(Continued from: “Whatever Happened to Nina Pearlstein?”)
“Mom wants you to leave.”
“Wonderful…” I mumbled. “Did you get yelled at?”
“She’s not talking. I told her I couldn’t sleep and that I moved to the front couch. I let her find me there and that’s when she told me to call you a cab.”
The taxi arrived ten minutes later. Nina walked me to the edge of their porch. No kisses, no I’ll call you’s, just a humiliating creep-away to my relatives on Long Island. I spent a week with my cousins pretending nothing happened, then spent a few more years growing up remembering every fierce moment of my last days with Nina Pearlstein.
I had moved to Atlanta, Georgia, hoping to kick start my never-happened Hollywood career in the place where film was supposed to move and thrive. I was twenty years too early and barely survived by doing all kinds of crazy jobs just to get by. One late night, as I sat in my tiny kitchen eating eggs and scanning newspaper ads for waiter’s gigs, the phone rang. My jaw dropped. I was hearing Nina on the other end, and she was weeping. Between sobs and whimpers, she explained how she got my number from Mom and then cried out the horrible news.
Michael Lichtenberger from Camp Podolsky’s Group A had snuffed himself with a sharp blade to his wrists. I didn’t know at the time that Nina and Michael had seriously reconnected, long distance wise, but were planning coming together with a forever “I do.” Then, without warning he ended everything. I listened to that sad story and others about Nina’s years of therapy, why she left college and the on-again, off-again boyfriends that all fell away.
Our talk was a total bummer and I ended it the only way I could, with a promise to keep in touch, AGAIN. I wasn’t unhappy about that though. In so many ways I admired Nina Pearlstein and her undefended honesty. She loved sex. So did I. She said what she meant. Me too. She exposed her heart. Well, I tried. I just wish I loved her. Even a little. Still, I always looked forward to getting another letter from Nina. They were rarely cheery but they were deep. Nina questioned everything. She was always asking, Why?
By 1975 I had decided Atlanta wasn’t happening for film and that I needed another start. So I quickly began dismantling my life in Atlanta and prepared for another life shift seven weeks in the future. I called Nina. “Guess what? I’m moving to New York.”
“You are!” she yelped. “Really? Like permanent? Or just for a job?”
“No job. I’m hopin’ to find one.”
“April. Wanna get together?”
“Oh my God, yes! Absolutely!”
And so we made plans.
We talked about meeting in Manhattan, finding some cozy place for lunch, and later taking the train to New Jersey where her car would be waiting. She would then drive me to her place for a stay-over and we both knew what that meant. Finally, as two young adults, we could share a bed for hours, maybe days, but not weeks or months. I didn’t want involvement like that. I acutely needed a film career and New York would be my third try. Nothing, definitely nothing could get in the way. I was that resolved. And yet, although eight years had passed since Camp Podolsky, the Nina-Irv sex tension was still as tight as a cello string, even over the phone. So yeah, I was really looking forward to my big move starting with a BANG.
Five days later everything changed. I met a German girl, Marianne Falesitch. We went to see the same band because we both knew Lattie, the singer. She introduced us and within 3.5 weeks we were engaged. My family was stunned. Six days later the phone rang and I had more explaining to do.
“Irv! Had to call! I dreamt about us all last night.”
“Oh…Nina…” I swallowed. “Ya did?” Every muscle tightened.
“Yeah! I’m counting the days! You eat beef, right?”
“I wasn’t sure. Michael had turned vegan.”
“You planning on cooking for me?” I asked, concerned about the answer.
“I love to cook! I just never have anyone to do it for.”
I swallowed again. It had to be said. “Nina, a lot’s happened in the past few weeks. I got engaged.”
“I wasn’t planning on anything and it all happened very fast. I know this sorta puts a turn in our plans.”
Again, no words. Finally the question, “Can we still be friends?”
“Absolutely,” I said, trying to be supportive.
“Are we still gonna get together?”
“Why not?” I just couldn’t say no. “But I’m engaged now. You understand what that means?”
“I understand. I’m happy for you.” I wanted to believe that. “I want to meet your fiancé.” That, I didn’t believe.
“Well,” I continued, “she’s not coming up for a few months. I have to get set up first, find an apartment… After I get the job she’ll make the move.”
“So you’re coming up alone first?”
“Okay, then not that much changed.”
“Not really. We’ll catch up, have fun.” The conversation went on aimlessly for another few minutes with little being said. I was glad it ended.
Not much had changed, she said. Everything had changed. I was no longer excited about Nina Pearlstein.
According to plan, Nina and I met in Manhattan and found a neighborhood bar called, We Haven’t Got a Name Yet. The place fit my mood. I couldn’t have been more conflicted. Although Nina looked smart and sexy as always, with her tight little body inviting me closer with every curve, I struggled to keep focused. She knew I was drifting ‘cause she filled the space with words, all of which were important. So for an hour in a nameless pub, while Nina talked and I listened, my thoughts kept asking: Am I looking interested enough? Am I nodding at the right moments? Am I adding enough to the conversation so she believes I’m involved?
You see I didn’t want to hurt her. I knew what she needed and I wished I could be all of that but I wasn’t anymore. I was in love with Marianne and already I missed her.
So Nina and I left the bar and walked uptown towards a subway to Penn Station for the train to New Jersey. On the way, Nina grasped my hand. To any passerby, our entwined fingers looked harmlessly friendly. To me, they meant betrayal to the woman I left in Atlanta and a hint of resentment squeezed into my mind.
How could she do this? Lovers hold hands. How am I going to shake her off without taking her down?
So I let Nina hold me for a block more and when we reached the subway I let go to grab the staircase railing. And as I descended into the tunnels of New York, I contemplated what Miss Pearlstein had in mind when we reached her apartment. Forty-five minutes later we entered three cozy rooms in a big house on a neighborhood street somewhere in New Jersey.
Keep-it-light, that was my strategy. Keep-it-charged was Nina’s, augmented with persuasive pot, single malt scotch and medium rare filet mignon. It was all great and all too much. So much in fact, that I collapsed on the couch hoping for sleep to hit me soon.
“Oh boy. Let’s get you to bed,” she said, unbuttoning my shirt.
“It’s okay. I’ll stay here.” And I took charge of my own buttons.
“You’re not going to sleep with me?” she said, looking so forlorn.
“I’m engaged, Nina.”
“It’s just being close.” The last time she said that, we both fell into deep shit.
“I know,” I said. “But being close with you is more than just being close. I don’t trust myself.”
“But you can trust me.” She lifted my arm to pull me up. “Come…”
“No, Nina. I can’t.”
“You’re refusing a woman’s bed?” (She actually said that.)
“Please. Don’t do this.” I stayed put with Nina standing over me.
“You’re going to make me sleep alone?”
“We can’t be lovers anymore, Nina. You knew that.”
“I’m not asking for anything more than you being next to me.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
With a sigh, I stretched out, pushing a throw pillow under my head. Nina didn’t move.
“You’re sleeping in your pants? That’s crazy.”
She disappeared into the bathroom and returned with sheets, a blanket and an extra bed pillow. She gestured for me to stand and she quickly made the couch into a bed. It was really endearing, watching her take care of me like a mom. I dropped back onto the cushions and tried getting comfortable, still in my briefs.
“Are you sure?” she asked once more.
“I’m sure.” I kissed her wrist.
She shuffled to the bed on the opposite wall, threw off her dress and crawled into the blankets. I think I heard her cry. A minute passed, then she murmured, “You know what Michael said to me the last time we talked?”
I didn’t want to hear it but I knew I should ask. “What?”
“He said, Nobody really knows me….or wants to.”
The next morning that sad girl drove me to the train. We gently kissed goodbye and separated forever. I don’t know what happened to Nina Pearlstein but I’ll confess now what I should have said thirty-nine years ago.
Nina, I wanted to know you. I really did. But I was afraid if I reached out again, you’d ask for more than I could provide. So I never called you again. I’m sorry.
Where ever you are, I hope you’re happy.