PART I: BEFORE // Chapter Four: How He Grew Up: 20

As the calendar proceeded on its steady pace past Halloween towards Thanksgiving, life for Gil and Natalie for the first time since they had moved in together last summer began to settle into something resembling a normal domestic routine.

As their finances were quite adequate that fall, Natalie had decided that Gil need not seek work until after the holidays. She smiled when she recalled that Gil, the evening after his meeting with Gorman and being paid, had solemnly but ceremoniously written her a check for three thousand dollars. “After all,” he had said, “you are my agent, and I would never have been selected for this great project had you not been working for Gorman.”

Indeed, this was the first time since they had met almost a year ago that Gil had seemed pleased at viewing the result of a project he had directed. And, after over four months of living together, he now seemed quite at ease with her so that their relationship seemed quite natural.

My little boy is growing up, she thought. In reviewing the last year she realized she had taught him how to have sex, how to drive, even the joys of smoking pot. He had come a long way.

But there, she realized, was the rub. She had just turned thirty-four and she obviously wasn’t getting any younger. She couldn’t simply sit there and play the fun-loving Girl Friday forever. She had plans. She had had plans for the last ten years, and though they might be a step nearer to fruition, it seemed a small amount of progress for a decade’s worth of striving. She had Gil, she knew that now, but she also knew that Gil was not much higher on the Hollywood ladder than she was. Sure, he had finally directed his first feature-length film and it was being well-received for what it was. But she had been around Hollywood long enough to know that these kinds of pictures never made any impression on the Academy, nor did they get any notice in the formal and traditional film reviews. She also realized that it might take him years to reach the point where he could actually choose his own projects and have any possibility of getting financing for them. It was, she realized again, a one hundred to one chance—and she didn’t like the odds.

But that didn’t stop her from wanting to bring her message to the world in the form of the film scripts that were still languishing in the desk drawer of their apartment’s second bedroom which she and Gil used occasionally for a study. She was, she thought, like the girl in that old Beatles song, she had no car and it was breaking her heart. But at least she had a driver and that was a start. Not much of a start maybe, but Gil could be the driver.

What she needed, to continue the metaphor, was the vehicle. For long nights during the period between early November through the Thanksgiving holidays and well into the month of December, she pondered these problems during sleepless nights. She would wake up early in the morning, hours before sunrise, realizing that her subconscious had been working on this problem and had finally forced her awake. She would smile as she turned her head and saw Gil peacefully snoring beside her. Then she would sit up, turn away, and stare out the window sometimes at the gently falling rain, and sometimes at the moon and stars in a cloudless sky. Pensively she would drum her fingers on the windowsill and try to think of a solution.

By mid December, after weeks of deliberation, she realized she had no choice. It was a long shot, but it might just work, and if it didn’t she would be no worse off anyway.

On the second Sunday in December when they were both sitting around the apartment doing nothing in particular as the rain was falling heavily and steadily outside, she had tactfully reminded him that she was due to make her annual visit to her parents in New York in about a week but that she would be back, as she had last year, by New Year’s Eve so that they could celebrate. She was relieved to discover that Gil had been expecting this all along and was okay with it. He even offered to finance her trip so that she wouldn’t have to dip into her savings. She didn’t really need the money, but she thought it would be diplomatic to accept his offer gratefully. She then asked him what he would do while she was away. He had responded vaguely by saying he would probably catch up on the current movie scene and do a lot of reading. Since his mood seemed quietly upbeat she didn’t press him for details. So within a week, with an extra two thousand dollars in her account, she decided to splurge and for a change book a first-class seat on a non-stop United Airlines flight to LaGuardia.

However, her plane was already an hour behind schedule due to heavy snowfall when it finally landed. She had planned for this eventuality by bringing along the cold weather gear she kept in the spare closet in the apartment for just this special time of year. So, decked out in woolly hat, earmuffs, full-length fur coat, high leather boots, and soft kidskin gloves, she went immediately upon arrival to the bank of pay telephones in the main concourse and phoned her parents to tell them that she had arrived.

As they had been expecting her arrival on this day, they were at home and doing nothing in particular. Natalie decided once again since it was snowing and she had about three pieces of luggage, to splurge on a taxi going all the way from LaGuardia Airport in Queens to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The trip would cost her over ten dollars, but with the weather conditions she figured it was worth it. The taxi let her off in front of the six-story brownstone apartment building that her parents owned. However, they lived in only one of the modest two-bedroom apartments on the top floor, as it was just the two of them and they required little space. The building was located on a nice block of West 85th Street between Broadway and West End. Having tipped the driver a generous two dollars, he was more than happy to carry her luggage to the building’s entrance where he deposited it on the porch and, tipping his hat and wishing her Happy Holidays, he hurried back to his cab as it was the busy season.

Pressing the bell she was immediately buzzed in, then managed to wrestle her bags over to the elevator which she took up to their sixth-floor apartment. Getting off the elevator, she was surprised to see that the door of her parents’ apartment down the hall was open and her father was hurrying towards the elevator to meet her.

He embraced her, planted a kiss on her forehead, and then without a word grabbed two of her suitcases and hurried back toward the apartment, all the time clad only in robe and slippers. Not bad for a seventy-five year-old, thought Natalie.

Following his lead she picked up her remaining suitcase, trotted down the hall and entered the apartment, closing the door behind her. Setting down her suitcase, she endured numerous hugs and kisses from both her mother and her father before she had a chance to survey the scene and take stock of the situation.

The apartment, or what she could see of it from the living room, was much the same as it had been the previous year and, indeed, the same as it had looked when she left for Los Angeles over six years ago. The furniture was lived-in but not worn, comfortable but not showy. The extensive couch and several armchairs were all plushly upholstered while the various hardwood tables and cabinets were all polished to a brilliant sheen. In one corner of the room was a large television set and near it a stereo phonograph with a rack of her parents’ favorite record albums, mostly opera and classical music. Her father at seventy-five sported a long gray beard that would have done credit to an Old Testament prophet, but there the resemblance ended. While most of the biblical figures were assumed to be physically imposing, her father was only about five-six and slight of build. His hair had gotten much longer in the ten years since he had retired from his position as chief of cardiology for Beth Israel Hospital, and was now shaggy and down to his collar line. Amazingly for his age he wore no spectacles, and his dark eyes flashed a look of both intelligence and alertness. He had, Natalie remembered, an ironic sense of humor combined with a self-deprecatory attitude and she had never been able to tell whether it was heartfelt or merely for effect. He did however enjoy on occasion playing the Old Jew.

As slight as his stature was, Abraham Feinbergen positively towered over his wife Sarah, nearly ten years his junior, and smaller in stature even than Natalie. One’s initial response on meeting her was that she must be one of those mousy little women subservient and eager to please, but that was not the case. She had a backbone like a steel rod, both metaphorically and physically, and she had a dry sense of humor that reminded one of Alice Kramden on the old Honeymooners television show.

They sat her down on the couch and while her father peppered her with questions, mainly about the Hollywood scene (for he was an avid moviegoer), her mother busied herself in the kitchen, quickly bringing out a pot of tea with cups and saucers and a plate of rugelach.

The conversation was genial and Natalie could tell that both her parents were well and in good spirits. Now was the time, she thought. “Poppa, Momma, last year just before I visited you, I met this wonderful guy. I didn’t tell you last year because I didn’t know if it would come to anything. But we’ve been seeing each other steadily for the last year, and nearly six months ago we took an apartment together. You remember, I sent you a change of address and phone number last summer.”

At this her mother made a little clucking noise and her father raised his eyebrows, but did not look displeased. “So what you are telling me,” he ventured, “is that you’ve got a boyfriend. I guess the next thing I’m expected to say, and I know it’s gotta be said, even though I don’t much like to say it, Is he Jewish?”

Natalie chuckled in spite of herself. Her father apparently hadn’t changed since she had been old enough to really see him as a person. “No,” she said flatly, “but he’s not exactly a gentile either. In fact, I’m not really sure what he is, except he’s becoming a Hollywood film director.”

Her mother shook a finger at her. “You got to be careful,” she said. “I hope he’s nothing like that horrible professor, that Eric what’s-his-name, you were married to for what, a couple of weeks?”

“No momma,” she said, “he’s nothing like that. First of all, he’s younger than I am by about eight years, and he’s very sweet and sensitive and he thinks the world of me and he lets me run his life.”

“Aha!” beamed her father. “Then it’s just like your mother and me.” He gave Sarah a wink to show he was just kidding and she took it in stride. “But I gotta ask this question. Are you in love with this guy?”

Natalie knew this question was inevitable but pondered it for a few seconds anyway. Knitting her brows and looking serious she said, “Poppa, this time I think I really am. I know it’s only been a year, but I can’t imagine him not being in my life.”

“Well then,” Abe said, “so when’s the wedding already?”

“Hush Abe,” her mother cautioned, “don’t rush the girl.”

“That’s okay, Momma,” said Natalie, “we haven’t actually gotten around to talking about it, but I know it’s what we both want.”

“So,” said Abe expansively, “then what’s the problem? You need money?”

“Well,” she replied, “yes and no. I mean, we’re doing all right, we’ve got plenty of money in the bank and all that, and Gil—his name is Gil by the way—is getting more work all the time. But there is something I want to talk to you about seriously.”

“Okay,” said her father. “Sounds good to me. So now let’s all have a good time. Have a good visit. Let’s enjoy each other!”

“Natalie,” her mother ventured, “this boy of yours, you say he’s a director. Is he maybe a big-shot director? Or maybe just a little director?”

“Yeah,” added Abe. “He done anything we might have seen?”

“Well,” said Natalie hesitantly, “he did just finish a picture that came out a couple of months ago, but I don’t think it’s really your kind of movie.”

“My kind of movie!” Abe exclaimed. “You’d be surprised. I watch all kinds of movies since I retired. Don’t I, Momma?” He turned to her with another wink.

Sarah gave Natalie a long-suffering look. “Yes, I’m afraid he does.” She shook her head slowly in mock disgust. “So, what’s the name of this picture?” persisted Abe. “Maybe it’s still playing around here somewhere.”

Natalie rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Last Orgy on Blood Beach.”

“Wooo!” Abe trilled. “Sounds exciting! Has it got a lot of beach beauties?”

Again Natalie grinned in spite of herself. “You won’t be disappointed there, poppa.”

“Ah, good! Momma, get me the Times. I wanna look up and see if this picture’s still around somewhere!”

With another disapproving shake of her head, Sarah got up, went over to a rack near the television and came back with the Arts & Leisure section of last Sunday’s New York Times and handed it to Abe.

Abe reached into the pocket of his robe and put on the pair of spectacles he used only for reading. Then he opened the paper and leafed through it till he found the movie listings. “Aha!” he said, looking up in triumph as he stabbed the paper with a forefinger. “Look here Momma, it says so right here. Last Orgy on Blood Beach. Apparently it’s playing at some theater called the Avon on Times Square. On Forty-second near Broadway.” He scrutinized the listing again more closely, then he looked at Natalie. “Today’s Friday, right? I lose track of the days sometimes since I’ve been retired.”

“Yeah, it’s Friday all right. About five in the afternoon in case you don’t know what time it is either.”

Abe took this jab with great amusement. “Ah!” he said again. “That’s a good one. I see you haven’t lost your rapier wit, Natalie. But seriously, you can’t go tomorrow, it’s the Sabbath. I don’t want to go to Times Square after dark, it’s dangerous down there. But look, they got a Sunday matinee, two o’clock. Why don’t we all go? We’ll make a party. I’ll even buy dinner at the Stage after.” He looked at Sarah and Natalie in turn. “That okay with you ladies?”

“Sure.” Sarah smiled for the first time. Turning to Natalie she said, “Let’s see what kind of stuff your big-shot director does.”

So Natalie reluctantly agreed and they fell to talking about other matters. Natalie desperately hoped that seeing this picture would not have her parents fleeing from the theater in horror and disgust.

Later that night in the room that had been hers for as long as she could remember and had always been freshly prepared for her annual visits, she lay awake in bed surrounded by dolls and stuffed animals well-remembered from her childhood, and pensively looked out the window at the still-falling snow. Her parents had gone to bed some hours ago and the entire apartment was silent as a tomb.

Her mood was temporarily lightened when she thought of the fun she had had over the years mock-sparring with her father. It had all started when she had left to go to Columbia back in 1959. She had been only eighteen and was going through one of those rebellious phases in which she more or less rejected everything her admittedly upper-middle class parents thought and believed, including their Jewishness. It was then that her father began playing the Old Jew, complete with Borscht Belt accent. She realized now that it had been his way of attempting to defuse her earnestness and seriousness with loving humor. That he had continued this act to the present day, even though for years there had been no need for it, was proof to Natalie that it had become a sort of game between them.

No, the subject that was causing Natalie to stare pensively out the window was indeed the real reason why this holiday visit was going to be different than those of the previous five years dating back to her move to Los Angeles. This year she had a mission to accomplish. So, stiffening her resolve, she lay down, snuggled herself into the clean sheets and downy comforter, and tried to sleep.

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