My faux pas occurred in the dressing room of a men’s store in the Village. I ‘d tried on a pair of jeans and, when the snooty young sales assistant asked me how they fit, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question.
“Will they draw up?”
He launched one overly plucked eyebrow into the air like a missile. “I’m sorry?”
Thinking he must have not heard me, I repeated my question, only louder. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Edward a few feet away, rearranging his mouth into a small ‘o’ in an effort not to laugh out loud.
“What are you trying to ask me?” the sales clerk demanded to know.
Finally, I realized the problem. This Yankee didn’t speak Southern. So I translated my original question into, “Will the jeans shrink when I wash them?” To compound my humiliation, the clerk sighed and pointed to a label on the outside of the jeans: “Pre-shrunk.”
In my peripheral vision, I could see Edward’s right hand race to make an emergency landing over his mouth, to stifle a guffaw. It was a struggle for me to politely hand the jeans back to the haughty clerk and walk calmly out of the store with Edward. Once outside, we hooted and howled, leaning against each other, barely able to walk.
Bergdorf’s Doesn’t Have a Roadkill Section
Edward’s turn came when he insisted on visiting the Bergdorf Goodman fur department.
The department, which at the time was the store’s largest, was as quiet as a church sanctuary. Not knowing what to do, I stood more or less still, watching Edward reverently inspect and finger the garments, as if he had done this before, which of course, he never had.
A young male sales clerk — practically the twin to the arched-eyebrow edition in the Village — approached me. I barely breathed, fearful of committing another faux pas.
“May I help you?” he wondered.
“No thank you,” I replied, mischievously adding that my companion could use some assistance. I pointed to Edward, who was out of hearing range. The all-black-wearing sales associate smiled wearily and aimed himself in the direction of the unsuspecting Edward. I followed, to eavesdrop upon the exchange.
“Good afternoon,” the sales clerk began. “Which type of fur are you interested in?”
The question took Edward by surprise. I could see the thought bubbles popping over his head. After a brief hesitation, he responded, in his best attempt at a refined accent, “Do you have anything in…varmint?”
I could not believe my ears. Nor, apparently, could the stunned sales clerk. He thought for a second. “Could you possibly mean marmot?”
Edward’s face paled. “I’m so sorry, yes, that’s what I meant. Marmot.”
The clerk happily flashed a condescending smile. “I’m afraid Bergdorf Goodman doesn’t carry marmot.”
“What were you thinking?,” I asked Edward once we’d escaped the fur salon. “Why did you ask for varmint? Did you expect Bergdorf’s fur department to have a roadkill section?”
“I couldn’t think!” Edward replied. “I was so…intimidated!”
Between us, the response became infamous. Over the years to come, when one of us would commit a gaffe, the other would sometimes say that “Bergdorf Goodman doesn’t carry varmint” or simply, “varmint.”
All About Eve and Big City Dreams
The next afternoon would be our last before heading back to North Carolina: Edward to Charlotte, me to Greensboro. A fresh snowfall slowed Manhattan traffic but not much else. I’d discovered in the newspaper that there was a Marilyn Monroe film festival happening at Carnegie Hall Cinema. The double feature that afternoon/early evening was All About Eve, in which Marilyn had a minor but memorable role as an ambitious starlet, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, one of her first big starring successes.
I’d never seen Eve but knew its stellar reputation, so I suggested to Edward that we go. Eagerly, he agreed.
On that late Sunday afternoon, as snow fell and the loud city grew quiet, we ventured into the faded elegance of the movie house tucked into a Carnegie Hall corner. The sold-out audience, primarily gay men, was enthusiastic and excited, almost as if Eve, released in 1950, were being screened for the first time. There was a collective excitement, a shared bond among strangers that was unlike anything I’d experienced in a movie theater.
During that screening, Edward and I both realized that, despite still being naïve North Carolinians, we were having, at last, a taste of our big city dreams.
The audience roared its approval at the film’s deliciously delivered lines, of which “Fasten your seat belts” is but one of many. We were to quote Eve to each other often in the future. We knew many lines by heart: “One good burp and you’ll be rid of that Miss Caswell.” “Neither your name nor your performance entered into the conversation.” “Enchanté to you, too!”
Or this exchange between Bette Davis and Thelma Ritter:
Bette: “That French ventriloquist taught you a lot.”
Thelma: “It was nothing he didn’t know.”
|Bette and Thelma laugh about 'that French ventriloquist'|
We repeated that exchange so many times through the years, the shorthand became “voilà!” to which the other would unfailingly respond with some quip about “that French ventriloquist.”
That French Ventriloquist
Edward and I (and often Nick) took many trips together over the next 30+ years, including a tour of Italy and Switzerland that, at one point, required Edward to anxiously steer a stick-shift car over the Alps.
|Two bumblers in Venice (1992)|
I hadn’t seen him in at least six months, and the toll that the many years of debilitating pain and memory-impairing painkillers had taken on him had become for me suddenly, agonizingly apparent.
As we were getting into an Uber to go to dinner, Edward wondered aloud if he’d remembered to bring his hotel room key. He dug into his pants pockets, to no avail, and then dove into his omnipresent Prada bag, found the key, and said, with an attempt at humor, ‘Voilà!”
Instinctively, I responded: “That French ventriloquist taught you a lot.”
Edward stared blankly at me. He didn’t get the reference. “All About Eve?” I prompted.
“What about it?” he wondered.
I didn’t respond at first, as I wasn’t sure how. “It meant nothing,” I said, without making eye contact. Because the truth was, it had meant everything.