“Waiting for the Man With A Copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” is a short story based on a piece of work created by my grandmother, Ann Kupperberg (circa 1901-1979), a talented painter who took up sculpting after the loss of her eyesight later in life. Earlier collaborations are here, here, and here.
Wendy checked her reflection in the window for the eighth time in the fifteen minutes she had arrived at the Horn & Hardart at 42nd Street. She was horribly early, she knew, but she couldn’t help herself. As hard as she tried to slow down and take her time, she couldn’t. She was too anxious and it felt as though the act of getting there, no matter how early, would end the anxiety. It hadn’t, of course. It never did.
Still, that hadn’t stopped her from racing out of the office at five o’clock on the dot, hurrying down into the tumult of the Times Square subway station, and catching the downtown local. As she clutched at the overhead strap and swayed with the motion of the crowded number one train, Wendy wished she had planned this better. The Automat was a short walk cross town, or a subway ride from Times Square to Grand Central on the shuttle. Why was she rushing all the way downtown just to change her clothes and race back uptown half an hour later? She could have brought her dress to the office and changed in the ladies room at her leisure and…
And then what?
As soon as she was ready, she would have had nothing to do but wait. And think about tonight, so she would have made the trek from west side to east and gotten here even earlier for her date.
She had a date.
Wendy glanced again in the window, this time to see how her hair looked. It hadn’t changed since her last inspection.
She wished she could stop being so nervous. Her date would be here soon. His name was Rick, a stock broker who worked down on Wall Street, the cousin of a co-worker. She had been told he was tall, with a receding hairline, and wore brown tortoise shell horn-rim glasses. And he, her friend, had assured her, had been told all about Wendy. But to make certain they would recognize one another, they were to each carry a copy of the new J.D. Salinger novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
Wendy wondered how her friend had described her to Rick but had been afraid to ask.
She tried distracting herself by watching the people passing on the street, keeping an eye out for the man carrying the book. People alone, in groups, in pairs. She was certain at least two or three of the young, painfully awkward couples she had watched meet up on the sidewalk before going through the Automat’s revolving doors were on their first dates. Just like her.
Except she wasn’t quite as young as any of them. At thirty-three, she was a good dozen or more years older. Telephone conversations with her mother that did not remind her of her single status were few and far between and accounted for their infrequency. So-and-so was having her third baby. Such-and-such’s husband had made partner/manager/supervisor/vice president. Frick and Frack were celebrating their umptety anniversary. Tracy and Hepburn just bought a house in Scarsdale or Levittown. Always accompanied by the unspoken, “But not you!”
But who could tell? Maybe tonight it would finally be her turn. With the man carrying A Catcher in the Rye.
Wendy smiled and allowed herself another look at her reflection, her tenth, to inspect her make-up. She didn’t look her age and she tried to use make-up sparingly, so she didn’t come across like she was trying to hide anything with too much. And even when she was being her hardest on herself, looking coldly and realistically at her flaws, she had to admit she wasn’t so unattractive. No raving beauty like Liz Taylor, but no ZaSu Pitts, either. She was pretty. Pretty enough. Maybe not a woman who caused men to stumble and drool in passion, but she didn’t send them fleeing in horror either.
But pretty enough to deserve happiness, all else aside.
She saw a man matching Rick’s description coming up the street before he saw her. He was wearing a gray tweed overcoat and looking expectantly at the faces outside the Horn & Hardart. Most important, he was carrying a book, held clasped to his chest. Wendy couldn’t make out the title from where she was standing, but she could plainly see the burnt orange dust jacket art that matched the one she held.
Wendy took a step away from the window, smiling and swinging her left leg out in front of her.
He saw her then, a smile of his own touching his lips for an instant as their eyes met, but only for that instant. Then his gaze moved down and landed on the steel and leather brace on her left leg, the one left paralyzed by polio in childhood. His face fell as fast as the hand that held the book, disappearing at his side. Without a break in stride, he ducked his head and darted out into the street, risking the buzzing traffic on 42nd Street over her, not looking back, losing himself in the crowd.
But she had been promised. He knew. Rick was supposed to have known about her. Everything.
Wendy felt as though her heart had stopped. She wished it would. That would be better than this humiliation and pain.
It wasn’t right. Her face was hot and her eyes stung. She stepped back against the window to get out of the way of the people pushing and jostling past her. But she couldn’t bear to look again at her reflection. She couldn’t have survived seeing herself through the eyes of a poor, pitiful cripple. Not again.
He was supposed to have known.
Maybe her co-worker had lied, hadn’t told her cousin the whole truth? No. No, Wendy couldn’t let herself believe her friend would be that cruel.
Maybe it was Wendy who was wrong. Maybe the man she had seen hadn’t been Rick. There were a million balding men who wore glasses in New York. A thousand of whom could be reading the very same book.
She looked at her watch. There were still five minutes until the time they were supposed to meet, Wendy thought. Just because she had been early was no reason to expect Rick would be as well.
Wendy smiled at her reflection in the window. She had just made a mistake. She was nervous, that was all. Forget it, she told herself, and wait for him. He’ll be here any moment, the man with a copy of The Catcher in the Rye.