A Box of Darkness: The Story of a Marriageby Sally Ryder Brady
In the tradition of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking comes a poignant memoir about a marriage that was as deep and strong as it was mysterious and complex.
In the tradition of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking comes a poignant memoir about a marriage that was as deep and strong as it was mysterious and complex.
Bittersweet memoir of a highly stressed marriage that somehow endured for nearly half a century.
Freelance editor and writer Brady (A Yankee Christmas: Feasts, Treats, Crafts, and Traditions of Wintertime New England, 1992, etc.) is the widow of Upton Brady, for many years the editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press. Her story of their marriage opens with the scattering of his ashes near Woods Hole, Mass., in 2008, and promptly reveals that Upton was sometimes a mean drunk. In chapters that shift back and forth between the present and the past, Brady tells the story of their relationship beginning in 1956, when she was a Boston debutante and he a Harvard undergraduate. Although his Irish Catholic background did not match her mother's vision of a son-in-law, they were married in 1962 and swiftly produced four children. Marriage and fathering children, it seems, was viewed by Upton as a cure for homosexuality. It was not. Although he had sex with men, was a heavy drinker, was verbally and physically abusive and was financially unstable and secretive, Brady loved him and stuck with him, believing he loved her too. Her discovery, shortly after his death, of gay pornography hidden among his effects led her to question that belief. This memoir is her attempt to examine their past and to discover who her husband really was. It is clear that she adored him, saw him as brilliant and talented and for a long time blamed herself for his failings. Because she is looking back at her husband and their long marriage with present-day eyes, it is not always clear what she knew and what she refused to know when she was younger and living through some truly trying, eye-opening experiences. Her conclusion is that her beloved, deeply troubled husband lived two lives: the domestic world with her, and the gay world that he tried desperately to keep secret.
The marriage candidly portrayed here, with all its joys and failures, misunderstandings and misery, provides ample fodder for discussion in women's book groups.
The New York Times
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
We cannot tell the story of anything without telling the story of everything.
—THOMAS BERRY VERMONT, MARCH 23, 2008
My husband, Upton Birnie Brady, was born on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1938, at the Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. His mother, Madee (Mah-dee, short for Mother dear), used to speak of this confluence with wonder. Cigarette between her fingers, she would tell how her young husband, Francis, had come to the hospital fresh from Mass, his arms full of violets. Susie, six; Ellen, almost four; and fifteen-month-old Francis, called Buff, were at home with their stuffed bunnies and their grandmother. “To be born on Easter,” Madee would say, smoke circling her head, “on the Feast of the Resurrection, is to be twice blessed.”
Now it is Easter again and the house in Vermont is bursting with our grown children and their children, everyone painting eggs at the dining room table. The ham is in the oven. The jelly beans have been hidden. There is a foot of snow outside, and not a violet anywhere. The adult children are coping. But I am in a bubble of disbelief, which keeps bursting when I don’t see Upton anywhere. The chair where he sits with the Times crossword puzzle is empty. On his desk, untouched, lies the manuscript he was editing, his wry comments (two in Latin!) so neatly penciled in the margins. Upton’s ordinary, everyday handwriting is as legible and well-proportioned as his Chancery italic on handmade Christmas tags. His final shopping list—dishwash, steak, pots—remains intact on the refrigerator door. His slippers are waiting on the floor by his side of the bed. While I notice these things, the children are urging me to come up with a plan for his memorial service. Our eldest son, Andrew, his wife, Mari, and their two young children have come all the way from San Francisco, and it would save them two thousand dollars if we could do everything within three weeks. Upton always said he wanted to be buried at sea, and we’ve agreed to scatter his ashes the following weekend. But I truly do not know what Upton would want us to do for a public memorial service, where he would want it to be, or even if he would want one at all. And then the thought crosses my mind that it doesn’t really matter what Upton would want; we are doing this for the living, not for him. We just have trouble saying it. We have trouble saying many things.
Three nights ago, Natty was the first to get here. Upton’s body was taken away by the undertaker at ten, and Natty arrived at midnight. We had a beer, and I told him how Upton had had a bath late in the day, as he frequently did, but then hadn’t come down to watch the weather. Upton never liked watching the news, but he always watched the weather, every night at six-fifteen. I had heard the water sluicing down the pipes around six, and when the weather came on, I wondered why he still hadn’t come downstairs. Afterward, I put the gratin in the oven, set the table, and went up to check on him. The bathroom door was closed, a strip of light coming from the bottom. I knew as I knocked and called out, breathing in the piney scent of rosemary oil from the bath salts, that something was wrong. I didn’t wait for a reply, just opened the door, and there he was, clean and sweet and dry, his torso in the empty tub, his legs hanging over the side, his strong feet pink, each toenail smooth and nicely shaped. I tried to picture him perched on the edge of the tub, trying to catch his breath after the long hot soak. His heart must have stopped, not enough oxygen, then a quick collapse and gentle slide back into the tub. His blue eyes were closed, and his face so beautifully serene. No body fluids, no bruises, no life; just an overwhelming peace.
I told Natty how my neighbor Kitty had stayed with me while kind men streamed into the house: paramedics, police, the medical examiner, the undertaker. I told him my answer when the paramedics asked me if they should continue their efforts to bring Upton back to life; I knew that even if they were miraculously successful in getting his heart to work again, no one could restore Upton’s brain, oxygen-deprived for at least twenty minutes. Natty listened while I told him about the day, unexpectedly Upton’s and my last together. Unexpectedly, because even though Upton had recently been diagnosed with emphysema, and had a history of heart problems, he was on medication and his short-term prognosis was good.
It had snowed all night and most of the day. Upton, wedded to his daily routine and usually undaunted by slippery roads, decided at ten not to get the mail, and at twelve-thirty, not even to go out for his usual lunch at the Co-op. In the soft daylight of falling snow, we polished off Sunday’s asparagus soup, our backs warmed by the woodstove. We talked about the books we were working on and the taxes that were soon due. Upton cooked Mondays through Thursdays. He hated leftovers and shopped every day for that night’s supper when he went out for lunch. Since he hadn’t gone out, I offered to turn Sunday’s baked ham into supper with leeks, potatoes, and a little cheese, and he was grateful.
“I’ve been cold all day,” he said. “If you cook, I can have a nice hot bath before dinner.”
We talked about Easter, coming up soon, and where we would go to celebrate the victory of life over death. Our beloved and liberal pastor had retired suddenly a few years ago, driven out by spurious gossip of gay activities, and his humorless replacement made both of us crazy with his ultraconservative doctrine.
“Let’s drive down to Cambridge and go to St. Paul’s,” suggested Upton. “We could stop for lunch on the way back.”
A fine plan. St. Paul’s had been Upton’s church while he was at Harvard and again, five years later, when we moved back to Cambridge from New York. I received my religious instruction at St. Paul’s, and six months later, made my First Communion there, a brand-new Catholic, and mother of three small children. St. Paul’s was also home to the Boston Boy Choir, and blessed with extraordinary music.
But a few minutes after suggesting we go to St. Paul’s, Upton changed his mind. “You know, I don’t want to be seen in any Roman Catholic church. Let’s just stay here.”
Both of us were disgusted by the rash of reports of rampant sexual abuse, and furious at the way the Church continued to protect its pederast priests. But there was also sorrow in Upton’s voice, and I knew he missed the liturgy and the liturgical calendar that had been so central throughout his almost seventy years.
Upton would deliberately astonish people he barely knew by saying he had been raised in a Benedictine monastery, as if he’d been a foundling, left in the care of the good brothers. A colorful story, but the truth is that his father was the lay headmaster of the Portsmouth Priory (now Portsmouth Abbey) School in Rhode Island. The Bradys lived in an eighteenth-century farmhouse on the Priory grounds, where the sound of the chapel bell measured their days from lauds to compline. The Church was in the air they breathed, its sacrificial doctrine embedded in their flesh and blood.
A few minutes later, Upton put his soupspoon down. “You know,” he said, blue eyes fixed on the snow, “when I come back to this world, I think I’d like to come back as a stone.”
He turned his gaze on me. “Stones are peaceful. Don’t you think that would be a good way to return?”
Why was he thinking of returning, when he was still right here, with me? I didn’t say that. Nor did I mention that it would be cold to be a stone today, in this snow. I didn’t say that maybe stones don’t have feelings. I just nodded and said, “Yes, very peaceful.”
* * *
I talked until Natty and I were both spent. It was time for bed, something I’d been dreading. I looked at my son, standing in the kitchen, solid and robust.
“Natty, what will I do? Where will I sleep?”
He gave me a stern, blue-eyed stare. “Mom, if you ever want to sleep in that bed again, you’d better do it now.”
Natty was right. I spent what was left of the night in Upton’s and my old spool bed, with his clean scent still on the pillow, and the terrain of his body visible in the hollows of our old mattress.
BOSTON, JUNE 1956
I first met Upton Brady at the Boston Cotillion. In May, I graduated from Foxhollow, a small boarding school for girls in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a week later, I turned seventeen. In September, I would start my freshman year at Barnard College in New York. But on that June night in the ornate ballroom of the old Copley Plaza with its gilded chairs and potted palms, I was a wary Boston debutante in a rustling, long white dress and creamy kid gloves that stopped at my shoulders. There were a hundred of us, each with shiny hair, our teeth straight, lined up to proceed on our father’s arm down the length of the ballroom to the six matrons waiting to welcome us into Boston society. Two of these women with their glittering diamond rings and pearl chokers were mothers of friends from school. They’d given me rides in their station wagons; I’d seen them in blue jeans, raking leaves and scouring their kitchens. And now, as the master of ceremonies announced my name, I curtsied to them—not just a little bob of a curtsy, but all the way to the floor. It was hard not to giggle.
George, my Cotillion escort, home for the summer from Yale, was a good friend, not a boyfriend. Like me, he was tongue-in-cheek about the debutante ritual. What’s more, he was a quick, sure-footed partner, making me feel like Cyd Charisse as we circled and dipped beneath the winking chandeliers. Unlike most couples that night, we were there to dance, not flirt; I think that’s why Upton cut in, for the dancing.
“Upton Brady.” He bowed slightly as he took my gloved hand, and I thought he clicked his heels, though it happened so fast I wasn’t sure.
“Sally Ryder,” I said, caught suddenly by the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.
Most men at dancing parties were much too tall for me, their feet too big. But not this blond, fine-boned Harvard sophomore with startlingly blue eyes. When he put his hand firmly against my back and propelled me across the polished floor, our bodies fit, leg to leg, pelvis to pelvis. I instinctively knew what his next step would be. When, without any warning, he let me drop almost to the floor in a dip, I didn’t miss a beat. And when someone cut in a few minutes later, I was both sorry and glad—sorry the dance with Upton was over, but glad it was clear I was no wallflower. Maybe, I thought, he will cut in again.
And he did, several times that night, each time asking me to tell him my name, one more time. Upton Brady, impeccably turned out in his grandfather’s tails, boiled shirt with gold studs and wing collar, was charming, even when tipsy; even when he couldn’t remember my name. It seemed as if he could physically telegraph to my body whatever steps he was inventing on the dance floor, making each swooping waltz and sultry tango feel as natural as breathing.
At the many coming-out parties that followed the Cotillion, Upton would often appear—a self-proclaimed “deb’s delight.” He would cut in, and skim me across the floor, tails whipping around his narrow hips. At every party, when the music stopped, he would give me a slightly sheepish look, his eyes too bright.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he’d say, his hand still firm against the small of my back, “but I’ve forgotten your name again.”
My debutante year sped by, with many dancing parties and many dancing partners—handsome, eligible young men who, unlike Upton, did remember my name. But Upton was the one I looked for.
The summer of 1956, right after the Cotillion, I was an apprentice at the Cambridge Drama Festival, a summer theater company that put on three high-powered Equity shows: Saint Joan, starring Siobhán McKenna; The Beggar’s Opera, with Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy; and Henry the Fifth, with Michael Wager, Douglass Watson, and Felicia Monteleagre, who was married to Leonard Bernstein. Overnight, I became more Bohemian than debutante, my silky pageboy now replaced by saucy gamin fringe.
Two of the producers, Bryant Haliday and William Morris Hunt, were founders of the Brattle Theatre Company, an avant-garde, professional company in Cambridge. Haliday and several of the actors were openly homosexual, something no one paid much attention to. I had never known anyone who was queer—at least, not that I knew of. I didn’t even know what it was they did, just that it was forbidden. Bryant had a beautiful young French boy, ten or eleven, living with him. I didn’t know what their relationship was, but there were hints of sex that made me uneasy, and made me think there was something sinister about Bryant. I never felt comfortable around him, but the other homosexual men were more familiar to me, easy to be around, and I soon stopped thinking of them as different from any of the other assorted theater people.
I met Nikos at the end of that summer at a typical Cambridge party in a hot, crowded, third-floor garret. I was sitting on top of the refrigerator wearing a red Lanz dress sprinkled with valentines. Nikos appeared, so tall his dark eyes were nearly level with mine from my perch. He looked like a young Gregory Peck, only darker and even more handsome, his lips curved in a classic archaic smile. Nikos, with his laundered English shirts and formal, European manners, was not a bit like the other scruffy, sandaled, Harvard Square actor/playwrights, and I wanted him to ask me out. But Harvard Summer School was ending, and Nikos was on his way to Europe before classes started up again in the fall.
In September, I began my freshman year at Barnard. Nikos and I didn’t meet again until the following year, when I was back in Cambridge. I spent far more time at Yale and Princeton my freshman year than in classrooms or the library, and in June, the Barnard deans wisely suggested that I take a year or two off. I moved back in with my parents, learned to type, and got a job at Harvard with time off to study acting at Boston University. Joan Baez was in my acting class. She, too, lived with her parents, in nearby Belmont, and three mornings a week she’d pick me up on her Vespa and off we’d go. For the next two years, I acted in the Poets’ Theatre and in various Harvard productions, where Nikos and I rediscovered each other and began to go out, casually at first, and soon with a new fire. Nikos paid attention to me, to my clothes, to my stories about growing up in Woods Hole, to my theatrical ambitions. He seemed hungry to know everything about me, and made me feel as if I had a wealth of treasure to offer him, bright gems to delight another person, something I’d never felt before.
His senior year, Nikos moved off campus into an apartment with two classmates, a grown-up arrangement with separate bedrooms and no parietal hours, unlike in the Harvard dorms. One of his roommates had a live-in girlfriend whose diaphragm sat carelessly on the shelf above the bathroom sink. I was still a virgin, a “nice girl” who couldn’t imagine chatting with my doctor—also my mother’s doctor—about birth control. I would eye the diaphragm, thinking there was something slutty about such open premarital sex. Weren’t we supposed to “save ourselves” for our husbands? My relationship with Nikos intensified; I stopped seeing other men, awash in the delirium of first love and dissolving boundaries, in believing I “belonged” to someone else.
Nikos brought me to Rye, New York, to visit his elegant Greek parents. Their house, on the edge of a famous country club, couldn’t have been more different from my parents’ house in Cambridge, with its motley collection of well-thumbed books, scarred family furniture, balding Oriental rugs, and even a few dark portraits of ancestors. At the house in Rye, luminous French Impressionist paintings with their own recessed ceiling lights glowed on the walls, and my feet sank into snow-white carpets. I enjoyed Nikos’s parents, but not his unease when he was with them. In Rye, even his posture was different. He hunched over, no longer six feet two; he was never without a cigarette, and worst of all, he had trouble with words; sometimes the effort of speaking seemed almost unbearable. Alone with me, or with his friends, Nikos was a gifted talker with curious stories and the wit of a wordsmith. But when he was in his father’s house, he was nearly mute. Luckily he would soon make his own, separate life.
His parents took me skiing in Vermont and to family parties, one on an enormous, sleek, well-staffed yacht in Long Island Sound, and others at lavish Westchester houses where soignée women glittered around gaming tables, and prosperous Greek shipping magnates placed bets far larger than my Harvard salary on the green baize. I went with them several times to the Greek Orthodox church in Stamford, where I hoped that in time, the pageantry of ritual and language could bring me closer to this exotic clan, instead of making a wider separation. I could easily imagine giving up the familiar words of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible for Greek chants intoned in their ancient modes. I daydreamed of a future with Nikos, a cosmopolitan life with writers, actors, dancers in New York or London; of holidays with our beautiful dark-haired little children on the Greek island of Siros, where his aunties still lived. My serviceable French would become fluent, and I would study modern Greek. It wouldn’t be long before I’d be completely assimilated into this international community, Yankee roots and all.
His parents invited me to sit with them at Harvard commencement in June 1959, where, to my surprise, the Latin Orator was none other than Upton Brady. He cut as neat a figure before a thousand people in his academic robe as he had in evening clothes, dancing in an intimate Beacon Hill ballroom three years earlier. But this time, my partner was Nikos, not Upton, and I was shocked to feel a flicker of regret. I watched Upton stride across the platform, blond hair shining in the morning sun, declaiming in fluent Latin, and wondered if the past three years might have been very different for me had he only remembered my name.
That fall I went back to Barnard as a day student, living with my sister, Joan, and her husband, Peter, and their new baby on East Seventy-sixth Street. Nikos was also in New York, at work on a novel in a small apartment on East Eighty-ninth. After he graduated, his father had pressured him to go into the shipping business, but Nikos refused, wanting only to write. Finally, his father agreed to subsidize him for a year.
What initially sounded like a generous gesture came with tremendous expectations, and not surprisingly, Nikos’s writing turned sluggish and forced. He would retreat into what he called a “blue funk,” where he was inaccessible to me, brooding and dark, but never unkind. I knew I was not the cause of his suffering, and at best could only temporarily relieve it. Yet I was absolutely certain that when we married, when we began to spend the rest of our lives together, the blinding light of our love would sear his darkness, reduce it to ashes. We were not yet lovers, not completely. I still didn’t have a diaphragm, and the idea of condoms was repellent—the only ones I’d ever seen were used, discarded in parking lots like toilet paper. I wanted sex to be pure, unsullied, and so our lovemaking was always cut short by the looming fear of my getting pregnant.
When the year was over and his book was still unwritten, Nikos decided to go to Harvard Graduate School and get his master’s degree in teaching. He moved back to Cambridge, and I left college for good, determined to pursue an acting career. I moved out of Joan and Peter’s apartment and into a sunny fourth-floor walk-up a few blocks away that I shared with my boarding school friend Libby. By day I helped philanthropic socialites run gala benefits to support the Henry Street Settlement, squeezing in dance classes and Broadway auditions whenever I could. By night—not every night but often—it was dinner at “21,” the Italian Pavilion, Le Veau d’Or, or noisy P.J. Clarke’s, depending on who had invited me. A glamorous life for a single twenty-one-year-old. It was 1960, and I dated many, slept with none, and dreamed of married life with my true love, Nikos Lambrinides, and the next time he would come down from Cambridge.
In January, I came up from New York to Cambridge to see Nikos. His apartment near his old Harvard dorm was filled with pictures of me, like a gallery. We were geographically more apart than we’d ever been, and yet we were closer in every other way. The weekend was short, with my time split between Nikos and my parents. At night, I slept at home, in my childhood bed, after spending several hours with Nikos, on his. I returned to New York late Sunday and had barely gotten into the apartment when the phone rang. It was Nikos.
“Will you marry me?”
I said yes.
For that one glorious night, we were engaged. I called home to share my happy news. My father answered. Nikos had spoken with him already, and Daddy gave me his blessing. Then he handed the phone to my mother. I expected that she, too, would be pleased, but my mother clearly was not.
Raised poor on the wrong side of the tracks in the backwater town of Middleboro, Massachusetts, Mummy never tried to hide her aspirations for my sister and me. She was thrilled when Joan married Peter, a well-born, well-heeled New Yorker, and I knew she’d always hoped I would choose a Boston Brahmin, someone like Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, whom I briefly dated. Nevertheless, Mummy had always seemed very taken with respectful, polite Nikos. She’d even put on a graduation lunch for his family. Yet now, when the chips were down, she clearly disapproved. Finally, in a mean, clipped voice, she said she guessed she could learn to love a “little black baby.” Those were her words. She must have been referring to the color of Nikos’s hair, since his skin is lighter than my own. But it didn’t matter. What she meant was Nikos was Greek. Well, she would have to work that out.
After talking to me and to my father, Nikos jumped into the Alfa Romeo and sped to Rye, to give his parents the news before they left for Florida. I would see him the next day, after I got home from work. That night, I lay in bed in a kind of ecstatic stupor. My path was suddenly so clear and so right; not even a hairline crack of doubt. We would spend the rest of our lives together, Nikos and I, Greek shipping heir and Boston debutante. Our different backgrounds would be our dowries, our gifts to each other. On Monday soon after I got home from work, Nikos came to the apartment. He did not bound up the stairs like a jubilant bridegroom, he came slowly and quietly, his shoulders stooped. When he took me in his arms, he held me far enough away so he could look into my eyes. His own looked very black, with a hint of fury; his beautiful soft lips were set in a hard line. I had never seen him like this before.
“I talked to my parents,” he said, each word falling separately, hard as rocks.
“They said no. Absolutely not.”
“But they like me. They love me!”
Nikos shook his head. “You are not Greek.”
“They will disinherit me. They say I am not ready, that I am unstable. And you are not Greek. I cannot do it now. I can’t marry you.”
How could they have been so kind to me, so welcoming? How could they have pretended they were fond of me? I had even believed that Mr. and Mrs. Lambrinides thought fortune smiled when Nikos and I fell in love. I was twenty years old, naïve, and betrayed, first by my own mother and then by both his parents, which in a way was even worse. All because he was Greek and I wasn’t.
Nikos and I had gone as far as we could without some sort of commitment and now we were stuck. My father suggested we call a six-month moratorium, during which we would have no direct contact with one another. Then, in June, we could see each other again. We reluctantly agreed to no visits, no phone calls, no letters—just occasional indirect communication through my parents or Libby, my roommate. I didn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and began a winter of recurring staph infections, all of which I attributed to a broken heart.
This is the state I was in when Upton waltzed back into my life.
Libby, the eldest of eight in a socially prominent Catholic family, knew the elusive Upton not only from her years at Radcliffe but also from Portsmouth Priory, where several of her brothers had been students. She knew Upton’s two brothers as well. When she spoke of Upton, it was in the tender, tentative way of possible lovers. But aside from one or two postcards from the Caribbean, where he was winding up his two-year Navy ROTC duty, there didn’t seem to be much going on between them.
One January day, Lib came home from her job at Sotheby’s with the handsomest man I’d ever seen: Upton’s brother Buff, also blond and blue-eyed but sixteen months older than Upton. Buff had recently been in the Navy, too, but he had not finished college and was living frugally at the YMCA while he looked for a job.
“You can’t live at the Y,” announced Lib. “There’s no kitchen!”
Buff was soon hired by Air France to work nights in air traffic control, and he moved in with us. It was a perfect arrangement. He would come home from work around seven, when we were just waking up. He’d make coffee for Lib and me and a martini for himself; we’d go off to work and he’d climb into one of our unmade beds. When we came home around six, the beds were made, dinner was in the oven, and a glass of wine waited for each of us. On Saturdays, he and Lib went off to Confession at St. Jean Baptiste, the Roman Catholic church on Seventy-sixth Street, and came back with a kind of lightness that I both envied and didn’t understand. On Sundays, they skipped breakfast and, missals in their hands, went to Mass, Lib with a black lace mantilla stuffed in her pocket. Hatless and fueled by coffee and toast, I’d go alone to the Episcopal church around the corner.
I had been bereft of Nikos for a few weeks when Upton called from Norfolk, where his ship had docked, asking Lib if he could come for the weekend. First, I was excited by the thought of seeing Upton again after so many years. Then I thought of Nikos, my true love, the one I was waiting for. And finally I admitted that Upton was coming for Lib, as her boyfriend. Or so I assumed from the way Lib brightened when she answered the phone.
With that call, the dynamics in our apartment changed. We were suddenly four almost every other weekend, very chaste, the boys in the living room, trading off between the sofa and a sleeping bag on the floor, the girls in the bedroom. The climate was rife with sexual energy, but I was more focused on Nikos’s absence than on Upton’s presence. Sometimes while we were drinking and dancing or playing backgammon the phone would ring, person-to-person to Lib from Nikos. It was odd to hear her talking to him in the bedroom, while I laughed in the living room with Upton and Buff.
We mostly stayed home on the weekends. There was plenty of rum, bourbon, and wine; there was backgammon and poker; there was music. And dancing, always dancing. Upton, fresh from the Caribbean, came with LPs of steel bands and stories of dancing at The Gate in Saint Thomas and beach days at Magens Bay. His face changed when the music started, blue eyes suddenly veiled and distant as if he were somewhere else, with palm trees and gentle breezes. Even his lips were different, not quite pursed but gently full, small, rhythmic breaths escaping between them. The merengue pulsed through his lower body, his pelvis and legs becoming almost fluid. When he held me, his hand firm on the small of my back, our bodies very close, our feet quick and light, I felt we could dance like this on the rim of a canyon or the bowsprit of a boat in heavy seas. We wouldn’t fall, but we would taste the danger. I couldn’t get enough of this new drug. Buff, taller than Upton and an extraordinary athlete (he’d been seeded at Forest Hills), was not a natural dancer. Odd, because he was much more physical than Upton, generous with hugs or a gentle massage on your neck. Something, maybe the closeness of our bodies and the insistence of the music, or maybe simply Upton’s natural grace, made Buff reluctant and more of a dancing clown, gently mocking Upton’s showmanship. Lib and I danced with one Brady, flirted with another. Buff seemed to favor Lib, Lib seemed to favor Upton, Upton was supposed to favor Lib—after all, he was her guest—but after a month or so I began to wonder if maybe it was me he danced for. I think I was a little in love with all three of them.
Every Sunday, hangovers notwithstanding, they traipsed off to Mass, and soon I went with them, learning when to stand and sit and kneel and genuflect. The liturgy was still in Latin then, but the translation of the Canon was not very different from the Book of Common Prayer that I’d grown up with. No matter, I was not allowed to receive the Eucharist, and stood alone in the aisle to let them pass, heads bowed, on their way to the altar.
“Unless you join the Church, you won’t be saved.” Buff repeated this to me more than once. And when I asked what “saved” really meant, both he and Upton had the same dire answer.
“You will never be in the presence of God.”
“Without the Church, you will be doomed to an eternity without God.”
They didn’t speak of Heaven or Hell; just the presence or absence of God. This wasn’t what I’d learned in my Protestant Sunday School, where Hell was a place of eternal torment for evildoers like Hitler and Jack the Ripper, and Heaven the kingdom where everyone we knew ended up. It had never crossed my mind that salvation was for Catholics only, that they were the chosen ones. This seemed to be the heart of the matter for Upton and Buff, and even Lib, and it remains for me, fifty years later, an insurmountable difference in belief. But back then, drawn to the mystery of the sacraments, to the banks of red and blue candles, incense, Gregorian chant, rosaries, even to the scraps of black lace on bowed heads, I yearned to join the club. I followed Buff, Lib, and Upton to Mass every Sunday, a reluctant outsider who nonetheless fasted first (nothing to eat or drink from midnight on, except water) and dove into celebratory breakfasts afterward. Holy days of obligation and first Fridays: these, too, were woven into our lives.
I had barely heard of Evelyn Waugh or Brideshead Revisited, but all three of them knew the book almost as well as they knew their Gospels. Evelyn Waugh had even visited the Priory, gone to Mass with his large ear trumpet, and had tea poured by Madee at the Manor House. Upton, Buff, and Lib talked about Sebastian Flyte and Lady Marchmain the way they talked about the monks, gossip steeped in the heady power of the Church.
As soon as I started to read, I could see the connections. The Flytes were English nobility, and rich. The Bradys, though poor, were “raised rich,” as Upton liked to remind people. They went to fancy schools, wore fancy hand-me-downs, cavorted with fancy people. Madee was the daughter of West Point graduate General Upton Birnie, former Captain of Field Artillery. She had grown up in China and the Philippines, with amahs and finger bowls. The General had worn the very same tailcoat Upton had worn when we first met, only the General had worn it to the White House. Brideshead may have been a castle with its own family chapel, but the chapel next to the Brady farmhouse came with its own priory of monks.
The Flytes were charming, erudite, well-mannered—at least most of the time—as were the Bradys. Everybody drank too much. The Flytes had a rigid structure of right and wrong, black and white, enforced by the Church. I thought about this, and began to see Upton and Buff in a new light. Unlike my view of the world, which was not black and white but gray with possibilities, choices, and unknown promise, the Brady boys saw things as absolute. There was one way, and one way only. The Bradys, like the Flytes, were special, favored, apart from the rest of the world. This came with burdens, with standards to live up to. Failure was not an option. I wondered how they all managed this pressure.
In Brideshead, even the smallest act became a ritual. In the fourth-floor walk-up on Second Avenue, Upton would swirl his martini and hold it up to the light, attentive as a priest consecrating the wine. Every Saturday morning, the boys would insist we all clean the apartment, just the way every Saturday growing up they had all cleaned the Priory farmhouse. They bought several albums of Gilbert and Sullivan to brightly urge us on, another part of the Brady cleaning ritual. They polished their shoes before Mass, and always had freshly ironed (by them) handkerchiefs peeking out of the breast pockets of their blue blazers. (Lib and I didn’t even have an ironing board in the apartment until Buff bought one.) Everywhere I looked, I spotted a ritual; it was all so unlike my own informal family of just my sister and me and two fairly ordinary parents.
Guilt governed the Flytes and the Bradys, guilt that they had sinned against Christ. The guilt in the house I grew up in was from sinning against people, mainly from disobeying or even disagreeing with my mother. It had nothing to do with God. I would apologize, possibly be punished, and wait for the guilt to fade. With the Catholic Bradys, the burden of sin was huge. Sin could rob you of everything good, of the presence of God. Sin demanded immediate expiation through the act of confession, followed by the gift of absolution. Total forgiveness, every Saturday, as long as you truly intended not to repeat the sin. I wanted to be inside this elite, sacred circle, where everyone played by the same well-known rules: a safe world made up of absolutes, of right and wrong, a world where you could be saved over and over again by ceremonial sacraments. I might even be able to stop questioning the truth of only one path to eternal salvation.
Sebastian Flyte was harder to explain. In spite of the Church—or because of it?—Sebastian was a drunk. And probably a homosexual. Certainly Waugh hints at this, and Waugh himself was “queer,” a “fairy,” terms we used in 1961. When I tried to talk to the sunny Brady boys about Sebastian Flyte, they looked uncomfortable and shrugged, rum punches and Pall Malls in their hands.
“Can I freshen your drink?”
I wondered if Buff might be homosexual. Once in a while, there was something about his laugh, and a veiled sadness in his blue eyes. But there was nothing effeminate in his strong athlete’s body, or in the way he moved, the only outward signs I knew to look for. Just a quiet remove that hinted of secrets, which drew me to him. He had none of Upton’s dazzling repartee; he didn’t sweep people into his orbit the way Upton did. Sometimes he seemed almost apologetic, but I never knew for what.
June finally came to an end, and soon afterward, our household on Second Avenue would dissolve. Lib was sailing off on the Queen Mary to work at Sotheby’s in London, Buff landed a job working with computers at MIT, and Upton was newly mustered out of the Navy. I wanted to keep the apartment but would have to find a new roommate. Most important, the imposed separation between Nikos and me would be coming to an end.
Nikos: I couldn’t wait to see him, but I was also uneasy. The six-month retreat I had imagined as a time to meditate on our future seemed now to have been a time more of revelry, with Upton dancing in its center. But surely when Nikos and I were back together, my pulse would stop quickening when I thought of Upton. Wouldn’t it? Though a week shy of our six months, we had set aside this weekend because Nikos was leaving right afterward for Greece and we wanted to end the separation before he flew off for the summer. But it would also be the last time Lib, Buff, Upton, and I were all together. Friends had invited the four of us to a house party on Long Island, and I was determined to go.
“Could you pick me up in Oyster Bay on Saturday afternoon?”
“I thought we had a date for Friday.”
The surprised disappointment in his voice made me feel I was betraying him. “It’s my last night with Lib,” I said, not mentioning Upton or Buff.
Friday night and Saturday on Long Island were bittersweet, the end of a brief season when anything had seemed possible, and nothing demanded commitment. I have never been stoic with endings and departures, and this was no exception. Even my wardrobe wasn’t quite right. I’d come out by train in shorts, bringing only a bikini and clean underwear. I don’t think I really wanted to get all dolled up for Nikos right away; I wanted just to be myself for the first few hours, bare-legged, brown from the sun, no makeup, hair in a ponytail. Back in the city, I would slither into my new silky lemon shift, put on gold beads and earrings, sweep my hair into a French twist, apply a touch of mascara, a dab of Chanel No. 5. But on Saturday afternoon, Nikos would see me unadorned, the way I’d been with Buff and Lib and Upton.
From the shaded terrace overlooking the water, I heard Nikos’s little Alfa Romeo Spider crunch up the gravel drive. A quick embrace for Lib and Buff, a wave to Upton, and then I ran across the sun-splashed lawn and into Nikos’s arms. I hadn’t forgotten his familiar warm kiss, or the comfortable way he folded me against his chest as if I were a child. There was the good smell of his smooth, crisp shirt and the skin beneath it. Nikos brought me back to him so easily, so fast. On the Long Island Expressway, noisy with wind and traffic, I stared at his graceful hands, large and long-fingered on the steering wheel, and resisted the urge to cover them with kisses. I studied his profile, like something on an ancient coin and yet so familiar. I marveled at the way his dark hair curled on the back of his vulnerable, pale neck. I had loved him for three years, which seemed an eternity. He looked back at me, our eyes briefly meeting, and I knew he was still in love with me. Would we pick up where we left off, ready to become engaged, and then to marry? Had his parents changed their minds about me? Wasn’t this what I had longed for?
Later, at Orsini’s, the glittery, chattering crowd and the red velvet walls made me feel private, as if Nikos and I were in our own bubble. And it was easier to talk with food and drinks to toy with.
“How has it been for you,” I asked, “these past six months?”
He drew on his cigarette, took a sip of Dewar’s Black and White. “D-d-difficult.”
Another inhale, exhale. Another sip. “Very d-d-difficult.”
I waited; there was clearly more, but Nikos didn’t say anything else, just solemnly ground out his cigarette. Finally, he raised his eyes, gave me a guarded look.
“And you?” he asked.
Now it was my turn to look at my plate, light a Marlboro. “I was sick,” I said. “Staph. I had my tonsils out.”
“I know,” he said gently. “Your father told me. And Lib.”
“I missed you,” I said. It was true, I had missed him, but my words sounded hollow.
“Were you lonely?”
Ah. That was the hard one to answer. He waited, dark eyes never blinking, while I tried not to think about the rum punches, the dancing, the Mass on Sunday mornings.
Again I nodded, a small nod this time, and reached for his hand. He let me hold it for a second or two, and then slipped it back across the tablecloth to his lap. Respectful, even shy, we were definitely not where we’d left off in December.
“When I talked to Libby,” he said quietly, “I heard music and laughter in the background. I wanted to be there.”
“Yes. I wanted you there.”
Nikos didn’t say anything; he looked into my eyes and let my words hang. They had sounded false. Nikos was restrained; he had a new gravity, or maybe just less levity, as if he were suddenly wary of me. And he should have been. For in those six months, without my acknowledging it until now, I had changed. Upton had sucked me into his shimmering aura with words and waltzes, and now, like a junkie, I wanted more. Upton made the air crackle. We had never kissed, but I had felt my body melt against his over and over while the steel band pulsed, and now nothing was the same. I felt myself pulling away from Nikos, and at the same time I wanted him to wrap me in his arms and take me away—from what? I think I wanted Nikos to take me away from Upton.
I didn’t know what the next step was, or even, more immediately, what would happen in an hour or two when he brought me back to the apartment, conveniently empty with Lib and the boys still on Long Island. We were very kind with each other that night. He held me, kissed me, smoothed my hair, and I wanted to weep because our old, headlong passion wasn’t there. I wanted to weep because I knew it had been replaced by doubt. Nikos left early. We did not end our romance. We had all summer to reflect; maybe when he came back from Greece we would see more clearly where we were, and where we might go.
Twenty-four hours later, Buff and Lib were gone, too. That evening, Upton and I walked along the promenade above the East River, first holding hands (trying to be casual about it, though it felt to me like holding a lightning rod), then settling on a remote bench overlooking the black river. Neither one of us talked. We just looked at the surging water and then at each other until finally, Upton kissed me.
Six months of desire erupted in a single kiss. It was a starting gun going off, the beginning of a marathon, and there was no turning back. Of course I felt guilty and torn, with Nikos still such a huge part of my twenty-one-year-old self. Upton was an intruder, but an intruder I couldn’t dismiss. I wanted him to take me, there on the bench above the river. I wanted to make love with him, “go all the way,” as we said back then. We walked back to the apartment, his arm around me, hips touching, step by step, every block a sweet agony, until finally, we mounted the three flights of stairs.
Upton, as frenzied as I, was nimble with buttons and zippers, until just at the last minute, when with a moan, he left my bed and climbed into Lib’s, only a night table’s width away.
“I can’t do this,” he said. “It’s called fornicating. A sin.”
Brideshead again. I couldn’t believe it. How could I fight this power?
We spent the night in our twin beds, holding hands across the gap. At dawn, I couldn’t stand it any longer and slid in beside him, matching my breathing to his, in and out. The rhythm of his chest intensified as his arms tightened around me, then suddenly Upton pushed me away, jumped out of bed and into the shower. Alone on the tangled sheets, I went over what had happened, or what had not happened. Surely Upton had had sex before. Anyone that handsome and that sexy after four years at Harvard and two in the Navy must have had many lovers. But when I asked him over coffee, he told me, shamefaced and embarrassed, that he hadn’t.
“Once, in the Navy, there was a prostitute. But nothing happened. I was too drunk.” His eyes were on his cigarette while he told me this, his voice very quiet.
Even in 1961, I was shocked. No, Nikos and I had not gone all the way, but we had certainly come close, and I knew Nikos had had considerable experience with women. But Upton, now reading The New York Times across from me and smelling of soap, was as virginal as I.
That night, flush with his mustering-out pay, Upton took me to El Morocco. Half hidden by potted palms, we flirted over stingers in the shadowy zebra banquette, making our way between drinks to the mostly deserted dance floor. There, in the dim, circling lights, the band played tangos, merengues, and waltzes as if only for us, my hips as loose as his, each of our legs pressed along the length of the other’s as we traveled across the smooth floor. Many stingers and many dances later, we went home to fall into bed—the same bed—exhausted, and chaste.
The next night, we went to the Rendezvous Room in the bowels of the Plaza, not as glamorous as El Morocco but cheaper and cozy, each little round table with its peachy lamp and fringed shade. Again, lots of dancing, lots of stingers, and later, lots of insistent, unconsummated sex. I had become the seducer, Upton the reluctant virgin, aided by alcoholic impotence. Upton called it a “state of suspended animation,” which it surely was. And I hoped it wouldn’t last much longer. How could it? But I underestimated the power of the Church.
Upton and Sally.
New York, 1961.
HARVARD STUDIO/AUTHOR’S PRIVATE LIBRARY
Copyright © 2011 by Sally Ryder Brady
What People are saying about this
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >