The breeze blows through the open windows, curtains swaying slow and lazy. It's August and already balmy first thing in the morning. As I sit at the kitchen table, a band of sunlight streaks across the newspaper and warms the backs of my hands even as my coffee turns cold. Suddenly it's too much to cross the room for a fresh cup because all I can do is stare at the headline while something catches again and again inside my chest. There it is in the New York Times': Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan's Iconic Editor, Dies at 90.
The obituary tries to paint her portrait, a tribute to the woman who gave single girls everywhere a license to join the sexual revolution, who resurrected a dying magazine and introduced the world to a new sensation, the Cosmo Girl. A few paragraphs down they mention other feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and get into Helen Gurley Brown's controversial role in the women's movement. It's all there, and this being the Times, I'm sure Margalit Fox got the facts right, but still, there's more to Helen's story. More than anyone but a select few will ever know.
I glance again at the obituary and one line jumps out at me: "Helen Gurley Brown was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger." I can't help but smile at that as I run my fingers over the accompanying photograph. It's a black-and-white shot, taken in her office. The year was 1965, shortly after she started at Cosmopolitan. Helen, in a leopard print dress, is seated at her desk, pencil in hand, papers spread out before her. Standing to the side, bleeding off the page, I see a sliver of a young woman. Half of her has been cropped out of the image, left on the editing room floor. Still, I recognize the geometric pattern of her dress and a hint of her face: the eye, the nose and the corner of her mouth, the subtle wisps of hair brushing her collar. I know the dress well and the woman even better.
She is me, some forty-seven years ago.
NEW YORK CITY
I had creased and folded my subway map so many times over the past few days that it was on the verge of tearing in two. Somehow I had boarded the wrong train. Again. I'd ended up at Times Square instead of 57th Street. Now what?
I exited the train, took a few tentative steps and froze on the platform, people weaving around me, bumping up against my portfolio, jostling the photographs inside. A young woman in a pink and gold sari called to a little boy running on ahead of her, past a man playing bongos. The Times Square station was a maze of tiled corridors and tunnels, stairwells that led from one frenzied level to another. A blur of signs pointed me in all directions: UPTOWN, DOWNTOWN, THE BRONX, BROOKLYN, 8TH AVENUE, 40TH STREET . . .
I didn't have time to risk getting on the wrong train, so I folded my tattered map, tucked it inside my pocketbook and made my way to the 42nd Street exit where I was met with a blast of horns, a gust of exhaust. I stood at the curb feeling as bewildered as I'd been inside the station, and yet, it was exhilarating. I'd arrived in New York about a week ago, and like the city, I was alive, filled with possibility and adventure. Anything could happen now. My life was about to begin.
I'd never hailed a taxicab before and was momentarily paralyzed. All I could do was observe other people's techniques, like the businessman who raised his hand ever so slightly, accomplishing the task with just two fingers. Another man with bags under his eyes, big and full as cheeks, yelled out a commanding "Taxi," making a driver swerve across two lanes before bringing his cab to a screeching halt. Job done. The woman beside me waved her hand like a magic wand and a taxicab appeared. I mimicked her approach, my fingers flapping amateurishly. Two taxicabs barreled past me as if I wasn't there before one pulled up alongside me. I gave the driver the address while he laid on his horn, inching forward, leaving barely a whisper of air between his bumper and the taxicab in front of us. We were one in a chain of yellow cabs going nowhere fast.
I checked the clock on the dashboard. "I have an appointment in twenty minutes," I said to the driver through the cloudy Plexiglas window separating us. "Do you think we can make it in time?"
He shot me an impatient look through his rearview mirror. "You coulda walked it, lady," he said in a thick Brooklyn accent.
I sat back, trying to relax, clutching my portfolio: a homemade case that protected my photographs, mounted to sheets of construction paper and held between two cardboard covers. I used a black ribbon to tie it shut.