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The Last Chance
By Rona Jaffe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Rona Jaffe
All rights reserved.
At five A.M. in New York at the beginning of January it is black and silent. The new carbon arc lights that are supposed to make the streets safe from muggers illuminate the fact that not even a mugger wants to be out in that lonely cold. Every ten minutes, perhaps, a lone taxi might cruise by, doors locked, bulletproof shield between the driver and his passengers firmly closed, smeared with the fingerprints of the night's innocent travelers, who hated shouting their destinations through the money slot. The large alarm clock next to Margot King's bed went off with a shriek that seemed to shatter her brain. The pain of it made her heart pound, but she didn't shut it off until she was sitting up on the side of the bed, otherwise she knew she would go back to sleep.
It's my job and they need me. I promised. She had never been a morning person, and five A.M. was unspeakable. She had to bear it for two weeks, because she was doing the morning news while the regular newscaster was away. She wondered if he was sleeping now in the Bahamas where he had taken his vacation. Margot did the evening news every night on local television, and sometimes the late night news as well if a substitute was needed. She thought of it as the swing shift. Ten years as a television reporter, going to be forty years old at the end of the summer, thankful for the myopic camera that missed all the tiny lines she had begun to notice, and no steady slot of her own. People knew her, but she wasn't really a name. It was her own fault. She had never fought for anything and had even turned down promotions when it seemed they would take up too much of her time. She remembered when she had been fresh out of college, so long ago, turning down a job as a researcher at Time-Life because the personnel director told her she would have irregular hours and never be able to make a date in advance. "I don't want my job to interfere with my life," Margot had said. And now she realized that her job was her only life.
She brushed her teeth, squinting against the harsh bathroom light. Two drops of eyedrops in each eye ("for forty-year-old eyes," the commercial said—next year she would have them). She washed her face in the shower because it took less time, although she knew soap and water were lethal for delicate skin. But then she slathered on moisturizer, quickly so as not to dwell on the wrinkles, and watched them smooth away under the yellow liquid. Television makeup wasn't helping her skin any. Maybe she would have a facial this week. She stepped on the scale, not surprised and yet always relieved that the needle never wavered from the point where it had been the day before.
There would be coffee at the studio, but it would be even worse than her own instant, so while she waited for her coffee to cool she made the bed. It seemed futile and depressing because no one would see it, but you never knew. She might invite a man home for a drink. She thought that every morning, but she hadn't had a lover for nearly a year, and while part of her felt old because of it, another part didn't care. Sometimes she felt frustrated, but she couldn't seem to turn the feeling toward any of the men she met every day who would have been delighted to help her out. The more she didn't have sex, the more distant it seemed, the more difficult, as if she were a virgin again.
The last man who had lived with her had drifted away, not walking out cleanly but nicking at little bits of her until she felt as if she were covered with tiny wounds. Finally she took his key away and told him not to call. It had taken a long time to recover. Maybe it was true that when you got older everything took longer to heal.
She walked to work. The streets were deserted, and she walked out toward the middle of the sidewalk in case anyone was hiding in a doorway, and kept the handle of her bag firmly knotted around her wrist. Her steps were swift and aggressive out of habit, and her glance darted all along both sides of the street, but she was not afraid. It was only six blocks. She had deliberately moved to West Fifty-seventh Street so she would not be at the mercy of transportation. She liked to be independent. She had more anger than fear in this city because she had always loved New York and now it had been ruined. It was filthy, noisy, filled with junkies, rapists, muggers, murderers, and the paranoid hostility of the average citizen who felt he had been taken. We've all been taken, Margot thought, but nobody made us come here. We all wanted to come here. This was dream city. There is no place else.
In her office she started typing the news items she wanted from the Teletype machine. That machine had always fascinated her, sputtering out the endless roll of paper with items of mayhem from places so far away they seemed not to exist. And in between a garden party. She chose just the right combination of world and local news, knowing her viewers were as interested in a tenement fire in the Bronx in which one child had died as they were in a catastrophe in Asia in which a hundred had.
"Little Denise could have been saved if it had not been for the rash of false alarms that left her neighborhood without any fire engines. It took twenty minutes for fire fighters to come from ..."
"Henry Kissinger said today ..."
"Convicted Watergate conspirator ..."
"In the nursing home scandal ..."
There had been a time when everything had affected her, and now she no longer cared. She could watch a man sob and shove a mike into his face, her only feeling the fleeting hope that he wouldn't push it away. Some reporters never stopped caring, and they were the best ones. Margot had become numb, but it had seemed the only way she could save herself from caring too much. She worked better this way. She could write sharply, she could be funny or make people cry, but inside she remained untouched. Outside was unreal; her inner life was all that mattered. She wondered if that was good, and what would become of her.
On her desk there was a note someone had left for her about a phone call that had come last night after she'd gone home. She realized she'd forgotten to call her service again. Gone to bed with a drink and a sleeping pill, turned off the phone, thinking only of getting up at five. It was a frantic message from Ellen. All Ellen's messages were frantic if they concerned Ellen. She had been Margot's roommate at college, had gotten married soon after graduation, had two teen-aged daughters, and spent her entire existence relentlessly trying not to become a housewife. This desire, however, did not extend to having a steady job. Call Ellen Rennie. Urgent. Ellen called only when she wanted something.
Margot looked at her watch, clipped the message to the top of the folder containing things to do after the show, and tried to decide if she should scratch the Watergate item in favor of giving more time to the new story that had just come in about a man who had died as a result of last evening's trapped subway. Hell, everyone was sick and tired of Watergate, but they had to take the subway every day. If the world she presented to her viewers kept getting smaller, perhaps that was good. Maybe it would give them something they felt they could do something about. The worst feeling in the world was to feel helpless.
She went into the makeup room when she saw that both chairs were unoccupied. Everyone on the show knew that you were not allowed to speak to Margot in the morning. She had let them know she was a grouch, but the truth was she couldn't stand to be near smoker's breath that early. Ever since she had given up smoking two years ago she had become a fanatic. The only one she spoke to before the show was the makeup man.
"Save me, Ralph, I'm in your hands," she sighed, and sank into the chair.
Ellen Rennie woke up at five thirty that morning, wide awake with anticipation. She had hardly slept at all, formulating her plans for getting a job, making lists in her mind of whom she could call, what she should tell them. Naturally she would see Margot first. Margot knew everybody. Ellen was more jealous of Margot than she liked to admit, always had been, even though she was fond of saying to her friends, "Poor Margot, we must find her a man."
Poor Margot, pretty and slim and ethereal and brilliant, always being deserted by men because she chose the wrong ones, while she, Ellen, trapped in a marriage, was always attracting the right man, the perfect, considerate lover, and was never able to stay permanently with any of them because she was stuck with this clod.
She looked at Hank, sleeping peacefully on his side of their king-sized bed. What kind of man hadn't touched his wife for six years, even though they slept in the same bed, just because she had told him not to? What kind of man would stay with his wife for seventeen years even though he knew she had lovers? How could you respect a man like that? It would be different if she thought he had someone, anyone, even his ugly secretary, but she knew Hank was faithful, and somehow that annoyed her even more. If he would just do one thing that wasn't predictable. The thing that was most predictable was his failure.
His large, clean white feet with the tufts of blond hair on the toes were sticking out from the covers. Six feet four of white bread, Margot had called him. Oh, Margot could kill with her tongue when she wanted to. Ellen stifled a giggle. She remembered what fun they'd had at college, all the men phoning them and camping on their doorstep, the two most popular girls in the dorm. In those days when someone wanted to get Ellen a blind date she never asked, "Is he cute?"—she asked, "Is he tall?" She'd thought tall was sexy. Perhaps because she was tall, and in the fifties that wasn't considered sexy in a woman, it was liability. She liked big hands holding her breasts in a parked car, huge arms holding her on the dance floor.
All those long, lazy hours of foreplay in parked cars before curfew, without ever arriving at the moment of truth. A girl had to stay a virgin, she couldn't risk getting pregnant. Although it was rumored half the girls in the dorm weren't virgins, Ellen was, and Margot was until her senior year. Ellen was afraid. She didn't want to risk not getting the best husband in the world because he might disapprove of her past. She had totally bought the myth of marriage and children and happily ever after. She would have liked to be somebody, to have an interesting job, but she was afraid to be alone. All the wonderful touching in the cars—she had orgasms from just necking, and she knew that some of the girls who had gone all the way didn't even know what an orgasm was. She was afraid of what she would do if she was lonely and single. She would be a wonderful wife.
She and Margot shared an apartment in New York after they graduated, subsidized by their parents. Living together was supposed to keep them pure. Margot began to have an affair with her married boss. Wrong from the start, but nothing Ellen told her could change her mind. "I'm too young to get married right now anyway," Margot had said cheerfully. Having Margot sleeping home every night was no protection at all, Ellen discovered. All her dates had their own apartments. They could jump on you before dinner when you were sitting there totally unsuspecting, listening to their records, having a drink.
Hank Rennie respected her. So tall and blond and well dressed, already at twenty-five the owner of his own business because his father had died and left it to him. He sold big, expensive cars. But instead of necking with Ellen in one of them, he used cars for transportation, driving her to romantic restaurants in Westchester where they could watch ducks on a lake and play with each other's fingers over a dimly lit table. They were grownups now. Grown-ups didn't just fool around. When Hank proposed, Ellen accepted immediately. The happiest day of her life was when she quit that damn typing pool where the other girls hadn't even gone to college, and she had been Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, and all they cared about was how many words a minute.
Ellen and her mother and Hank spent the entire spring preparing for the wedding. The china, the silver, the linens, the trousseau, the apartment they rented "until the children come and we move to the country." It was a June church wedding, with the reception at the Plaza Hotel. Upstairs they had rented a suite for Ellen and Hank to spend their wedding night. The next morning they would fly to Bermuda.
Margot and three of Ellen's other friends were bridesmaids. Margot had been annoyed because the bridesmaids had to pay for their own dresses but Ellen had picked them, and they were Margot's worst color. Ellen had done it deliberately, not wanting to be upstaged. Even then ...
Before the wedding, waiting for her grand entrance, Ellen had cried. She didn't know why. She felt trapped. She didn't love Hank.
"Why are you crying?" Margot asked, her arms around Ellen, letting her smear mascara on the dress Margot hated anyway.
"Why did he get a haircut?" Ellen sobbed. "I hate his hair so short."
"Bride's nerves," Ellen's mother said cheerfully, rushing with a towel to clean Margot's dress and a whole makeup kit for Ellen's ruined face.
It was barbaric to have to change into her traveling suit and jump into a taxi, drive around the block, and go into a side entrance and upstairs to their wedding suite to be officially deflowered. Everybody who mattered knew what they were going to do. Her mother, his mother, her father ... oh, God, how humiliating. Ellen wondered if her father was blocking it all out of his mind the way he did everything that bothered him. She was tired and embarrassed and hot and Hank was too. She wished they could run away, or put on jeans and go to P. J. Clarke's and get drunk, or just go to sleep. But not have to go into that huge white marble bathroom and change to her white satin nightgown with the matching peignoir and go out to the living room to face this stranger she was welded to now, who was in his bathrobe too and even had the mandatory bottle of champagne waiting in a cooler, just like in a bad movie.
She couldn't tell him how she felt. Girls didn't tell men how they felt about things. She had to let him undress her like in that same bad movie and try to pretend she didn't notice how scared he was. This time they wouldn't be necking and touching and doing all those wonderful sensual things that drove her crazy. They were Married now and they had to Do It. He even had a condom ready on the night table. She had never felt less like Doing It in her life.
She knew he didn't feel like it either. She had never been close to Hank without his getting an erection, but this time it just lay there, and she pretended not to look. She had never seen him fully naked before. Not even in a bathing suit, because they had met in the winter. She had never seen any man naked.
He took her hand and put it on his penis. He couldn't even speak to her, ask her, tell her what to do, and his embarrassment compounded hers until she felt nauseated. She began to stroke it with the hand that had the wedding ring on it. She was so used to the boys doing everything to her, trying to go as far as they could, that she had never done anything to them. But it didn't bother her. She had been curious to know what a bare penis felt like. It just lay there in her hand.
Then she felt his hand on the back of her neck, pushing her head down. She knew what he wanted her to do but she wasn't going to do it. How dare he? Why didn't he ask her instead of shoving her? If he'd only said something, if he'd been a person instead of this frantic frightened animal, she would have done it for him. She didn't know what to do, but she let him put it into her mouth and she felt it finally grow big, no, enormous, and she wanted to gag. I hate you, Ellen thought. I hate you, you make me sick, and I will hate you for the rest of my life.
She lay passively while he consummated their marriage, and she wondered if her mother knew what a hoax it all was and why she had never told her.
Excerpted from The Last Chance by Rona Jaffe. Copyright © 1976 Rona Jaffe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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