all like a dream to me now, the chase and the flight of so many of us caught in the time of life that was meant for the pleasures of sex instead of a plague.

For many there was that pleasure, but I wasn’t one of them, and I burned painfully after Belen left. Why didn’t I go back to Arva and apologize? I can’t remember even thinking about her again, and not until a lifetime of more than painful loneliness would I realize what I really lost.

She was warmly sexy and angelic with that cello between her thighs, and we were happy holding hands while an old actor grumbled to his tape machine. Then her lips were so delicious with the crickets and the cornfield. What was the plague that crippled me into such a cold silence later? What was Krapp’s Last Tape really about?

We were at the age for marrying, but instead I became a writer and wrote about how it never happened. Where is she now, the Arva whose last name I never knew, buried under all these nudes and portraits I keep drawing and writing.

She never saw me again and married an agronomist who took her to Colorado, where they had two kids and her grandkids now stay with her on weekends.

No: she never married but had a child out of wedlock with a Zen monk and raised her little boy as a single mother while struggling to pay the mortgage and teach music in a community college in Detroit.

No: she married a composer but never had kids and later divorced. She recently found one of my books in a used book shop in Heidelburg, and one of these days she’s going to look me up on the web and send me her photo via Photo Booth, her hair white and her face wrinkled like mine, but her eyes shining with the same brightness. Our best years may be gone, but there still may be a chance for happiness.

She plays the cello, that beautiful instrument in a Bach cello suite that flows like time itself, here now in this lush October morning in this dark night of the soul, the sliver of an old moon rising in a silver glow like a scout for the dawn.

I am the old moon and she is the dawn and we will disappear in the sunrise, her glow growing more and more beautiful as she looks over her pearl earring, her lips open as if to ask me something, or is it to tell me what I’m now trying to write?


—Chapter Four from the author’s memoir-in-manuscript, The Artist and His Models


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Peter Najarian

grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Berkeley, California. His painting and writing appear in a range of anthologies, journals, and galleries. He has received a Stegner Fellowship and an NEA grant for Creative Nonfiction.

Peter Najarian with his self-portrait; self-photographed in his office, April 2013 Peter Najarian in his workspace, April 2013

He is the author of three novels, Voyages (Pantheon, 1971; reprinted by Ararat, 1979), Daughters of Memory (1986), and Wash Me on Home, Mama (1978); a story collection, The Great American Loneliness (Blue Crane Books, 2000); and a memoir, The Artist and His Mother (The Press at CSU Fresno, 2010).

The memoir is the first in a triptych of books. The second, The Artist and His Models, from which “Autumn 1960” is excerpted, includes illustrations by Najarian and is available for publication. He is now at work on the third book, The Artist and His Cousins.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury