November 10, 2005
One Summer Night
I dream of a summer night long ago. I'm a 17-year-old usher in a neighborhood theater. We play second-run films. Most of that summer we show "Pursued," starring Teresa Wright and Robert Mitchum.
After my ushering job each evening I rush home to meet my girlfriend, Florence. Both of our families are living in Rockaway, a beachfront peninsula community on the south shore of Long Island. We live in separate one-story cottages on opposite ends of the same block.
Tuesdays is fireworks night. This Tuesday night in August, Florence and I walk under the boardwalk and on to the sand of Rockaway Beach. We spread a blanket among other couples and cuddle. The surf is pounding. We watch the white foamed waves crashing on the shore as the sun sets over Jamaica Bay beyond. It seems to me to be the best of times.
At 9 p.m., with the sky a blue-black, the fireworks begin with a star burst. We look on in silence. The couples near us squeal their appreciation and applaud when the fireworks explode into an image of the Statue of Liberty. The fireworks end with a rapid burst of shells.
Some of the other couples, hand in hand, leave after the fireworks. Florence and I stay. We can hear the waves crashing and see a little slice of silvery moon above.
I'm 17 and poetry is my current passion. William Blake is my favorite. I think of his wonderfully simple poem about the moon:
"The moon, like a flower,
In heaven's high bower,
With silent delight,
Sits and smiles on the night."
It's necking time. That's what we called it in those days. Necking is a prelude to petting -- that's hands on, groping and fondling. But pert, sweet Florence was frum, religious, observant, Orthodox. One didn't progress from embracing and kissing to fondling and muzzling easily. This was a girl brought up in a household where there was physical separation between men and women during prayer; and for married couples, sexual abstinence during and for about 12 days after a woman's period.
I come from a different world, a non-observant one. I respect her and her upbringing, but there's no denying my raging adolescent hormones.
It's getting late. Florence warned me earlier she had to be home by 11 p.m. Yet it's now beyond that hour and she says nothing. We're too far-gone in our lovemaking.
Florence and I sit on a boardwalk bench overlooking the sand and sea. A light breeze is blowing. From a distance we hear the strains of a popular jukebox favorite coming from a beachfront bar. The tune is "Peg O' My Heart." It's a harmonica instrumental.
"Peg O' my heart, I love you;
We'll never part for I love you."
It's very romantic. There are only a few stragglers walking the boardwalk. We resume our petting. It goes on long, hot and heavy. Florence's blouse and skirt are askew. Suddenly out of the darkness comes a screeching apparition in a nightgown. Hair loose and blowing in the wind, she descends on us like the wrath of God.
"Kurveh," she screams. I know it means prostitute. In Yiddish or English it's a word forbidden in my house.
It's Florence's mother who screeches it. I freeze. She grabs Florence by the hair, yanks her off the bench. Florence is dragged across the boardwalk, down the steps, into the street and out of sight. I don't hear her utter a word other than a cry of surprise and dismay.
I'm left on the boardwalk bench dazed, ashamed, sexually frustrated. I go through the rest of that summer haunted by that night. I sneak around Florence's cottage the next night but she doesn't appear. She doesn't come to the beach again. I'm told she was shipped back to Brooklyn by her family.
After work, I go to that beachfront bar where every night I hear The Harmonicats playing "Peg O' My Heart." I sip my beer, watch young couples dancing, hugging and kissing, and I feel sorry for myself. I never hear that song without thinking of that bitter, sweet night. I also never see or hear from Florence again. I wonder what became of her. Did she turn into a rebbitzin with many kids?
She wanted to be an artist. For her 17th birthday, I bought her a paint set. It cost me $22.50, more than a week's salary as an usher. Did that ever happen?
Some years later I see Tony Perkins in a fright wig pounce on Janet Leigh in the shower. It's Florence's mother come back to haunt me. Thank God she didn't have a knife and Alfred Hitchcock as director.
Morrie Gelman is a freelance writer. He's written for the New York Post, Theatre Magazine, Broadcasting Magazine, Advertising Age and Variety.