When I entered the Society of Jesus, I was instructed that I had left the World, a fearful place that seemed far more sinful when viewed from inside a Jesuit seminary than from anywhere in New York City, which was, on one calculation, the very omphalos of the World. And that’s where I once again found myself standing, or lying, in the World’s foul belly-button. A former Jesuit novice later told me that when he left the novitiate the Master of Novices had given him a copy of Jane Eyre to read on the train during his long trip from Poughkeepsie back to New York City. I had had no such experience: I was thrown naked from a speeding black sedan at the corner of New Lots Avenue. Or so it sometimes seemed. There was no sentiment in it, at any rate. The Jesuits stayed cool to the end. And so did I.
I moved back with my parents in the Bronx. It was not likely the best of ideas, but it was the only one I had at the time. I had no job, no inclination to get one and no notion what I would do even if I were forced to seek employment. I thought I would wait it out awhile; you know, readjust. That must have taken all of two hours. Unlike the Jesuits, the World offered no reorientation program, no Carnal Exercises guiding the novice through a gradual or studied descent back into the sink of sin and depravity where I had wallowed nine years before. It would have been a vain exercise if it had. As far as I could discover, there was very little sin and certainly no depravity going around in my corner of the World in 1954.
I half-heartedly tried to revive some of the old sins, or to be more accurate this time, old hopeful occasions of sin. I took up the Brooklyn telephone directory and looked under the name of Rosemary Maloney, the Iron Maiden of Eire I had fruitlessly courted in high school. And there she was, same number, same address in Park Slope. Why not? There’d be no resisting me now. This time I’d speak Latin and knock her dead.
“Why, what in the world…It is really so nice to hear from you after all these years…Yes, why don’t you drop over some evening?”
I stood in the same white tiled hallway where I had once so fruitlessly tried to wrestle down two thousand years of moral theology. I rang. The door of Apartment 2H opened and we regarded each other across the years, the challenger on the comeback trail and the undefeated champ. Her chestnut hair was now touched, here and there, with a moral grey thread, but she was still quite lovely and I was already melting as I crossed the once forbidden threshold. We had a drink. We talked. The melting stopped, slowly congealed by the cool breath of her disinterest. I kissed her and as she silently slipped out of my embrace, her hand went up, oh so smoothly, to rearrange her hair. I said it was really quite wonderful seeing her again. She said I really had put on quite a bit of weight. It was over. Finally.
What do you do, then, when you’re twenty-seven and you’ve spent the last nine years of your life parsing Greek and playing softball while your more pragmatic contemporaries were attending the Delehanty Institute or the Connecticut School of Broadcasting? Well, there was the former Brother Hickman, N.S.J. who was having a marvelous time working in Germany. Come on over, the former Brother Hickman called from across the water. You’ll love it here. And there are plenty of jobs. The former Brother Hickman neglected to explain, however, that his own job was as a glorified stock clerk in the Army PX in Wiesbaden. Terrific, I thought, I would go to Europe. Live a little.
It was more than just a lunge at a practical idea; it was also a bold gesture of contempt and defiance to the parochial Bronx, which of course completely misconstrued it as a cowardly inability to face those sour old Irish ladies who clucked and muttered “Too bad” when I passed them on the street. Unhappily, they were right. I wanted to seize every one of those cluckers by her immaculate neck and shout into her face: “If you so much as even think ‘spoiled priest,’ you sorry old bitch, I’ll dash your brains out right here on the sidewalk in front of McNulty’s Funeral Home. Got it?” Yes, Europe seemed like a reasonable idea. Maybe I could even get a job. Like the former Brother Hickman.
I had no more intention of finding work in Europe than I had of visiting the Holy House of Loretto, but the notion of employment, gaudily embellished with fictitious details about the University of Maryland’s Wiesbaden Extension Program for the U.S. Army, pried six hundred dollars out of my father. And Peters père had the compassion or the good sense not to ask if it was my intention to teach Classical Greek to the Military Police. Maybe my father wanted me out of the Bronx as much as I wanted to leave it. My mother certainly did. The only thing worse than being a “spoiled priest” in the Irish-Catholic catalogue of misfortune was being the mother of a spoiled priest. “Ah, the pity,” the ladies of the Altar and Rosary Society murmured at the tops of their voices, “and herself raising him so well.” My mother’s sentiments exactly, though frankly she didn’t much care for the context.
I can still remember with great vividness where it happened. It was on the lounge deck of the S.S. Isle de France, where I sat idly thumbing my Idiot’s Introduction to the Ways of the World. I had reached the chapter entitled “Always Talk to Strangers” when Helga Quincy picked me up. It could not have been otherwise because at twenty-seven the new citizen of the World was not very good at attracting the attention of waiters in restaurants, much less of lassoing the orange-haired German in purple patent-leather shoes who was strolling the deck in the company of a bizarre dog with a black tongue that lolled bleakly from its mouth.
The astonishing alacrity of evil. Three hours out of New York and the impatient World raced out and embraced me on the lounge deck of the Isle de France. I offered no resistance whatsoever, of course. I pretended interest in that vicious hound with the black tongue, but I was agog at its owner. In my extremely limited experience, Helga Quincy was like a decadent Venusian, some flamboyant creature with an outrageous manner and clothes that looked like they had been designed in an Ottoman brothel. She talked loudly and incessantly. She touched me on the hand, on the arm, on the leg, all in the first ten minutes of our acquaintance. The new, still dripping amniotic fluid worlding was boggled, pure and simple.
And she had been in the war. I had entered the larger world sometime about 1937 when I began studying my father’s newspapers in the kitchen. I learned everything I knew about contemporary history, politics and geography from the Daily News, on whose pages grew the absorbing spectacle of the Third Reich. I still know, as a matter of fact, more about Berchtesgarten than about Cleveland, and the powers of a Gauleiter are even now more familiar to me than those of a Monsignor. And there she was, one of them in the flesh, too young for the great Nuremburg rallies, of course, but unmistakably the real thing, a red and black swastika glowing brightly but invisibly from beneath the cloth of her coat. And we sat on our deck chairs and she told me about the destruction of Hamburg; Paolo and Francesca discussing firebombs and the submarine base at Kiel.
What Helga never made quite clear was what happened after the war, though eventually I thought I could make a pretty good guess. She was a whore, I decided, and she had conned, coerced or persuaded another of the World’s innocents, one Robert Quincy, into marrying her. He was a civilian employee working in Germany after the war, and though I never met him, Robert Quincy sounded very straight and very baffled, a Midwestern engineer who, like myself, had fallen for the first pair of purple shoes he had ever seen.
I must have bewildered Helga too. We grappled passionately for hours up there on the top deck under the mid-Atlantic stars, but I never went into her cabin or into her bed. She must have known the time would come, and then at least she had the patience to wait for it. She probably realized too that an outright invitation to come into her spaceship would more likely have sent me over the stern than into her arms. So we parted at Le Havre, she to visit the long-suffering Mr. Quincy in Heidelberg and I to taste the pleasures of Paris, which turned out to be far less exciting than those I had known on that dark and silent ship in mid-ocean.
It’s not so odd perhaps that even now my first memories of Europe should be filled with Helga rather than the other marvels I expected to discover in that exotic place. We met at Wiesbaden as planned and began that unashamedly romantic steamer trip down the Rhine. Some travelers are appalled by the kitsch of it, rounding the rock of the Lorelei with Heinrich Heine’s Loreleilieder blaring out of the boat’s loudspeakers, but it ate me up alive: Helga and Heine and the Rhine Maidens. St. Goarshausen was her idea too, getting off the boat and moving into a Gasthaus. And there in the Gasthaus Sonnenschein in St. Goarshausen, after a Rhine dinner and a lot of Rhine wine, we mounted to our room on the second floor and made love. There were tiny green flowers embroidered on the pillow under her orange head.
Women’s reflections on their first sex must by now have reached the proportions of a Chaucer bibliography. The male contribution to the literature seems to be more modest, and I fear I have little to add. I reentered the forbidden World in the company of Helga Quincy, a married German lady of otherwise obscure background, in the front bedroom of the Gasthaus Sonnenschein in the Rhineland on the 7th of September, 1954. It has been better and it certainly has been worse at times, but the moment was, if nothing else, of some historical interest to me. I’m not sure it was to Helga. I told her, I remember, when it was over, that this had been the first time. She smiled, I think. But she didn’t order champagne. Or dry my tears. It wasn’t her way. Besides, I don’t think she believed me. Twenty-seven?
We should have stopped there perhaps. The relationship was born in the mid-Atlantic and flowered there in my fantasy-decked landscape of postwar Germany. It had nothing to do with life, at least as I then understood it, the tight network of persons, values, restraints and obligations that defined what I was on my tiny patch of native soil. But we both wanted more. I was still excited and engaged by the exotic quality of it all; what she had in mind I did not know nor could I guess. The job of postal clerk in Wiesbaden no longer seemed so attractive, so we arranged to meet again in New York.
Helga flew into New York a few weeks after her new swain—her husband was still working on U.S. military installations in West Germany— and we flew out together to French Lick, Indiana, the home of the Quincy seniors, where she had her “things” and her car. Was she moving out? She didn’t say and I didn’t want to know, but I was grateful that she didn’t drag me into the tranquil lives of Quincy mère and père. I waited for her down the block in a luncheonette and tried to imagine Helga Quincy as a housewife in French Lick, Indiana, wearing a chenille bathrobe, purple slippers and with her orange hair set in curlers.
Her “things” were mostly clothes, a set of coffee cups and a cuckoo-clock. I piled them in the back slot of her Austin-Healey where the chow dog with the black tongue, no happier in America than he had been in Germany, sat sullenly atop the cuckoo-clock. With a screech of wheels and the smell of rubber, she carried her prizes eastward.
Sex was our clock, and an eccentric timepiece it was. What the rest of the world regarded as mid-afternoon, we indulgently called nightfall and checked into the first available motel. At that sensual crawl it took us three weeks to get from French Lick to New York City. Out of the newspaper we found a furnished room in Queens and settled down to a life that we, or I, imagined was domestic bliss. On Helga’s money, or more likely on Harold Quincy’s, who was drawing a handsome enough salary to support himself, his orange-haired wife, her black-tongued dog and her new resident chaplain. I was her kept man, very closely kept, in a little Black Forest cuckoo-clock. We had familiar little meals in our room, most of them on delicatessen food since neither of us could cook, and between times we continued our sexual explorations while the chow-chow growled his continuous disapproval from under the furiously tossing bed.
At some point it began to occur to me that perhaps Helga had not been a whore after all. At first the sex seemed to be, even to my untutored eyes, of fairly standard design, though I certainly registered no complaint at the time. Then, perhaps because she sensed that my mind was wandering back to parsing, she began to unveil her specialties, slowly, one by one. “I…I…didn’t know you could…” She blew like a hurricane through our tiny room and I shook from the fearsome pleasure of these new and almost unbearable sensations she had contrived, as I thought, for me alone. From the beginning Helga’s attraction was a not entirely subtle blend of the exotic and the sexual, but there in that shabby narrow bed her erotic grip tightened and with the tightening there also came, for the first time, the sense that there was pain in this squeezing.
I was probably a pleasant, interesting and interested companion for Helga Quincy, but most of the aggression in the relationship was still coming from the other, German side of the frontier. Or was until she began demonstrating all the things what I didn’t know you could… That’s what I wanted, please. And that’s what she began to withhold, subtly at first, and then firmly and explicitly. I had to ask for her special favors, earn them. It was a serious miscalculation on her part. Helga, liebling, I never thought I had to earn anything; I was born deserving.
I made my own miscalculations as well. Playing house in a furnished walk-up in Queens had its charms, but the rest of my life was backing up somewhere out there, and I kept reaching out to touch it. I took her to visit my parents. No, that would have been altogether too simple. It was a family party we attended, a somber gathering of aunts, uncles and cousins, pious Irish Catholics whose idea of forbidden fruit was seeing a movie with a B rating from the Legion of Decency. Now they sat in stony and disapproving silence around the Whore of Babylon, their eyes slowly moving from Helga to me, virtue held captive in the thrall of lust, and they heard not a single word of her heart-rending story of How I Survived the War. For those of my relatives who had fought in it, it was probably just as well that they weren’t listening. I wasn’t sure what was going on in those other heads, but my mother’s thoughts were etched grimly across her tightly set face: Is this what it’s going to be like?
I foolishly wanted my family’s approval of Helga, which they were incapable of giving. I wanted my friends’ approval too, and that is why I took her to those other parties where we ended up, both of us, as the evening’s chief entertainment. 50’s parties were no great Walpurgisnachts of pleasure for the hopeful young men and women who dragged their tepid souls in from Brooklyn and Queens to the east side of Manhattan. In an age that still knew nothing of singles’ bars, pot or sexual revolutions, parties were the only place where anything happened, and that was, more often than not, precisely nothing. Until Helga and I arrived.
The scene was as invariable as it had been prescribed by a Papal Bull. In that eternal Fifties Lent the social liturgy was always celebrated in dark vestments, black suits, pink shirts and narrow black ties for the gentlemen, slim Audrey Hepburn dresses for the physically fortunate females, noisy horsehair petticoat contrivances for the rest. A patter as stylized as the canon of a Roman Mass rose gently over the plainsong provided by the recorded voice of Al Martino or Eddie Fisher.
As soon as Helga Quincy thrust her head into the sanctuary, a resonant silence began to spread from the front door and eventually reached the hostess busily shucking ice cubes in the kitchen. Peanuts lapsed from mouths; Tom Collinses toppled from the arms of sofas. Slowly the conversational buzz resumed, now welded to a new and unique topic, the visitor who had dropped in from the Bremen docks in her native costume. I went to the bar and Helga moved eagerly to the nearest body. Normally aggressive males flattened themselves against the wall for fear she might address them; the ladies fled en masse to the bathroom to discuss the situation in a safe privacy. Helga and I inevitably met in the center of the room: we were apparently the only people in that company willing to talk to each other.
I didn’t go to parties to talk to Helga but to get some confirmation of her from outside myself. What I got was something else.
“Who’s the girl?”
This is the male variant.
“That’s Helga,” I answer gratefully.
“She looks like a slut.”
“Well, she’s not.”
“Well, she should be. Ditch her, Frank; she’s bad news.”
“How do you know she’s bad news? You just met her.”
“She smells like bad news. Hey, I know this terrific girl. She lives on 83rd Street. You’ve got to meet her.”
“Sure, later,” I say.
The female variant was much briefer
“Who’s your friend?”
“That’s Helga. She’s from Germany,” I answer, still a little grateful.
“Where does she buy her shoes?”
“Aren’t they great?”
“Grotesque is more like it. What do you see in her? Shame on you, Frank.”
Even on the briefest exposure my friends did not find Helga attractive or even, the coward’s last resort, interesting, and I too was beginning to suffer a deflation in my enthusiasm. Asking for sex was no longer painful but hateful, the potato salad and the herring had lost their savor, and I began to feel not like a character in a romantic Viennese operetta but like a prisoner in a real German lock-up. I was gripped with a powerful longing to be alone, for a day, even for an hour. Helga must have known it, but she never relented. She held on tightly, and the more tightly she held, the more desperate and distraught I became.
I told Helga I had to look for a job. It was the saddest of sad lies; all I wanted was to get out of the house, alone. I took the subway into the city and invariably got off at Rockefeller Center. I stood for as long as I could bear it and watched the skaters turning slowly around the ice of the plaza. When I became too cold or too mournful I went into one of the tiny art movies nearby where I became even more deeply depressed in a foreign tongue.
I had just come out from a sunless afternoon watching Peter Van Eyck ferrying a load of high explosives across South America in the company of various French knaves and poltroons. Peter Van Eyck, I decided, had he had the occasion, would have garroted Helga Qincy on the spot, planted her purple shoes in gelignite and smilingly sent the lady in small pieces over the Andes. I, who was incapable of such direct action, turned out of the lobby of the Guild Theater onto 54th Street and found myself staring into the startled face of Joe Santo.
“God, where did you come from, Frank? What are you doing?”
Slowly it dawned on Joe that somewhere he had in fact heard of my clerical demise.
“How was the movie?” he emended.
“Sobering. Peter Van Eyck dynamited this German tart from Quito right back to Oberammergau.”
A very small pinched Santo smile. He also remembered that he had heard about Helga Quincy.
“Seriously, what are you doing, Frank?”
“I’m looking for a job.”
Joe, who was always serious, doubted if anyone else shared his blind devotion to that virtue.
“Do you know Tom O’Meara?”
“No,” I said. “Who is Tom O’Meara? Does he give out jobs?”
“Not exactly, but almost. He’s pretty old now. I think he has a small insurance company or franchise or something. He was once in a seminary and now he tries to find jobs for ex-seminarians.”
“No. Listen, Frank, be serious. He’s in the Lincoln Building on 42nd Street. Next to the Airlines Building and the Automat. Go see him. He looks over your possibilities and tries to fix you up, or at least get you started, on something you might be able to do. And he charges nothing. Great guy. And let’s get together. There’s somebody I want you to meet.”
“Sure. Great. And thanks.”
A week later I sat down with Tom O’Meara in an office at the back of the fourteenth floor of the Lincoln Building. O’Meara was pretty old, I reflected, and neither he nor his bare office looked very prosperous. For my part, I tried to look simultaneously promising and exceedingly skillful.
“Well, young man, let’s try to figure this out,” O’Meara began on a doubtful note, pencil stub in hand. I already suspected that my benefactor’s successes at this charitable enterprise were about as genuine as his own skills.
“Latin, Greek, French, philosophy…”
“You should be teaching,” O’Meara instantly concluded as he put down his unused pencil.
“No, I don’t want to teach.”
“Well, then, let’s see. What did you do before you entered the clerical state?”
“I was in high school.”
“I see.” No note was made on the blank paper on the desk. “Any hobbies? Photography? Carpentry?”
Christ, I thought, O’Meara must have been a lay brother, whatever seminary he was in. Carpentry?
“No, sorry. No carpentry.”
Tom O’Meara sat there, his pencil stub tapping on the unmarked yellow paper, hoping against all hope, I knew, that I would say “ballroom dancing”.
“I like to go to the movies. Look, you were in a seminary. You know what it’s like. You pray and you study. That’s it.”
“Who told you I was in a seminary?” He did not sound complimented.
“Never mind. Do you think you have any marketable skills, Francis?”
It was O’Meara’s kiss-off question, I knew it. I had better come up with something or I would be selling life insurance.
“I like to write. I wrote some in high school and I had to do a lot of it in the Jesuits.”
O’Meara’s eyes widened and then quickly narrowed at “Jesuits”. I was willing to bet he had been a Franciscan. Or maybe worse. An Irish Christian Brother.
“Well, that’s a possibility. Do you have anything you can show me?”
“I think I saved a paper I did on Walter Pater.”
“Pater. Walter Pater.”
“Oh, yes. Look, Francis, this may be a little unfair, but let’s try it. I’ve got some calls to make, so why don’t you sit here and write me something. It doesn’t matter what, just so I can get an idea of your style and approach. OK?”
A bloodbath, that’s what there was going to be, I thought.
One skill, which the Jesuits tried endlessly to knock into the heads of their high school scholars, was totally neglected in their own trainees: no one seemed to care if those candidates for an eternal priesthood could write English. Jesuit seminarians were set to extraordinarily difficult exercises in converting the most idiomatic English into impeccably classical Latin and they translated blindly from a great many languages into English, but they were never encouraged or trained to express their own thoughts in their own mother tongue. Eventually they all developed some sort of prose style, willy-nilly, and my own was freighted with so many Latinisms of diction, cadence and rhetorical trope that it stayed afloat only with the assistance of glossary and notes. Which being so, a reviewer of my first published book later stood amazed at what he was constrained to parse his way through. “What is this crap?” he snorted. Impoverished scholar, he just didn’t recognize Cicero translated into Jesuit English.
I didn’t think that Tom O’Meara was about to either. I knew I had already caused that well meaning man too much pain. I took up the pencil and wrote “Thank you for your time” across the blank sheet of paper and left as quietly as I could.
It may have been the only time that I looked forward to getting back to Queens. It was not only Tom O’Meara; it was my own accumulating guilt. I could sneak off to the movies without Helga, but she had no resources to entertain or instruct herself in alien Queens. She took walks, she told me, and I could imagine her promenading day after day up and down Roosevelt Avenue with the abominable chow. She fancied she could identify other Germans merely by their appearance, and so on her walks half the population of Jackson Heights was startled to find themselves greeted with a smiling “Guten Tag” or “Morgen” from the agreeable lady with the orange hair. She was equally agreeable to me when I returned from the city, but I had no more than to enter the apartment and my guilt at deserting Helga vanished in the face of an overwhelming depression at still having her there.
I could think of no escape. I was simply incapable of confronting her, daring what I suspected was a deep capacity for public rage, even violence. I was frightened of Helga. Instead of confronting her, I withdrew, first my affection, then my attention, all save my physical presence in that room we still shared. It was a reflex not a calculation, and Helga appeared not to notice. I scarcely noticed myself. My desire too began to disappear, and the scale of sexual request and denial tipped lowly in another direction. I had once asked and she denied; it was Helga who now hinted and I professed not to notice. Unwittingly, I had reached her price: celibacy. It was a marvelously Jesuit revenge on their witless defector
I was in no condition to savor the irony of that moment; I was too fearful for my own skin. Nor did I understand how I blundered into this mess, though it was clear enough later. At twenty-seven I was a curious combination of innocence and amorality, like an animal that had been raised in a zoo without the instincts or the means of protecting itself against its own appetites and then suddenly released back into the wild. Nine years in the cloister had more than certified my innocence, but oddly they had done nothing to either curb or even dampen my emotional and sexual appetites with moral restraints. Two months out of that cloister and the word “sin” had disappeared from my vocabulary forever. Even in my darkest moments with Helga it never occurred to me that I was being visited with some kind of firestorm of moral retribution: Helga Quincy was the wages of stupidity perhaps, but certainly not of sin.
Where had the moral education gone? Nowhere. The Jesuits never discussed morality with their trainees; it was perfection they were pursuing, virtues as remote from sin as the rings of Saturn from the darkling earth. I lost my sense of sin in the Jesuits because I did not need it there, and it did not return to me when I was broken back to the ranks of the Faithful. I was through with asceticism forever, the more severe Jesuit version by choice, the milder forms for the ordinary Catholic almost by inadvertence. A lot came off with that black soutane.
I looked up from across the scrambled eggs I had made for our breakfast.
“I’ve been thinking,” Helga said. There was a small crease across her forehead.
I could hear the sound of the fork as I carefully put it down on my plate.
“Something has happened to us,” she continued.
The old me, no older than that Fall when we had met, would have leaped, all guilt and premonition, into the breach she had opened before me. “No,” I would have said. “What are you talking about? Everything is the same, exactly the same. Don’t do anything. Don’t say anything, Helga.” The new me said nothing, however. I sat and listened to my own breathing, my eyes fixed on the plate of eggs before me.
I looked up. I had to.
“I’m going to leave. I’m making you unhappy,” she said in a quiet tone I never realized she possessed.
There was a stabbing sensation in my chest. I felt my heart stop. It was fear. And then slowly it melted and yielded to something quite different. Shortly I was able to identify it. Joy, great waves of it washing over my face, my tongue, down to my heart. My fingers tingled with it. But I froze it there. It must not show. She would kill me, I thought, if she found out my secret joy. Or worse, she would stay.
“Well, if you must. Perhaps it would be better,” was all I was able to choke out of a throat ready to give out a great cry of delight.
Helga looked at me as if inviting further response. I looked at her briefly and then away at my coffee cup which I then carefully raised to my lips, sealing them forever. I knew there was cruelty in my silence, but I feared to say more, to ask when, how soon, or to express some small regret, no matter how formal or ritualistic, on the chance that it would be read as grounds for reconciliation.
My silence, and hers, lasted through her packing. I helped her collect her things. I put into cartons whatever I felt she might like or claim as her own. I wanted no contention. At last she finished and together we carried her clothes, her coffee cups and the cuckoo clock down to the Austin-Healey. She got into the car with the chow beside her. Helga turned and smiled a terrible wordless smile and then drove quickly down Roosevelt Avenue toward the city.
With Helga’s departure I moved back with my parents who generously declined to inquire about the fate or the whereabouts of the German lady with the orange hair who had turned their lives upside-down in the course of a single afternoon. And I wisely declined to supply any details of my bondage on the rock of the Lorelei.