Imagine there’s no heaven, Barbara

February 8, 2010 at 2:15 AM 10 comments


Bad dates aren’t worth getting all het up about. They are no worse than standing on line forever at the post office to return a too-tight Victoria’s Secret tankini or filling out six healthcare forms in one day with the same @#%& information about your family medical history and age at menarche. Unless you’re a celebrity with a personal assistant, you must accept that into every life a little hassle must fall.

I’d have forgotten the little hassle that Jay Baron rained down upon me if he had merely behaved like a buffoon and then disappeared. Instead my first college date introduced me to the idea that even lust can have an ideology. And there went my innocence.

Like a roadie

Jay was a college student center regular. He and a small crew of male graduate students occupied a melamine round table where they talked about Salvador Allende, Rod Stewart and the other personalities of the day while ogling girls. He was known to be a hanger-on, a twenty-five-year-old guy from Wayne, New Jersey who graduated years back and had never found a life beyond Rutgers University.

Such a shame. Jay was tall and sported a Prince Valiant haircut that shimmered whenever he bounded out of his seat to replenish his plate of buttered English muffins. His tee shirts always broadcasted a message. The one I remember had the Yellow Submarine logo across his midsection and “It’s all in the mind y’know!” across his chest. He looked like a roadie.

I have a vague memory of Jay prancing over to me, as if on a dare from his round table knights. He asked me out for that same evening. I told him I had plans to go to a panel discussion.

What kind of panel discussion, he wanted to know.

It was panel discussion about female sexuality — the only kind of panel discussion freshman girls go to. Jay’s eyes didn’t light up and his tongue did not drag the student center floor. He said with absolute dispassion, “Mind if I come with you?”

I didn’t hear any double entendre.

If Jay hadn’t been so tall, I’d have made some excuse. But his height flattered me. In my self-doubting eighteen-year-old mind, the attentions of a tall man, even a tall goldbrick, meant I was an exceptional short woman. I used to feel prettier around tall men.

At the panel discussion, Jay sat on my left, bristling. It was all he could do to stay in his seat until the Q&A when he leapt up and stood his ground at the microphone until called upon to speak.

Jay’s question was a philosophical treatise whose preamble began with the nature and constitution of clitoral orgasm and finally blundered into a Heideggerian cul-de-sac where he stopped to take a breath. The panel moderator was a well-known feminist scholar and my freshman literature professor. She listened to Jay with an expression I recognized from class as patronizing. Clearly, she had dealt with Jay at previous panel discussions and addressed him by name with impatient familiarity. I was mortified. Had she seen him sitting next to me? I had long blonde hair and I curtained my face with it.

Jay said something that flabbergasted one of the lesbians on the panel. She buried her head in the feminist scholar’s shoulder and pleaded with her for help. The scholar rolled her eyes and asked Jay to sit down.

Jay flopped down in the seat next to me, all long legs and arms. He continued to wage his battle — whatever and whomever it was against — by whispering further expositions in my ear. My impassivity finally led him to plead, “Let’s get out of here.”

I wanted to stay until the panel was over. He sat hunched forward and tapped his foot like a deprived heroin addict until I was ready to go.

A night at the Livingston Hotel

Before I came to Rutgers, I had never been on a date. I was so thrilled to discover that men wanted to go out with me that I rarely refused anybody. I figured that boredom was part of the dating ritual and the point was to rack up as many dates as possible. That explains why I accompanied Jay to his room at the Livingston Hotel even though I already had written him off as a clown. Anyway, I couldn’t help it: I was curious about this guy’s life.

Except for Cary Grant at the Plaza Hotel in North by Northwest, I never knew of anybody who lived in a hotel room. The Livingston Hotel in New Brunswick, New Jersey was on Livingston Avenue, a road off George Street that signaled a no man’s land of on-the-dole townies. College lore held that the street was home to the city’s grifters. Students were warned to steer clear. Especially coeds, as we girls were once known.

Yet the Livingston Hotel, set back from the corner, had an alluring down-at-the-heels facade best seen in the noir movies of the ‘forties and ‘fifties, and, God help me, I wanted to see a grifter for myself. The hotel could have been a stage set for Night and the City, complete with missing letters in the neon sign. The grate in the elevator hadn’t been properly installed and a couple of florescent bulbs shone down on us as we rattled our way up to the fourth floor. If Charles Bukowski had lived in New Brunswick, he would have had a room at the Livingston Hotel.

“I didn’t notice how short you are,” Jay said.

Whatever excitement I felt was over. I was just a short girl on a miserable date with a tall hanger-on who had nothing better to do with himself on a weeknight than accompany me to a panel discussion about female sexuality. Even at eighteen, I had some idea about the ludicrousness of clitoris-gazing. Of course I have since learned that men from ten to ninety find the subject endlessly fascinating, so in that regard, Jay wasn’t different from any man with a job, a wife and two kids in a Country Squire station wagon.

The room was a dump. No posters on the walls, not even a girlie calendar. Just smudges and an unshaded light fixture in the middle of the ceiling. The nightstand next to his double bed was drowning in books and looseleaf filler. Amidst the clutter was a Bakelite radio with a dial and a metallic arm that pointed to a pop music radio station. Jay reached across me to turn a knob. In a few seconds the fuses heated up and the radio faded on.

Jay motioned me to lie down on the bed next to him. I had no intention of doing anything with him and told him so. He said that was fine. We were just going to cuddle.

At that moment, I realized that accepting any old date was going to be a problem for me. I did not want to cuddle. I did not want to kiss. I didn’t even care about Jay being tall. I just wanted to go back to my dorm. Alone.

Going catawampus in the laboratory of life

Suddenly, like a revelation, John Lennon’s Imagine filled the air. Jay began to narrate the song and personalize it in the hope of doing what the panel discussion had not: Liberate my sexuality.

“Imagine all the people, Barbara, living for today,” Jay said.

He waited a moment for Lennon to continue before resuming his narration.

“Imagine no possessions, Barbara,” Jay exhorted. With a note of accusation, he added, “I wonder if you can, Barbara. Imagine all the people sharing all the world –”

The didactic message was a big part of Lennon’s lyrics, but until that night, I never paid any attention to it. Once Jay turned the song into the national anthem for the Sexual Liberation Kolkhoz, I was done with it. Finally he conceded defeat and drove me back to my dorm in a Volkswagen Beetle as shambling as his hotel room. Whenever I saw him in the student center, he pretended not to know me.

For years I couldn’t bear to hear “Imagine.” It reminded me of the stupid risk I took to see a hotel room forbidden to me everywhere but in my imagination. These days, though, I think less about that younger self than about the mystery of Jay Baron.

I have come across my fair share of Jays — men who spout philosophies that go catawampus in the laboratory of everyday life, men who latch onto some fool woman who pays their bills and feeds their bellies until she wakes up twenty or thirty years later and throws them out on their tail. What remains for me is sadness and dread at the memory of Jay sitting at the cafeteria round table by day and festering alone at night among his college textbooks and, who knows, some half-begun magnum opus. It hurts too much to imagine.


ALSO: Sinatra song often strikes a deadly chord [The New York Times]



Entry filed under: Bookpod, college, Love. Tags: , , , , , , .

Portrait of a revolutionary manque I’m baaaack!

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara Bennett  |  February 8, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    Another great piece! My heart was pounding, wondering whether something bad was going to happen, or whether you would come out unscathed. I can just picture you there with that wide-eyed look of yours.

    • 2. modestine  |  February 8, 2010 at 5:33 PM

      This was just one of those really dumb things you do when you’re eighteen and try never to talk about — until you can look back in wonder!

  • 3. Will Runyon  |  February 8, 2010 at 7:10 PM

    I don’t remember college girls being very patient with such clumbsiness. Or perhaps my moves weren’t masked with intellectual feints.

    • 4. modestine  |  February 8, 2010 at 7:19 PM

      He must have had some success with his tactics or he would have changed them. Maybe he figured one success out of ten was good news. Just glad that one wasn’t me —

  • 5. Will Runyon  |  February 8, 2010 at 7:27 PM

    And in college I could spell clumsiness.

  • 6. Urban Renaissance  |  February 9, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    There should be a required course for women freshmen on Types of Men to Avoid. And your essay should be on the required reading list.

    I am glad Jay listened when you said you wanted to go home. There is a guardian angel (usually) watching over girls who are just starting college.

    • 7. modestine  |  February 9, 2010 at 4:35 PM

      That evening certainly could have turned out a lot worse. I’m sorry to say that I remember another guy about ten years after the incident with Jay who went at a seduction scene with Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” When that didn’t work, he said I rejected him because he had a sunken chest. Maybe the trick is to avoid men who believe certain songs will do the work that character ought to do.

      • 8. Urban Renaissance  |  February 9, 2010 at 4:48 PM

        Trying to seduce a religions Jewish girl with “Imagine” (“and no religion too”) or Wagner (a rabid anti-Semite) seems incredibly stupid to me. Or perhaps that was part of their befuddled point.

        I have to say, it was much harder to resist “American Pie.” (But, as you know, I did!)

  • 9. Urban Renaissance  |  February 9, 2010 at 4:54 PM

    Oh, and there’s a typo above. I really do know how to spell “religious.” (Of all words to misspell!)

  • 10. Piri  |  February 10, 2010 at 7:42 AM

    Another perfect piece! Thanks


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