Simone was once my closest friend. Her drama continues to lap around my consciousness. The red velvet curtain closed before the last act concluded.
Simone and I were drama students at The Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. Together, we rehearsed lines from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom, Ah, Wilderness by Eugene O’Neill and other plays.
Our teachers, Michael Kahn and Marvin Stevens, were professional actors who performed at Hedgerow theater. One Saturday afternoon, Simone and I rode the train to the Hedgerow and watched Michael and Marvin perform in Julius Caesar. Michael played beautiful Mark Anthony. Marvin played treacherous Cassius.
Simone and I stumbled out of the performance in a daze, then went home and ran through our lines. We trusted each other and our feelings through the characters we played. After we memorized our lines, we rummaged through our interpretations of fear, passion, love, yearning, and grief. I was 15 and Simone was 16, too young to realize we didn’t have enough life experience to dramatize most of these feelings. Still, we tried.
Simone is in tenth grade at Olney High, a grade ahead of me. We rehearse scenes in her house. Her bedroom is our imaginary stage. Her mother and sister are never home, and there is enough space for us to walk around and practice. During those afternoons when we practice at her house, I gaze at Simone. Her expressive amber eyes catch silver and gold flecks of daylight. Wavy brunette hair cascades around her high cheekbones. Her curvaceous body moves freely, effortlessly. My body feels stiff, inhibited, shy. I envy Simone’s body and sinuousness, her emotional freedom. I don’t recognize it at the time, but what I feel is longing—a longing to look and move and act like her, to be her.
We study lines from Letters to Lucerne by Fritz Rotter and Alan Vincent, a play about a girls' boarding school in Switzerland that takes place on the eve of World War II.
I play Marion Curwood, a refined English girl. Simone plays Felice Renoir, a flamboyant French girl . I do not summon my emotions as easily as Simone does. She can sprint from the spirited happiness of Juliet to the angry rage of Iago in an instant. After we finish rehearsing our lines, Simone motions to me. “I want to show you my mother’s bedroom,” she says. My pulse quickens. Simone ushers me into a quiet, neat room. The four-poster romantic-bed is covered with a snowy white chenille bedspread that flows to the floor. Outside the double window are branches of emerald green leaves fluttering from Sycamore trees. On top of a colonial bureau sits a large black-and-white photograph of a handsome man’s face, set inside a silver frame. He’s dressed in a crisp Army uniform set with double rows of brass buttons. A flat military hat, complete with leather brim, sits on his head. I study the shape of his smile, the curve of his lips. "That's a picture of my father," Simone says. "I don't remember him.” She pauses. “He died when I was two.”
The man’s face reminds me of my father's kind expression. His eyes transmitted the words, “You are loved.”
I want to talk to Simone about what it feels like to grow up without a father. My father died when I was eleven. Simone says she doesn't miss her father because she has no memory of him. Should I share my feelings? Since she doesn't long for a father, there is no reason to unburden my feelings about how sad I am. She probably doesn’t have the same aching desire to bring her father back to life.
I want to be like Simone: smoldering, sexy, blase about being fatherless.
Simone points to a closed door leading to another bedroom. "This is my sister Barbara’s room."
"It must be nice to have an older sister," I say. “I wish I had an older sister instead of a younger brother.”
"I love her,” Simone says. "She's a lot older, twenty-one, and very pretty. She’s engaged and will be married soon."
When I leave Simone’s home, I walk along the sidewalk carrying the image of the man in the silver frame. Wouldn't it be nice if my mother had a beautiful portrait of Daddy on her vanity? I want to ask her to put Daddy’s photograph in a frame, although my father was the one who photographed my brother, mother and me. There are no large 8X10 photographs of him.
A few days later, while turning pages through my favorite magazine, LIFE, I discover a poem called Rescue by Dorothy Parker.
“Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramps.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
I cut the poem out and fold it into a small square to fit inside my wallet. Who was this funny lady, Dorothy Parker, to joke about suicide? I reread the poem and conclude that if all those dreadful things happen when you try to commit suicide, then Dorothy Parker is right: “You might as well live.”
I can’t risk almost dying and not succeeding. When I was six years old, I had a disease called Undulant Fever and lay in a hospital bed for seven months. Doctors didn’t know how to contain my fever. They poked and pushed painful instruments into my skin and body. They sat on my bed, long black cords dangling from their ears. They pressed cold discs on my bare chest and listened to my heart. “Heart sounds good," they’d say and walk away.
One Saturday, before drama class at Settlement Music School, Simone and I find an empty piano practice room where we rehearse our lines from a scene in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
I recite Viola's soliloquy.
"She made a good view of me; indeed, so much
That sure methought her eyes had lost her tongue,"
“What does the word ‘methought’ mean?” I ask.
“I thought,” Simone answers.
Simone tells me she tried out for a part in a play at Hedgerow theater.
“I’m so disappointed I didn’t get chosen,” she says.
“It’s an honor to be invited to audition at Hedgerow!” I say. “You'll get into another play, you will."
"Marvin told me, ’You can't be an actress and play the role of a woman in a drama until you have had sexual intercourse with a man.’ ” Simone looks at me. I am stunned. Why is Marvin talking to Simone about sex? Rays of yellow sunlight slide through the windows. Piano music streams from the adjoining practice room. Fur Elise, by Beethoven.
“Marvin says, ‘It takes courage to kill yourself,” Simone says.
So they are talking about sex and suicide. I don’t want Simone to know I know nothing about one and have contemplated the other. Sex seems far away, an option that will be presented in the future. Thoughts of suicide, I struggle with right now, but I’m afraid. Afraid of my mother’s response if I fail to die. She blamed me for getting sick with Undulant fever..
“You make my life miserable!” my mother said. “You purposely went out to get sick with Undulant fever. You always do things to take the joy out of my life.”
If I tried to kill myself, my mother would kill me, I’m sure.
“Marvin’s wrong! It takes even greater courage to live with pain!” I say to Simone, definitely.
“I guess so,” Simone says.
“I would miss you,” I say. “Your mother and sister would be very sad if you were not in their lives.”
“They do love me.” Simone smiles.
I love Simone's buoyant smile. Her happiness. Sometimes, she isn't happy and her face darkens. I don’t like to see that side of her. I want to be with a happy friend.
I’m chosen to study with the Star English class where we read Romantic Poets. My favorite is Robert Browning’s poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra” and study the first three lines:
“Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.”
I envision a life where Simone and I grow old together, studying scripts, performing in plays, laughing about men. Right now, living with my mother is torture. Last night I was reciting the Browning poem out loud. My mother asked me to stop and scrub the kitchen floor. “No,” I said. “No?” my mother said. Then she called me a mule. “A mule is an animal with long, funny ears. He kicks up his legs up at whatever he hears.” My mother belted this in a sing-song voice, then left my room.
Simone and I learn our teachers from Hedgerow will be performing, "Ah Wilderness," in a theater downtown.
My mother offers to drive us to the theater. Simone arrives at our house, beaming, dancing a little hop, shuffle, and jig.
“I’m so excited we’re going to see the show! Both Michael and Marvin are in the cast!”
“Now, we’ll see professionals performing this play!” Simone’s enthusiasm spills onto me. Several scenes from "Ah Wilderness" are in our acting repertory. Each of us has played Belle, the prostitute, who appears in the bar scene at the brothel.
We sing lines from the bar scene. “Bedelia, I wanna feel ya.”
Outside, twilight darkens the early evening sky. Bare brown angular branches of Sycamore trees line our sidewalks while tall yellow lamplights glow in the misty November air. Kenny, my younger brother, sits beside my mother in the front seat of the Chevrolet while Simone and I climb into the back seat, singing Belle’s lines.
My mother is uncomfortable with displays of happiness from me. “Life isn’t about fun,” she says. Simone and I continue to recite Belle’s script and giggle. We take turns singing, “Be-del-ia.”
My mother stops for a red light. She turns around and looks at Simone. "Your voice sounds like you are having a bowel movement,” she says. Her sharp voice hurls poison darts at us. We fall silent. Shame spreads its heat into my face. What just happened is not that unusual. My mother often hurls hurtful words to extinguish my happiness. This time, they landed on my friend. I hold my breath and tongue until we exit the car and shut the door. As Simone and I walk up the flat marble steps into the theater, I apologize.
"I'm so sorry my mother spoke that way to you. Don’t pay attention to what she says. You have a beautiful voice.” I raise my voice. “You are a gifted actress!"
Simone looks away. While we wait for the play to begin, the chandelier dims, stage lights illuminate the actors, and the drama unfolds. My heart pumps with fear. I am ashamed of my mother. I may lose my best friend.
Decades later, a therapist will say, “Your mother was mentally ill,” and I will know in that instant that the therapist is right. But back in 1959, all I knew was that my mother had cruelly insulted my closest friend and because I was her daughter, I was responsible for her cruelty.
Several weeks later, on a Friday night, our Chevrolet is parked outside drama class at Fourth and Queen. My mother has come to drive me home. Since Simone and I had traveled together by subway to Settlement, I offer her a ride home.
“I’m going with the others on the subway,” Simone says. She does not look at my mother in the car.
Simone and I continue drama classes and appear in performances together until Simone graduates Olney High School and leaves to attend Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in Pittsburgh. We exchange letters, then stop. Perhaps it is me who stops writing. During spring semester, my mother is in and out of Jefferson Hospital with heart problems and shortness of breath. The cardiologist discovers her mitral valve is partially closed. She is 49 years old. Her doctors explain her heart may not function beyond two more years. Surgery is necessary. My mother schedules her open-heart surgical procedure a few days before my high school graduation.
When September arrives, I enroll as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. Once again, my mother is in and out of the Jewish Hospital at Forth and Reed. I juggle classes, attend biology labs, write papers, study for quizzes and visit my mother in the hospital. After I visit her, I race home to cook dinner for my brother.
The following September, I take The History of Music. One morning, the Professor introduces the Gregorian Chant from the middle-ages. I close my eyes to listen to free flowing melodies. When I open them, I spot a familiar head of wild brunette hair. Class adjourns. I wait at the door. A young woman walks towards me. She’s dressed in a long black skirt and a cape. Could she be Simone? I open my arms wide. “Simone?” I shout. Simone looks as if she was walking through a fog of gloom.
“Simone, I’m so happy to see you!”
“Hello,” she replies flatly. I place my arm around her waist to pull her close. We walk outside.
“Let’s sit over there.” I point to an outside bench. “I’m happy you are at Penn, so we can connect again.”
Simone looks at a squirrel hugging an acorn to its mouth. “I left Carnegie Mellon because the work was too hard. I was disappointed in their theater courses.” She bites her lip. “My uncle was paying for me to live there.” Her gaze focuses on the sidewalk. “Cost of living was too expensive. Here, in Philadelphia, I can live at home.”
Simone has changed. I don’t know what is different. She reminds me of the character, Masha, in Chekov's “The Seagull” who speaks the play’s opening lines. “I’m in mourning for my life!”
For the next few weeks, Simone remains elusive when we see each other after class. I suggest lunch together in Houston Hall. “Maybe,” she says. At the conclusion of each music class, I wait for her. If we have lunch, I am sure she will reveal the source of her sadness. “I have to go home right after class,” she says repeatedly.
The grief in Simone’s face is evident but I’m at a loss to know what is troubling her. Simone is unhappy, but I can’t gauge the depth of her pain. Three weeks later, Simone is absent from class. I hope to see her in another class. Perhaps I’ll spot her walking around campus.
A cold February day. A buzz spreads through campus. “Did you hear about Simone?"
"It's terrible. It's just terrible."
"It happened at City Hall Station. Simone jumped from the platform into the tracks just before the oncoming train roared into the station.”
"Oh, my God, no."
“People who were waiting for the train saw her. It was in the newspaper. Inquirer’s obituary page.”
Memories of Simone erupt inside my brain like cut up frames of movie stills. One image at a time. Rehearsals. A legacy of plays: Liliom, The Bluebird, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Cherry Orchard, Twelfth Night, Ah, Wilderness. The shameful night with my mother. Marvin saying, “It takes lot of guts to kill yourself.” I carry the memory of Simone’s beautiful face to bed with me. If only we had met again. If only we had read Belle’s lines from Ah, Wilderness together again. If only we had discussed that line from Dorothy Parker’s poem, “You might as well live.”
I want to turn back time, run to the train station and yank my friend back from the tracks. “No!” I would scream, and pull her to safety. I try to imagine: What did Simone feel as the screeching train rolled over her body and crushed her bones? I pray her head slammed against a metal rail to knock her unconscious before the train did.
Simone, my closest friend. If she were alive now, I would tell her how much joy and sunshine she brought to my life. I would tell her how much happiness she gave me. I would tell her how much I loved her.
I didn’t attend Simone’s funeral. I didn’t write a condolence note, call, or visit her mother or sister. I was unaware of the customs and ceremonies surrounding death.
When I was eleven, they sent away me to overnight camp. My father died the morning I left, and I was not told about his death until three weeks later. I did not attend his funeral or sit shiva for him. Like my father, Simone’s unexpected death haunts me. No goodbyes. No funeral. No official mourning period.
Six plus decades later, I wonder if Simone and I would have grown old together. What would that decades-long friendship look like? Would we have been young wives and mothers together? Would we have pursued acting careers, compared notes on auditions? Would she have given up acting, gone into something else? Or, would she have flourished, and carved out a career for herself on Broadway?
Some memories vanish. Others remain. It is the memories fueled by regret, the words not said, that make laps round our minds in concentric circles and do not fade. Isak Dinesen once wrote, “All sorrows can be managed if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
Mary Oliver once wrote in her poem, “The Uses of Sorrow,” “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” Simone. Me. My mother. Our fathers. I have wrapped our sorrows inside this story.