Helen often said that the reason she and Eva could live together so successfully was that they were such opposites. They wore different-size clothes, had different friends, came from opposite ends of the country, and kept rigorously aloof from dangerous confidences. Helen had an advertising job with a wholesale textile company, and Eva ran a customers’ service for a household-appliance company. Neither job paid over five thousand a year but there was loads of gravy.
“I could never pay my way socially on my salary,” Helen often said, “but with the gravy that comes with the job I can give as much as I get.”
And it was true that no one could regard either Helen or Eva as that taxing responsibility, “an extra girl,” for these extra girls were loaded with theater tickets, sample clothes, decorative novelties, and cut-rate opportunities in all sorts of lines. Both girls were clever enough to be much younger-looking and handsomer in their thirties than they had ever been in their first bloom. That bloom had been polished off by a few years of hometown marriages, a disappointment to both, but as Helen said, at least they’d gotten that off the books and now they could really enjoy life, knowing they weren’t missing anything.
Ed, Helen’s ex, still popped up occasionally. She liked Ed, as she told Eva, but a girl working in New York simply had to have a man she could take places, and you couldn’t take Ed. Ed never had the right clothes and he would never do one thing for her, such as changing his shirt, getting a haircut, let alone opening a door. If she took him someplace to meet some abstract designer (for Helen liked to keep up) Ed would say loudly, “Give me Al Capp.” If she took him to a really swank affair, Ed would be sure to nail some dowager with “Can you stand something a little off-color I just heard?” No, you just had to regard Ed as a kind of sweet old barn-dog you couldn’t have around your nice friends or he ruined everything.
Eva had had a husband once, too, but she never said much about Walt except that somebody ought to tell young girls not to be in such a hurry to marry the high school football captain. Walt’s idea of looking out for her had been to get her a typing job in his uncle’s office upstate, and his idea of a birthday present was to give her her choice between buying enough paint for her to paint their summer cottage or ten bushels of tomatoes to make his favorite chili. On a trial separation trip to New York she had time to think about what she could have if she stayed in the city and what she was in for if she went back. She met Helen, who was in the same fix, and worked out a plan. Both girls had refrained from final divorce legalities so as to protect themselves, as they said, from making fools of themselves again. Apparently the husbands were reasonable enough about the break-up — maybe relieved to have these ambitious women off their backs.
The girls got good jobs and had a really charming apartment overlooking a garden on West Twelfth Street. It was fixed up like a decorator’s dream with “gravy” — the latest in sample fabrics that came to Helen and the newest in gadgets that came to Eva. They had a standing deal for using the apartment on alternate nights, which they did occasionally for little dinners, but mostly they loved to lament that they were asked out so much they never had a chance to enjoy their home. They followed a strictly “hands-off” policy regarding each other’s friends, but every so often they had a joint cocktail bash, with waiters, bar and canapes sent in from Longchamps. It was a good way of sewing up all the new men they encountered in their rounds, thus building up insurance against that humiliation, a dateless night.
In no time at all they were real New York career girls making every minute count. They loved collecting new men and vied with each other in finding prizes outside their business worlds. “I’ve got the most marvelous new man!” one would exclaim. “He’s in the theater — no, ducky, not an actor, a kind of producer or director.” Fortunately their tastes did not conflict. Helen liked tall men with good enough wardrobes to escort her to her fashion shows and openings, and Eva was inclined to like them cute with a collegiate or cafe playboy flavor. They were both cautious of getting involved in anything that would ruin their perfect setup, and though they had no idea just how far the other went in male friendships, they counted on their mutual conviction that affairs were messy, unprofitable, and a handicap in social progress. They never went anywhere as girls together, as they didn’t want to give even each other the impression that the supply of escorts was running short.
But more than anything else they adored couples! Each found the most attractive couples and these, too, they kept carefully to themselves, comparing notes freely, however, with each other on the babies, marital problems and joys of their favorite pairs. They seemed to collect all these young marriages as if they were extensions of their own blighted marriages, and their cool dismissal of their own early ties made them all the more dewily romantic about these others. The couples usually lived in Connecticut or Long Island or Bucks County and loved coming to parties in town, especially in Greenwich Village, which was so different. In summer the couples had shore and mountain places with gay weekends, and Helen and Eva matched invitations against each other, each saying aloofly over the phone to her suitor, “Oh, not Friday or Saturday, darling, because I’m never in town weekends.”
For weekend gifts Helen would select something smart from her sample drawer of French baby dresses or Italian beachwear. Eva would dip in her gravy trunk for some marvy new gadget that opened up into something else that did something or other cute, like popping olives into cocktail glasses. Then they exchanged when the necessities of their respective hosts demanded it. Everyone was always glad to see them, and the girls enjoyed being popular with husbands, wives and kiddies alike. On Mondays they compared weekends, confiding the private problems of their hosts more intimately than they ever did their own. They romanticized their adopted families until Helen’s Carrolls, Keefers and Browns figured in Eva’s dreams the way Eva’s Marlowes, Kings and Duffs did in Helen’s. The girls usually took the man’s side in discussing little family quarrels because they agreed that a young husband had a lot to deal with.
Browns, Marlowes, Keefers — never let it be said the girls were not in demand! And wherever they went the friends of the friends liked them, too, and insisted on sharing them.
“I’ve half-promised the Carrolls this weekend,” Helen would sigh, “but the Taylors insist on giving a terrific party for me so what can I do? You’re going somewhere, of course, Eva?”
Of course, of course! It was merely a matter of choosing. But the fact was that by the end of their fourth summer together Eva was wishing in her inmost soul that she dared slow down. Her job was more exacting than Helen’s and she didn’t have those southern cruises in winter that were a pleasant feature of Helen’s job. She wished she could turn her gravy into cash and just loaf a month on her mother’s farm upstate. But Helen was accumulating gayer and cuter couples all the time and Eva couldn’t be left behind. The show of snapshots on their walls marked their progress — lithe, bronzed fellows in beach or riding clothes flashing porcelain smiles, the absolutely heavenly man from the Social Register invited for Helen at her last weekend (she was taking him to the fashion lunch at the Plaza), the divinely clever columnist the Kings had invited for Eva, the adorable twins of Helen’s newest friends on their ponies, the Westport crowd at the Marlowes’ cookout, laughing at Eva’s chef getup, and many other gay picnic groups with Helen or Eva in the middle all wearing funny hats.
On the hottest Friday in August the girls had gotten off early from their jobs and had run into each other in front of Penn Station by coincidence. Helen was going to visit some perfect darlings who had a place in Jersey outside New Brunswick, but honestly it was so hot she wished she’d accepted one of her beach invitations instead. Not that it wasn’t a sweet place and the kids were so proud of their little brook, fixed up with the fancy garden furniture and parasols Eva had traded Helen for some of her fashion samples.
“They’re really cute, you know, having all of us sit around in bathing suits oiling each other’s backs just as if we could take a swan dive into a terrific pool,” Helen said. “It’s only deep enough to wade and then the mosquitoes get you, but it’s such fun. I couldn’t find any new loot to take them this time, so I had to dig down for a bottle of Scotch. Silly when they buy it by the case. What are you taking your people?”
“A decorating handbook that came in the office,” Eva said. “The Kings don’t read, of course, but they like a ten-dollar book lying around the cabana. I promised the Duffs the new mixer that came in the office. Wonderful getting out of the city, isn’t it?”
“Lucky us!” agreed Helen with a parting wave.
As Eva started for the Long Island station, Helen called out to her, “Did you lock the porch windows when you left this morning?” and Eva reassured her with a nod. But the minute Helen had disappeared in the crowd Eva stood still, struck with misgivings. Had she really locked the windows? Prowlers could easily get up from the garden court below, and Helen would never forgive such carelessness. Uneasily Eva looked at the station clock. She would have to miss the express and take the later train, that was all there was to it. She would worry every minute unless she checked.
There was no trouble in getting a cab out of the station back downtown. In spite of the sweltering day, the weekend mass exodus made the deserted city seem cooler and wonderfully peaceful after the station mob. At Twelfth Street Eva thoughtlessly paid off the cab instead of keeping it waiting, and so had to take her bag upstairs. As she unlocked the door of the cool, quiet living room she couldn’t help wishing she were coming home from her weekend instead of having it ahead of her. The windows were safely locked, but she opened them now to catch the delicious little breeze ruffling the ailanthus in the garden below. She stood for a moment looking around the artfully arranged little bedroom with its twin beds, twin dressers, twin night tables, twin mirrors, gay screens, and she thought how rarely it happened that two women could live so pleasantly and comfortably, but remain impersonal. Maybe that was the right basis for marriage, too, with each person always presenting his company manners to the other.
Looking at her own bed, Eva suddenly realized how dead-tired she was and how wonderful it would be to just take off her clothes and sink into a softly scented tub. The wish came true almost without her making a decision. Lying in the tub, dreamily humming with the radio she had turned on, Eva thought that the nicest thing about sharing an apartment with another lonely business girl was getting the place to yourself once in a while. And the nicest thing about being invited to the country for weekends — and here she quite shocked herself — was that you didn’t have to go!
Eva’s lips curled into a smile at the tempting idea. She emerged from the bath and lay down to ponder what excuse she could give the Kings. They were such an attractive couple with such cute children and they had such gay friends and were always so glad to see her. She wouldn’t want to risk not being invited again. But even while she was telling herself she must dress and hurry to the station, her overpowering need for sleep overcame her. The telephone ringing furiously dragged her back from heavenly oblivion, and as she sleepily reached for the receiver she saw by the little dresser clock that it was eight o’clock, long past the time she was due at the Kings’!
“Eva, what in the world happened to you?” It was Nora King, and the anger in her voice startled Eva into being wide awake. “Are you all right — why aren’t you out here?”
“I’m all right, Nora. I just missed the Express and then — I guess it’s so late now I’ll not be able to get out at all. I — “
“Not come out at all! But my dear girl, I told you what we had planned! Dozens of people coming in tomorrow for cocktails and supper and if I’d dreamed you weren’t coming I wouldn’t have invited everybody because you know the maid always goes in town weekends and I can’t manage the kids and the party all alone. Darling, you’ve just got to take the first train out tomorrow morning.”
The peremptory note in her voice made Eva stubborn, much to her own surprise. She searched wildly in her mind for a really good excuse that would not lay her open to cajoling or bullying. There was one good thing about having a husband, you could always blame any change of plans on the man and nobody questioned it. Why not dust off poor old Walter?
“I can’t make it, Nora. You see” — Eva drew a deep breath — “my husband got in town unexpectedly and we have to settle some matters that have come up.”
“But he isn’t your husband anymore, Eva! He has no right to barge in on your weekend!” Nora’s indignation ended in a wail, “And you promised to show me how to make chili on Sunday and Frank’s already bought tons of tomatoes! Oh, Eva, I don’t see how you could leave me in such a mess!”
She had forgotten all about the chili promise, and that should have made her feel guilty, only Nora sounded as if Eva’s first duty was to make chili for Frank King as if he were her own husband. You would have thought from Nora’s tone that she had been hired for the weekend instead of invited, Eva reflected with budding anger, that Nora regarded going over some very important papers with an ex-husband (even if it was a lie) as less important than helping her entertain neighbors. Nora’s unfair attitude gave Eva strength to hold out against further wheedling, and after she hung up the receiver Eva sat thoughtfully for several minutes.
It had been a long time since she had had the chance to just sit quietly and think about herself, and it was like getting acquainted with a stranger. She thought about the Kings and the other couples and the marvelous extra men who never needed to do anything but lend their priceless presence, whereas an extra girl had to give and do twice as much as a couple to make up for being an extra girl. She thought of how hard she worked to be liked without ever asking herself whether it was worth it or what it was leading to. She thought about Helen, who had more or less set the pace for their way of living, and she thought about Helen’s friends, and how she and Helen chose friends as if they were furniture, not because they liked them really but because they fitted out their life without overcrowding or jarring the decorative scheme. When anyone got too personal he was gently eased out. She thought about the future and how long she and Helen could go on and on like this. Presently she made herself a corned beef sandwich and took it on a tray with a bottle of beer to the cozy little porch. She sat in the dark looking down in the garden, where guests of the people downstairs were having their coffee and highballs. About this time, she thought, she would have been helping Nora clean up and put the kids to bed.
It was fun lounging about the apartment after getting up late on Saturday. She tinkered with her clothes, and it astonished her that she was luxuriating in Helen’s absence as if Teacher’s back was turned. Helen wouldn’t guess that she went to a movie all alone at the Sheridan and that she had had only one phone call, that an invitation to dinner not from some divine new man but from the persistent guy in her office who was getting too serious to be fun, so she had preferred egg salad alone on her back porch. The mere words “dateless Saturday night” scared her, but how wonderful it was not to have to make any effort! Now would be about the time the Kings would have invited the last of the cocktail guests to stay for dinner and if she were out there, Eva thought, she would be in the kitchen knocking herself out making the fish chowder Frank liked, mixing the salad that the Kings always said only Eva could make. Later she and one of the men would clean up while Frank made highballs and Nora got out the cards and chips for poker. Wherever she went she was like one of the family (especially since the help always got weekends off). She felt tired out just thinking about it, and by ten o’clock she was fast asleep in bed.
It was barely four o’clock on Sunday afternoon when Eva heard the key in the lock as she was shampooing her hair. She felt as guilty as if she had been caught trying on Helen’s clothes (which of course were not her style or size anyway), and she was annoyed with herself and with Helen for making her feel that way.
“Eva! Don’t tell me you had to come in early too!” Helen set her bag down and came out on the porch. “Leaving that wonderful beach!”
“It is a fine beach,” Eva agreed, “but I’m always so busy cooking or mixing drinks for their seemingly endless raft of company that I hardly ever get near the beach. I stayed in town and rested. . . .”
“I wish I had,” Helen said. “I just gave up being chewed by gnats in the brook and sent myself a telegram to come home — after I’d made the curtains like I’d promised.”
“It struck me that I work twice as hard making a go of other people’s marriages and homes than I ever did for my own,” Eva said.
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing, Helen mused. “But nobody else thinks so. They think they’re being nice to a poor single girl.”
Helen had taken off her Shantung suit and shoes and slipped into housecoat and slippers. She sat down in the porch swing (courtesy of Eva) and lit a cigarette.
“I guess the heat must have got me, too, this weekend,” she reflected. “The men went fishing and didn’t get back in time to fix the barbecue, so Ellen and I had to do that. Seems they’d taken along all the liquor, too, including my Scotch, so the rest of us had to take beer, warm at that. John was tight and kept reciting Gunga Din and telling dirty jokes till I thought, Good Heavens, he’s twice as bad as Ed. That reminded me that today would be Ed’s birthday and we always call each other up on our birthdays so I wired myself to come in. He hasn’t called?”
He hadn’t, Eva said, but even as she spoke the phone rang and Helen went inside. Eva could not overhear what she was saying, but she did note that Helen’s tone was not the patient, weary, kind one she usually used in putting off overtures from her Ex.
“He’s just landed at La Guardia,” Helen said, coming out again. “He’s taken a job in the New York office, of all things, and I thought I might as well have dinner with him since it’s his birthday. I only hope he has on a clean shirt.”
“So long as it isn’t hanging out over his trousers,” Eva giggled, but Helen did not laugh.
“Good heavens, Ed’s not the sporting type,” she said, and then she smiled with a preoccupied air. “Know what he said? Sorta sweet, honestly. He said. ‘Helen, guess what, I wear bow ties now like you used to want me to.’”
“That is sweet,” Eva agreed.
“I’m mad now that I took that batch of Italian neckties out to Jim Carroll,” Helen went on. “Ed might like them.”
Eva had finished drying her hair, and was combing it into place. “I’m meeting my date outside,” she said. “You could have Ed come here where he could relax. Does he know where he’s going to live?”
“Somebody’s given him a place in Great Neck,” Helen answered. “It sounds like a good idea, considering Ed’s not the city type. I’ll probably have to fix it up for him. Honestly, when I think of all that loot I’ve been passing around when Ed could use it so well right now! I was looking around the Carrolls’ place and I thought Good Heavens, I’ve practically furnished their house and dressed the kids as well.”
“I know,” Eva nodded. “Look, I can get you lots of stuff free or wholesale when you find out what Ed needs.”
“Fine,” Helen exclaimed. She hesitated a moment, so embarrassed that Eva could almost guess what she wanted to say. “Of course, I’m not considering going back with Ed for one minute, only he does keep after me, and sometimes when I see all these other husbands so much worse than Ed and now that both of us are older and more understanding — ”
“I know, I know,” Eva interrupted hastily when Helen faltered.
“What I mean is — ” Helen went on awkwardly “ — well, supposing I should decide, well, I wouldn’t want to leave you out on a limb.”
“Why, Helen, don’t give me a thought,” Eva reassured her. “I could swing the apartment alone, and you could use it whenever you and Ed want to go to parties in the Village or stay in town.”
“We’d want you to come out to Great Neck weekends,” Helen said, beginning to glow happily. “You’d be one of the family.”
“Marvelous,” Eva cried, and hurried with her dressing. As soon as she got out she’d call up the man she’d turned down last night, for if she was to live alone maybe she’d need somebody serious. She felt an odd mixture of relief and dismay that whatever problem she had feared from the future was here right now while there was still time to cope with it. She took a last look in the mirror, and over her shoulder saw that Helen still was looking at her anxiously.
“Goodness, Helen, we knew at the start that we couldn’t go on like this forever,” Eva exclaimed with a gay laugh. “You know what opposites we are. And you might as well be doing things for Ed as for other people’s husbands. That reminds me. You say it’s Ed’s birthday. . .”
She pulled open her closet door and found a cardboard box with a wholesale number on it. She offered it to Helen, beaming. “All husbands just love this,” she said. “You hold it this way and it measures the vermouth, then you turn it around and it pops cherries into the Manhattans!”