Go on Pretending

Go On Pretending: Was It Too Late to Turn Tail and Run?

Chapter #14: Irna Phillips could forgive Rose quite a bit. But she could never forgive Rose this.

collage of early soap operas for go on pretending serial

He took her to Smalls Paradise. An office building on Seventh Avenue and 135th Street, down the steps to the basement and into a splendor of white tablecloths, crisply printed menus, Art Deco walls and ceilings, and tuxedoed waiters as likely to break into song – and, once upon a time, into the Charleston — as the house band, which also provided music for the floor show. It was like entering a fishbowl of sound, heat, and too much vibrating energy contained within too small of a space. Rose agonized over what to wear before coming. She didn’t wish to appear too prim and proper. Yet, she didn’t want to seem disrespectful by dressing too casually. She wanted to fit in, yet knew she never would and suspected it would be insulting to try.

Most of all, Rose didn’t want Jonas to regret bringing her. She settled on a red New Look By Dior dress with short sleeves, a square neckline, and a full skirt. Also, matching gloves. Because she thought it was a touch of class that Jonas would appreciate. Rose’s biggest concern was her hair. She wore it up at work. It was more professional. And it was how Irna did it. Now Rose wore it down, letting it flow past her shoulders, only pinning it with a clasp at the back of the neck. When she met Jonas at the entrance to the nightclub, he paused, looking her over from head to toe, then smiled a smile that told Rose all her agonizing had been worth it.

Jonas filled Rose in on the history of Smalls Paradise before they entered. It had been the only Negro-owned and integrated Harlem joint throughout the 1930s and beyond. All the others, including The Cotton Club, once located on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, had colored performers, but exclusively white customers. While The Cotton Club and its ilk closed at 4 AM, Smalls Paradise remained open all night, culminating with a 6 AM floor show of dancing girls and waiters serving drinks on roller skates.

“Don’t worry,” Jonas reassured, “It’s a very respectable place. W.E.B. DuBois celebrated his eighty-third birthday here just this past February. A favor from the owner. The party was originally supposed to be held at the Essex House, sponsored by Paul Robeson, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Albert Einstein! But then those Joseph McCarthy fellows told the Essex House they were all Communists. Essex canceled the Banquet, so Ed Smalls stepped in and let them have run of his club for the night. What would you have given to be a fly on the wall and watch Doctors DuBois and Einstein kicking up their heels on the dance floor!”

Jonas was still talking, but Rose had stopped listening. She’d begun shaking. She was thankful for the gloves. They made it less obvious that she could barely control her fingers. Her knees buckled. Rose didn’t know if she’d have made it down the stairs if not for Jonas’s arm supporting her elbow. She hoped he’d think she was merely having a difficult time finding her bearings in the dim lighting.

Was it too late to turn tail and run? Had anyone seen her come in? Yes, they were part of a large entering throng. But, also, yes, Rose definitely stood out in it. She didn’t think anyone was keeping tabs on her. Not for years now. But you never knew who might still be holding a grudge. One wrong word to the right person and…Rose believed Irna could forgive Rose quite a bit. But she could never forgive Rose this.

It was too late to turn tail and run. Not only because the stairs behind Rose were packed with people, but because there Jonas was, holding her arm, smiling at her. Rose could never turn tail and run from that smile. No matter the consequences.

They were shown to a table with a minimum of fuss. Already an improvement over the East and the West Sides. They were served without comment, treated just like everyone else. So what if Rose couldn’t help noticing that, while Smalls Paradise was, as advertised, a mixture of Negro and white faces, each stuck to their own groupings.

They ate, they drank, they danced. And, in between musical numbers, when the noise level dropped enough to make it possible, they talked.

“So,” Rose dredged up a query that, had she inserted it into a script, Irna would have been more than justified to dismiss as dim, “do you come here often?”

“When I was a student at Columbia, yes.”

“What was that like?” Though her own alma mater, Hunter College, was described as the Ivy League for immigrants, Rose had often wondered what a real Ivy might be like. Sometimes, she walked up to the Columbia campus and loitered about, mixing with the hallowed students and faculty, pretending she could ever be that self-assured, that poised, that confident that her future was that bright…and guaranteed. 

Jonas took a moment to consider Rose’s question. And an even longer one to consider his answer. Finally, he offered, “I was…well prepared.”

“Academically?”

“Definitely academically. Most of the required reading for my English literature major, my parents made certain I’d covered in advance. I heard Latin declensions in the crib!”

Academically prepared was obviously not what Jonas meant.

“The home training I received,” Jonas chose his words with care, walking the fine line between being honest…and being truthful. “I was well prepared for…”

“You were mistreated,” Rose guessed. And spared him needing to say.

“Not always. Not exactly. Not by everyone. The professors were exceedingly polite. They offered to help me in any way they could. They only took offense when it turned out I didn’t need it.”

‘Oh,” Rose said. “I see.”

“My fellow students were equally welcoming. Until final grades were posted.”

“And you were at the top of the class,” Rose guessed.

“I wasn’t raised to be anything but.”

“That kind of condescension is infuriating,” Rose thought of her and Irna’s struggle to be taken seriously by male executives and even underlings. 

“I suspect that’s why I fell in love with Shakespeare.” Jonas appeared to go off on a non-sequitur but soon brought it around. “If I couldn’t be angry as myself — it wouldn’t do, what would people think, I had to set an example, be unimpeachable, else I would poison the well for all who wished to come after — then I could be angry through Hamlet, through Richard III, King Lear.”

“Through Edmund the bastard?” Rose guessed.

“Exactly.” There went that smile again. The one which kept Rose in her seat, despite the risks. “And his spiritual descendant, Edmund Bard.”

Was Jonas comparing Rose to Shakespeare? That was more of a compliment than she knew how to process. Though she vowed to recall it the next time she wrestled with a stack of Irna’s blue-inked scripts. To cover her embarrassment and her thrill, Rose asked, “Who do you think is the angriest character Shakespeare ever wrote?”

“Benedick,” Jonas answered without hesitation.

“Benedick?” It was the last name Rose expected to hear. “Much Ado About Nothing?”

“Benedick,” Jonas reiterated. “He’s in love with a woman but convinced she could never love him. Benedick is furious with himself for not being the man Beatrice could fall in love with.”

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Click here for Chapter #15!

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To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.

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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!

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