The benches in the New York City Clerk’s office were hard and uncomfortable. The wood was worn and shiny from nervous and impatient squirmings. The room was dim and shabby, wearied from processions of the city poor, eager to pay the few dollars for the privilege of marriage, or not eager, but complying with demanding families, resenting the notices of do’s and dont’s, murmuring to the indifferent walls. And behind barred windows, clerks in funereal voices, never calling names fast enough to spare the nervous couples the glances of others. The eyes that have seen it all before; waiting, birth, death, the history of in-betweens, waiting.
(Visions stillborn or departed…. Nightmare benches crumbling unseen, losing atoms to impatient squirmings. Weary room, deaf to processions of city people, spilling dollars across counters in front of clerks who have seen it all before: the testimony of birth, the swear of fitness. Waiting, birth moment until death. The history of in-betweens. Proclamations do and don’t on fading walls. Faces eager or uneager. Failings of conversation. Waiting. Knells the indifferent voice, names. The marriage place, City Hall. Beginnings.)
Spring brought Allen and Rhoda to marriage. Spring, parents, unknowing, too much desire, but mostly spring. They first met in the Hunter College Library, in a building near Park Avenue. Allen was a night student and had left work early that day to do some last minute studying for a chemistry exam. He didn’t notice who he sat next to. Rhoda attended Hunter College in the Bronx, with its urban luxury of campus. She had made the subway voyage to 69th street for a lecture, then stayed in the library to study for a chemistry exam the next day. She watched him fumble with text and notebook without finding a placemark. She sat losing concentration in the restless hush of libraries. When she heard Allen mumble a formula aloud and get stuck at the end, she provided the answer: “C16”. He looked up in surprise. “What?” “C16. The end of the formula.”
He stared blankly at her, until she said: “Check it in the book.” The reference to the book brought recognition and they laughed for a moment, then offered the questions and complaints of college students. They parted later, without exchanging names.
Allen worked for an insurance company headquartered on 42nd street as a junior accountant. His salary of $290.00 a week, with two raises in two years and another expected, barely enabled him to support himself. He lived alone in a furnished room, had no friends and very few dates with girls. The death of his mother when he was nineteen had brought changes to his life that made a difference day to day. His father, suddenly freed from the distasteful burden of his ailing wife, stopped talking of his hope that his son would be an engineer, although Allen’s lack of higher mathematics had already doomed that hope. Then his father started bringing home women from the shirt factory where he worked. His son soon became an encumbrance.
Allen had left home, found a room and job, switched from day to night school and made a plan to become an accountant. He solved most of his problems by plugging away at them. What he couldn’t solve, he ignored, until one day he had a social problem. He was invited to a party by someone in his office, who only asked him out of politeness. He couldn’t decide whether to go alone, or not at all. He took his problem to the local Greek diner for lunch. He waited on line for a place at the counter, looking out the window at people hurrying somewhere, and he saw the girl from the library walk by. With unaccustomed bravery, he sought the answer to his problem. He dashed out of the diner, followed her until she stopped to look in a shop window, walked quickly past her, then turned back to meet her accidentally.
Rhoda wasn’t attractive. Her mother began to punish her for this crime when she was four years old. She became a make-believe child, pretending a secret life in her head. Her father always sat in the imitation green-leather armchair, reading his newspaper, only pausing to tell her to obey her mother. When she was twelve her breasts began to grow, despite her mother’s strenuous objections. By the time she started high school, she was used to boys brushing their shoulders against her. When she was sixteen, she submitted to back-seat copulations in her boyfriend’s car. She felt nothing in the drive-in sex, though sometimes the clumsy pokings made her sore. But the attention was delicious, until she overheard him tell another boy that he did it to her for old glory, with a flag over her face.
Rhoda wasn’t happy. After graduating from high school, she worked during the summer as a file clerk. The boys at work were the same as in high school. Older, but the same. She went to college dreaming of romance. Not someone on the football or basketball team, but perhaps the fencing team. She joined a sorority, but they were nicknamed the Fuzzie-Wuzzies on campus. They rarely dared to meet fraternities. All she wanted was a nice boy to like her for herself, not just her large breasts, who would take her away from her mother’s complaints and her father’s disinterest. But the nice boys were scarce, or they were busy elsewhere.
She frequently forgot her loneliness by wandering along Fifth Avenue, looking in the expensive shop windows, imagining a husband who would shower her with gifts. The day after a disappointing twenty-first birthday, with no classes scheduled, she went for a walk on Fifth Avenue. She was looking in a shop window, when in the reflection she saw the boy from the library. He walked by very quickly and before she could even turn around, he was lost in the crowd. She thought sadly of their brief meeting, turned to go and saw him walking slowly and casually towards her.
“Well, hello,” he said.
She smiled and put a pleased look on her face. “Hello.”
“Do you remember me?”
“Of course. You’re the boy from the library.”
“That’s right. C16.”
They laughed together at this. They stood in the swirl and rush of lunch-time city people and their smiles began to strain as they searched for words. Finally, he blurted: “Are you in a hurry?”
“No. I’m just going shopping. Why?”
“Did you have lunch yet?”
‘Have coffee with me?”
“That would be nice.”
“What’s your name?”
“Rhoda. Rhoda Haskins. What’s yours?”
“Allen Ross. Glad to know you, Rhoda.”
“I’m glad to know you, Allen.”
They got acquainted over coffee, somehow surviving their nervous gropings at conversation back and forth long enough for Allen to invite her to the party. No one was really very interested in them at the party, but the many introductions made Rhoda feel affectionate toward him. She held his arm constantly and danced close to him. It was the first time that socializing, not sex, was expected of her. Allen was delighted that he wasn’t alone and more delighted by Rhoda’s obvious pleasure. It was a very satisfactory evening. Allen took Rhoda home, kissed her goodnight and went home feeling cheerful. Rhoda was ecstatic. Her passport had arrived. He had made another date before he left.
Their courtship was ordinary. Allen thought mostly about sex and not being alone. Rhoda thought about marriage and not being alone. It worked well for both of them. They went to movies; secret agent films for him, subtitles and happy endings for her. They tried a Broadway musical and they liked it. They went to a football game, but she didn’t understand it and he didn’t like the crowds. They took long walks and as the nights grew colder, shorter walks, ending in the semi-finished basement of Rhoda’s house, where they kissed and touched, sometimes a little more, but not much, until the voice of Rhoda’s mother echoed downstairs, sending him home, each time too soon.
Time brought them swiftly together. Time and too much shyness and yearning. They saw each other on weekends. Thanksgiving dinner was at her house. He got a raise; a nightclub to celebrate. At Christmas they gave each other bracelets; hers ankle, his wrist. New Years Eve they went to a nightclub. Later that night, at her house, half naked, her parents came home early, thwarting his lust. Four months went by. When the school semester ended, they saw each other every night. He was always urgent when they were together. She was urgent when they were apart. School started again. She came to meet him after work, sometimes sitting through his classes. They sent each other sentimental cards: ‘Be my Valentine’. Then one evening his landlady was away, she seeming shy, he posing assured, both nervous, later saying it was good. Then spring arrived, bursting them open with hungers. He surprised her by moving to a new apartment and asking her to live with him. She surprised him by saying that it wouldn’t be right. So he had to make a choice, and it was marriage.
(Leaving those unlovely chambers of matrimony, how many couples, joined for moments or longer. Waiting the in-betweens away. Remembering the faces of others. License held in twitching hand. Now you didn’t forget the ring. I told them where it was. I hope they won’t be late. Torrents of discomfort pouring through people. Weak grins. Awkward pauses. Splendor never discovered. Posed in solemn vestments, a stranger, mumbling an instant, ancient rhythms, splashed upon them without meaning.)
The day was a stubborn memory of winter, whipping a cold, sullen wind, reluctant to depart. Rhoda, nose reddened and running, Allen paler than illness, arrived at City Hall, sent there by his father, who didn’t want complications. Her mother didn’t want an unbeautiful bride. He was bewildered and embarrassed and she hadn’t emerged from resentment at her mother, as they wandered through the maze of administration.
“There must be a sign around here, somewhere,” he said.
“Why don’t you ask somebody?” she snapped.
“And listen to some stupid joke? We can find it by ourselves.”
“We’ve been walking for ten minutes. Ask that guard. Or shall I?”
“No. I’ll do it. Pardon me, sir. Where is …. Where’s the license bureau?”
“What kinda license do you want? We got hunting licenses, cabaret licenses, drivers licenses….”
“Oh, Allen,” she said in exasperation, then turned to the guard. “We want to get married.”
“Well, if you go outside and turn left, you’ll see a big building with arches. That’s the Municipal Building, the place you want.”
He stood there grinning at Allen’s discomfort, as Rhoda led him away.
“Thank you,” she called back.
“You’re welcome, lady. Good luck.” And when they were almost at the door, he called, still grinning: “Don’t forget to turn in your learner’s permit.”
Allen turned to Rhoda, slightly confused: “Are we supposed to have a permit?”
“Don’t be silly. He’s teasing you. Now hurry up.”
After wandering up stairs and through musty corridors they found the right office. Their parents were already there, standing separately. The introductions were awkward. They showed birth certificates and the doctor’s notes to a clerk, paid for the license and were told to wait until the papers were ready. Rhoda didn’t mind waiting. She gushed to her father and mother about how she would decorate Allen’s apartment. She wanted them to know how happy she was. Neither of them listened very carefully. Her father was thinking of his imitation green-leather armchair. Her mother was preparing a farewell address to her daughter that would properly conclude her parental obligation.
Allen’s father had taken part of the afternoon off to attend his son’s wedding. He also wanted to bury the tiny shreds of guilt that had lingered after his son left home. He had absolutely nothing to say, as father and son stood together, one wanting the ceremony over so he could return to work and entertainment after work; the other hoping for a few words of comfort, or at least an expression of interest. They all waited in separate cubicles, becoming more restless as other names were called. Finally, they heard the last public mention of their separate names and they proceeded to new identities.
(Rooms of visitation. Reeking of the fearful smells of courtrooms. Till death do us part. How many deaths do part before death? What reason? What hunger breeds the visitation? Joined without hope to endure. Come together alone, urging togetherness. Repeating the journeys of others, through corridors that bear no echoes of passing. Speaking no protest at unready joinings, the ponderous binding. I pronounce you unvenereal, and born, and able to pay the fee. Leave here united, man and wife. Go into tomorrow.)
Again they had to wait. This time in a large room that seemed more suitable for criminal trials. The papers were given to another clerk, who said that the magistrate would be ready for them soon. They sat on a bench, in the large room of empty benches, as if they were to be called to the stand, accused of dreadful crimes. Rhoda was finally silent, brooding about his lack of enthusiasm. Her father was yearning for his armchair. Her mother was trying to decide if tears would be a good ending to her speech. Allen’s father stared out the window at nothing, constantly tugging at his slightly soiled sleeve to see his wristwatch.
Allen was thinking of other people’s reasons for marriage. These were new thoughts, for he always thought people married because they wanted to. But a family scene in the other room had birthed new implications. There was a young, almost unbelievably beautiful boy, perhaps seventeen years old, sitting alone with the pathos of a doomed angel. Two sets of parents and a mildly pretty, slightly bulging girl of about twenty-three, carried on a bitter argument about what was obviously being solved by their appearance together. The boy ignored everything, sitting like an innocent, snared animal, awaiting destruction. Allen was rapidly learning that some of the jokes about marriage were true.
The benches did not get softer and time did not pass faster. Their restless squirmings did not distract the clerk from his papers; that veteran of so many squirmings. Conversation had completely deserted them and they sat a group of strangers, each wondering why they were there, hoping it would soon be over. Trips to the toilet for the gentlemen and fresh lipstick for the ladies didn’t really help relieve the tension. They all sighed with relief when a door opened behind them and the right name was called at last.
The voice belonged to the magistrate, an anonymous figure in black. When they turned towards the sound, he beckoned to them, repeating the name: “Mr. Ross. Would you bring your party into my chambers?”
The not very cheerful party went into the tiny, one-room chambers. The magistrate stationed himself behind a desk, flanked by the American and New York State flags. He mumbled good afternoon without introducing himself and went about his preparations, which consisted of opening a worn book to the proper page, then setting a timer that would have been more appropriate for boiling eggs. This done, with a brief, unwarming smile, he turned to the business at hand.
“Well now, young man. If you’ll just step up to the desk with the little lady on your left, we’ll make this as painless as possible. Will this be a single or double ring ceremony?”
The last impediment dealt with, he proceeded to unite them in matrimony in record time. Barely pausing for responses, he finished and offered indifferent congratulations in well under three minutes. He shut off the timer before the bell rang and waited for them to leave. Bewildered, they left on mechanical legs that took them to the street. They were now joined forever, or as long as forever would last, without the faintest idea what to do next. Then Allen did the most decisive thing in his life. He turned to Rhoda. “Let’s say goodbye to our parents and go home.” “Yes, dear,” she responded demurely, which they did, to the enduring frustration of her mother, who didn’t get to deliver her farewell address.
Banner Image:By Nightscream (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons