Copyright is held by the author.
BIG WILLA was big, but she wasn’t fat. Willa Wojciechowski, the princess of Bensonhurst. She had many qualities in her favour, except no one ever noticed. Just a kid about 16 or 17 trying to make do on the Lower East Side of New York, she slipped into the scene unnoticed when her cousin arrived.
When Carolyn flew down from Montreal, Willa partnered with her. Wherever Carolyn went, there was Big Willa, the not-so-pretty girl who shadowed the skinny good-looker with the manic laugh. Everybody wanted to go to bed with Carolyn; nobody looked twice at Willa.
That summer was sweltering, with something happening every weekend. The city baked like lasagna as we waited for the weather to change and the days to turn into nights.
Willa latched onto me because she caught me eyeing her, or maybe because no one else paid any attention to her.
“You’re a good listener,” she said. “You don’t interrupt. Like, it’s okay now if I ramble on, you know?”
“I’m just slow,” I answered. “Usually, it’s two in the morning before something witty comes to me. Then I say, ‘Damn I should’ve thought of that sooner.’”
“Nah, you’re a writer,” she said confidently. “That’s why writers write, see? They can’t talk out all their ghosts and demons, so they scribble stuff down. See, I’m a singer. I’ve integrated both sides of my brain.”
One Saturday night in late July, a bunch of us from the neighbourhood were over at Tompkins Square watching a free concert. After half an hour, I wandered off, just far enough so I could still hear the back beat, but not the words. I found a bench by the dog walkers’ area and sat down to enjoy a cigarette.
“Can I join you?” Willa stood with the light from a street lamp turning her face into a ruddy moon floating over the Lower East Side. I hadn’t seen her in the crowd and could barely see her now.
“I like that group, don’t you?”
“Well,” I said, “their vocalist may be a prince, but the music is verbal diarrhea. You sing at least as well in your worst moments as he does in his best.”
“Jake, if I wasn’t religious and have to go to college, I’d have your baby.” Then she kissed me on the cheek. It was like a love pat from Superman.
”How’s your cousin? Carolyn?” I asked, quick to hop off this conversational train and catch a ride to another subject.
“Okay, I guess. I got a postcard. She’s going with this French gallery owner. He’s about 40 years old. That’s kinda too old.” Willa spoke in short, declarative sentences, biting each one off like a breadstick.
“Too old? Not if he’s rich and famous. That makes up for a lot of faults.”
Willa thought for a minute. “So you’re too old for me too?”
“Well, I’ve already got a steady squeeze.”
“It bugs me,” she pouted. “Carolyn’s going to be a great painter some day.”
“Why’s it bug you if Carolyn is going with an older man who’s a gallery owner? What’s it to you?”
A longish silence hung in the humid air. “My mom was a movie star. Before talking pictures were invented. Then she met my father. A doctor. And they came to America. My dad could’ve been anything, but he’s a car repairman. C’mon already!”
I waited for her words to stumble around in her brain until they coalesced at the exit ramp and found their way down to her mouth.
“My folks are good people, but they lost it. They’re just not doing anything. I’m not doing anything. The world’s passing me by.”
“You’re losing me, Willa. This thing about Carolyn. And, now you, you’re . . . what? Frustrated? You’re still a high school kid. You’ve got all the time in the world.”
My comment hung like an empty dialogue balloon.
“You know, I can do bird whistles? I can mimic bird calls. Name a bird. Any bird.”
“Willa, what’re you trying to tell me?” I asked. “Carolyn going with an older guy? Your folks? You do bird whistles? What’s happening here?”
She shook her head, violently. “You know, my fifth grade teacher once gave us kids an IQ test. When the scores came back, she rolled her eyes at me. After class, I dug through her desk and found my score. It was 89. Eighty-nine! I’m a marginal idiot!”
I felt overwhelming sympathy for Willa, sitting next to me staring back at this fifth grade crisis.
“Hey, look. You’re going to college next month.” I put my arm around her. “Queens College. That proves you’re smart.”
“Open admissions,” she snorted. “One semester to make it or I’m out on my fat ass.”
Fat ass. She realized she wasn’t svelte and beautiful. She spelled out the disability, actually said the F-word. A smart Park Avenue therapist could have given Willa a sharp insight into her frustration, but I’m no shrink. I did the next best thing.
“Willa,” I said, “I’m going to tell you something my grandfather told me. He was a fighter pilot in the war. The Big War. He said, ‘Jake, you will always be running into people who are smarter than you are. Or richer, or more handsome, or more well-connected. But kid,” — I was building this fictitious gramps into a real character — “in spite of all their advantages, you can always outwork ‘em.’”
Willa just stared toward Avenue A.
The concert was breaking up. There was desultory applause and a few hoots and whistles in the darkness. In an hour I could find a newsstand and get the Sunday Times. I could go over to Austin’s and get an egg cream and kill time until I could get the paper. That was the best plan. But there was Willa.
“Do your folks know you’re in the city?”
“Yeah. It’s okay.”
I actually squeezed her broad shoulder like an avuncular old geezer. “Look, why don’t you call them. Tell them where you are, that you’re okay.”
“Don’t fucking patronize me,” she hissed. “I’m outta here!”
Whatever the rest of that night was like has escaped my memory. I thought some about Willa. Why some people are cruel to others, and why the world isn’t perfect. How a teacher could make such a tactless remark.
Summer ended and I was left with memories. It was mid-September when I got a postcard from Willa in Big Sur, California. Doing fantastic! Wish you were here! Weather is great! the postcard read. I read it twice then tossed it aside. She’d blown off college. Dumb kid, hitting the road like every other hippie inspired by bad music and worse magazine philosophy.
The more amazing letter came shortly afterward, postmarked Hollywood. There was a blurry snapshot of Willa with her arm around Kris Kristofferson, the singer and actor. Her letter, on the same tablet paper, knocked me out:
Well, I made it to Glitz City. Kris K. heard me play in a bar. His manager asked me to sing for him in private, and then invited me to sing backup on his next album. I have a contract. Hollywood is cool. Think I should have his baby? (Kris. Not the agent. Ha ha ) We’re genetically compatible I think.
I’d be the first to admit I might have misjudged her pulling a hippie stunt and heading out. She apparently was just a kid who could only become herself by getting away from home.
Life accelerated as autumn attacked the city. This feeling of anticipation, of something great waiting just around the corner, made me accept an invitation to a party at Straight Charlie’s pad on East 89th Street. I assumed the booze would be good, so I put on a clean shirt and a new pair of slacks. A party like this attracted uptown girls who might be neurotic, but were entertaining. Who knew what kind of karma might happen?
“Lookin’ good, Charlie,” I said when he answered the door. The music rolled out into the hallway. I handed him an obligatory bottle of wine, elbowing my way into the throng.
Charlie worked at Time-Life in the PR department. He wasn’t very tall and wore heavy black-framed glasses. He was very clean, hence the nickname Straight Charlie.
“There’s someone here that you know,” he said. “Carolyn Foche. That Canadian girl you introduced me to this summer. She looks a little crazy, but maybe that’ll make the party interesting.”
“Carolyn from Montreal? Back in town?” Small world. She was a wack job, but okay from the neck down.
It took me a little time to work the crowd, introducing myself, getting rejected or hitting a dead-end. The food Charlie had put out was a shambles of garbage, the wine and beer bottles had drifted from the bar to the bedroom and terrace. There must have been 40 very clean, highly educated, extremely drunk, Anglo-Saxon types calculatedly losing their minds so they’d have something memorable to talk about on Monday morning.
Then I saw Carolyn out on the terrace. Her head was thrown back and her mouth wide open with laughter. Her body was shaking like a spastic, and I watched her spill her drink over the guy she was talking to.
She moved quickly, and the next thing she was on the brick wall of Charlie’s terrace, walking along the parapet like a circus acrobat.
“It’s the old derring-do,” she shouted. Her eye shadow was smeared and she was doing a bad imitation of an acrobat. “Ta-dah!” A quick hop. “If I can do it, every one of you bastards can. C’mon, beautiful people! Up on the wall! We’re gonna have a parade!”
Her arms were outstretched as she tiptoed; stopping to do a ballet hop with every other step. I knew we were on the third floor of a six floor walk-up. If she went over she might live long enough to get to the hospital, but no guarantees.
Carolyn’s face was abnormally white and her eyes were rolling back. She still had the shag haircut, and was wearing a tank top and a miniskirt. The same goofy Carolyn.
“Hey!” I shouted.
A half dozen people turned. Carolyn kept tiptoeing along her urban tightrope.
“C’mon, Carolyn, we read the book! Mailer did it in American Dream. C’mere and have a drink.”
Faces turned to me like I was crazy.
“I want to know about Willa!” I shouted.
She stopped, bewildered, and faced me. “Jake? Willa?”
“Your cousin. Get off that wall and come here.”
“Jake! I love you!” She was beaming as she flew through the air. The bird from Montreal would have flown into my arms, but instead knocked three people flat.
“What’s happening?” Charlie asked the obvious. “Did someone get killed? Why is everyone lying on the floor?”
“Party’s over for this one, Charlie,” I said.
“She’s passed out. She won’t barf on my floor, will she?”
“I’d better take her home. Did she have a purse or anything?”
I got Carolyn into a cab to my place, tipping the cabbie a sawbuck. I arranged the stone-cold woman on the far side of the bed, then went to pour a Scotch. After a second drink, I went back and climbed into the other side of the bed with my clothes on.
Sunday morning walked in on its ankles calling itself Sunday afternoon. When I saw Carolyn standing in the doorway she gave a little wave of her hand.
“I was pretty drunk, wasn’t I? Did I do anything . . . stupid?” Her face had a zebra quality, marked as if she had gotten into a mascara fight. I wondered if she was always cuckoo, or if it had to do with the time of day or the phases of the moon.
I shook my head and hoisted my coffee mug to let her know there was more. She shook her head.
“How’d I get here?”
“I brought you. Better than seeing you fly off Charlie’s terrace.”
“Oh, shiiiit,” she muttered. “Did I do anything here? Did you . . . ?”
“You were totally passed out.”
“I shouldn’t have come back to New York. Montreal sucks, but things aren’t any better here, are they?”
“You were going with a gallery owner.
She looked surprised. “Oh, Willa told you. No, that’s over.” She sat with her hands between her knees, staring out the window.
“Willa has a lot of faith in you. A lot of expectations that you’ve got brains and talent.” I hoped my words could lift her up, a little.
“I don’t think about it. Everyone says things like, ‘Succeed. Be a leader. Meet your obligations.’ Words, words, words. I hear them, but they don’t mean anything.”
“You’re staying . . . where? In Brooklyn?”
She nodded, then a new thought popped into her brain. “I think I want to turn my dreams into drama, but I haven’t figured out what my dreams are, so I just go for the drama.” She gave a shrill laugh and collapsed back in the chair.”
“What d’you hear from Willa? Hollywood and everything?”
“She’s not in Hollywood. She’s at home. How could she be in Hollywood, for God’s sake?”
I bit my lip. “She sent me a letter. And a postcard. There was a snapshot of Kris Kristofferson.”
Another peal of laughter. “Oh, damn! Sorry. I helped her do that. We doctored up a photo and a friend mailed the stuff. No, it was Willa’s idea. She thought you’d like to see her making it big. Did you miss her? She misses you.”
“Let me get this straight. She’s been in Brooklyn all this time?”
“She has to go to college. How could she go to college if she’s in Hollywood?”
I waited a long time. If Carolyn was tired, I was exhausted.
“Well, if you’re okay,” I said, “you’d better go. I have things I need to do.”
“Can I stay here? With you, Jake?”
“I’d rather you didn’t. You’re a nice kid, Carolyn, but you’re a little bit nuts.”
“Just a little while? You could make love to me.”
“Tell Willa I wish her luck. She didn’t have to pull that letter-writing stuff.”
Carolyn stood slowly and walked to the bedroom. I heard her in the bathroom, then she came out with her sad little purse. She’d washed her face, and without the makeup she looked like a high school kid. She walked straight to the door without looking at me.
“Tell Willa to call,” I said to her back.
What a weekend. At least this roller coaster called Life in New York was anything but boring.
Willa telephoned that evening.
“Jake, have you seen Carolyn?” There were no amenities of Hello, long-time no-see.
I told her I’d seen Carolyn that morning. That I had brought her back from a party the night before.
“Stay there. I’ll be right over,” she snapped.
She was true to her word, my old Willa, but with a new sense of confidence,
“I had to see you, Jake.” She strode in and plumped herself down in my one good chair. “The police came and told us Carolyn is dead. She jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge.”
I stumbled into a different chair and exhaled like Moby Dick.
“Tell me the details.”
“I just told you the details. That’s why I’m here. I want to know if you were the last person who saw her.”
I gave her a rundown of Straight Charlie’s party, Carolyn’s wall-walking, the Greta Garbo I’m-so-tired soliloquy. I left out the part about telling Carolyn not to infect me with the loony virus.
Then I remembered. “She told me something heavy. She wanted to turn her dreams into drama. But, she said she hadn’t figured out what her dreams were, so she just went for the drama.”
“She told you that?”
“I think,” I said slowly, “that her drama turned into theatrics. Showboating that went over the top. Isn’t it easier to believe that Carolyn’s dive off the bridge was an act gone wrong? Easier than thinking she really wanted to commit suicide.”
“Maybe.” She snuffled. “She was just 21. My folks thought she was a wild kid, but she was my hero.”
The sun was starting to set, putting the wraps on another day. It had been a classic American weekend, from wild abandon on Friday to utter despair on Sunday night.
“How’re you doing? I thought you were in Hollywood.” I gave a weak smile that wouldn’t have lit a radio dial. “Fooled me for sure.”
“Sorry. There wasn’t any cause to do that.”
“You thought I’d like you more?”
“I thought you’d like me some. I needed someone to like me.”
“Hey, I’ll tell you a secret. Everyone needs someone. We’re all alone. And then maybe someone comes along, and for awhile you’re whole and complete and, well, you’re together.”
“You gotta hope, Jake. Else, what’s left?”
Willa had asked the universal question, and she was right. But I wish it were easier to believe in miracles and magic. That the dead will come back to life and long-lost lovers will be reunited. Instead, we go for the drama. We cheer Peter Pan. We click our heels and bring Dorothy back to Kansas. The Carolyns fly into town as comic relief and then they’re gone, too.
For a time, Willa had escaped into a fantasy world. Now she was back, ready to bite the world in the ass. I’d rather hold that snapshot in my memory than picture Carolyn doing a half gainer into the East River.