“You do what you think is best.” Jonas signaled the waiter to bring them another round.
They were attended to as efficiently as possible in a space where the service staff felt obliged to squeeze sideways through a throng of bodies, raising their trays over their heads and all but leaning over backward, limbo-style. No one seemed to pay particular attention to Rose and Jonas, either positive or negative. They were just two more customers, two more cogs in the capitalist, profit-making machine. It was strangely comforting.
They sat through a poet who, while scratching first one side of his face then the other, offered a list of synonyms for the color blue, then repeated the words “water” and “sky” several times, before moving on to synonyms for the color brown, followed by “earth” and “death.”
“Do you understand any of this?” Jonas asked Rose politely.
“I feel like I should try.” This club was the first time she felt like she and Jonas weren’t on exhibition. The least she could do was thank them by attempting to embrace their ethos.
Jonas nodded to indicate he acknowledged and sat back, prepared to be open-minded. A woman came up to the mic. And proceeded to expound, in great detail and free verse, about the wonders of exploring two men’s bodies simultaneously.
Rose realized that she was being a prude, illiberal, and, worst of all, a reactionary. But she couldn’t help blushing. It was one thing to engage with Jonas in some of the activities the woman was recounting. It was another to hear them described in front of him. Her reaction was that of an old maid. Which, technically, Rose was. But she liked to think of her spinster status as simply a legal condition, not a moral one.
“Excuse me,” she rose and fumbled her way to the ladies’ room, trying not to inhale too deeply. Rose wasn’t such a reactionary that she couldn’t distinguish the smell of tobacco smoke from that of its illegal analog.
This time, there was no shoving during the wait for the restroom. This time, there was only an older woman — in her fifties, maybe more — beautifully dressed, her make-up just a touch smudged by the heat and close quarters. She leaned forward, her breath smelling of bourbon, and the mint popped to cover it up. She giggled in a manner out of sync with her age and mien and advised Rose, “I love the colored boys, too.”
She winked and drunkenly booped Rose on the nose before moving on. Rose remained where she was, not so much frozen in place as melted into it. She attempted to puzzle out why the words hit her so brutally. What had the woman said that was so wrong? Jonas was colored. And Rose did love him. It wasn’t an imputation. It was nothing to be ashamed of.
Rose wasn’t ashamed. Rose was incensed. Not because some intoxicated stranger had accused her of loving a colored man, but because she made it seem like Rose loved Jonas not for being Jonas, but simply for his color. She made it sound like a fetish, like a phase. She made it sound like Rose was making a political point, like she was rebelling, but in an utterly run-of-the-mill manner. She was a cliché, part of a movement, not an individual making her own choices for her own reasons. Once, Rose had wanted nothing more than to submerge her individuality in a greater whole. She believed the best way to discard those parts of herself which she shunned was to follow in the footsteps of those Rose admired. They would demonstrate how to act and what to think and who to be. Once, Rose would have been thrilled to be part of something bigger than her own concerns.
But not this. Not Jonas. Rose and Jonas belonged exclusively to themselves. The door to his apartment stood closed specifically because they were not interested in the judgment of the masses — either bad or good. To say that Rose loved Jonas because she would have loved any colored man who crossed her path was to diminish everything Jonas was. And everything that Rose was for loving him.
She returned to their table and told Jonas, “I’m ready to go.”
He didn’t argue.
Years later, Rose and Jonas would laugh about their embryonic, futile attempts to fit in. They were too progressive for the East Side, not interested in flaunting how progressive they were on the West. They were too offensive for Harlem, too square for downtown. Like Groucho Marx, they didn’t want to belong to any club which would have them as members. At the time, though, Rose saw their inability to find a place where a couple like them could belong as an utter failure — on her part. She should try harder, she should do better, she should be more open.
Because, no matter what, Rose wasn’t giving Jonas up.
She tried to do as she’d told Jonas she would and fill Irna in about their relationship. But she didn’t feel comfortable dissecting her private life over the phone, and the next time Irna was in New York, Rose walked into Irna’s office to find her mentor in a frenzy.
CBS had awarded Guiding Light the great privilege of being their first daytime show to experiment with a color broadcast. There would be massive publicity surrounding it, and likely a boost in the ratings. Irna was not pleased. First, because she had no control over how the show would look, and no opportunity for a test run to make certain the result met her standards. And second, because it hadn’t been her idea.
When Rose walked into Irna’s office, Irna was huddled with Agnes Nixon, her recently hired associate writer, and the only woman Irna seemed capable of collaborating with outside of Rose. Rose couldn’t help feeling jealous. And suspecting Irna thought the Catholic, Chicago-born, Nashville-bred Agnes was more suitable to writing The Guiding Light’s white-bread Bauer family than someone of Rose’s background.
“What is it?” Irna demanded, clearly displeased to be interrupted.
“Nothing important.” Rose decided now wasn’t the time to point out yet another way in which she wasn’t like the audience they were writing for. Being a New York Jew was alienating enough. Adding Jonas to the mix could well be career suicide. “We can discuss it later.”
To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.
Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, out now!