Letters & Essays

Letter from Greenwich Village

Vivian Gornick

In the drugstore I run into ninety-year-old Vera, a Trotskyist from way back who lives in a fourth-floor walk-up in my neighborhood, and whose voice is always pitched at the level of soapbox urgency. She is waiting for a prescription to be filled, and, as I haven’t seen her in a long while, on impulse I offer to wait with her. We sit down in two of the three chairs lined up near the prescription counter, me in the middle, Vera on my left, and on my right, a pleasant-looking man reading a book.

“Still living in the same place?” I ask.

“Where’m I gonna go?” she says, loudly enough for a man on the pick-up line to turn in our direction. “But y’know, dolling? The stairs keep me strong.”

“And your husband? How’s he taking the stairs?”

“Oh, him,” she says. “He died.”

“I’m so sorry,” I murmur.

Her hand pushes away the air.

“It wasn’t a good marriage,” she announces. Three people on the line turn around. “But, y’know? In the end it doesn’t really matter.”

I nod my head. I understand. The apartment is empty.

“One thing I gotta say,” she goes on, “he was a no-good husband, but he was a great lover.”

I can feel a slight jolt in the body of the man sitting beside me.

“Well, that’s certainly important,” I say.

“Boy, was it ever! I met him in Detroit during the Second World War. We were organizing. In those days, everybody slept with everybody, so I did, too. But you wouldn’t believe it”—and her she lowered her voice dramatically, as though she had a secret of some importance to relate—“most of the guys I slept with? They were no good in bed. I mean, they were bad, really bad.”

Now I feel the man on my right stifling a laugh.

“So when you found a good one,” Vera shrugs, “you held onto him.”

“I know just what you mean,” I say.

“Do you, dolling?”

“Of course I do.”

“You mean they’re still bad?”

“Listen to us,” I say. “Two old women talking about lousy lovers.”

This time the man beside me laughs out loud. I turn and look at him.

“We’re sleeping with the same guys, right?” I say.

Yes, he nods, “and with the same ratio of satisfaction.”

For a split second the three of us look at one another and then, all at once, we begin to howl. When the howling stops, we are all beaming. Together we have performed, and separately we have been received.

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