Thin Girl

Let’s face it: beauty
is a bit of a bore.

W. Somerset Maugham

Contrary to what most people assumed, Henrietta Ziege and I were nothing more than childhood pals. Tall and bony, with an aquiline nose, long unruly hair, a lusterless complexion, and an egregious indifference to fashion, she was anything but a heartbreaker—and certainly not my type. I doubt that she ever aroused any man’s passion, let alone mine. But I will say this: I never knew a nicer person. Intelligent, kindhearted, and warm, she was, above all, an exceptionally good friend.

Henry, which is what everyone save her parents called her, had no idea how she acquired her nickname, yet it somehow seemed to fit. She didn’t mind being called by a boy’s name either, though at a certain age she changed the spelling to Henri. She did, however, object to being made fun of because of her surname, which almost everyone in our neighborhood knew means goat in German.

Henry and I were bonded at a time when most boys my age still looked down on girls as alien creatures. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that we were in many ways alike—shy, introspective, solitary, and often lonely. Fate also played a role. The Zieges and my parents were refugees from Hitler’s Germany and had been friends already in Cologne, where all four grew up. Both of us were only children and coincidentally lived for years in the same immense apartment building in Washington Heights, the section of upper Manhattan where many European refugees settled in the 1940s and 1950s. We attended the same public schools, from kindergarten through high school, and were equally ambitious to make our marks in the creative world, she as a musician and I as a writer. All in all, our commonalities outweighed our differences, which were, in any case, trivial. One of the few things we disagreed about was peanut butter. I could never get my fill of it. Henry hated the smell.

To her credit, though she ranked at the top of every class, Henry didn’t let her reputation as a whiz to go to her head. Some dismissed her as a teacher’s pet, but in fact she regularly refrained from raising her hand in class to give others a chance to shine. I still wonder sometimes what I would have done if Henry hadn’t helped me with my homework and prepared for exams. And I’ll always remember the time the letter “e” on my typewriter broke the night before a paper was due and how she willingly stayed up half the night filling in every blank by hand.

I owe Henry an immense—and far more enduring—debt of gratitude for introducing me to the two things I care about most passionately—classical music and good books. At a time when our peers were reading pulp Westerns and trashy novels, she got me to read—and afterwards discuss—Crime and Punishment, among other great works of literature. For her twelfth birthday Henry’s parents gave her a phonograph, and from that day on we listened to classical music on 78-rpm records in her room every chance we got. (Mrs. Ziege always insisted that we keep the door open, but it was quite unnecessary.) Around that time Henry began piano lessons. She took to the instrument as though she had learned to play it in the womb, and before long she was giving recitals during school assemblies. If memory serves, I was the first one to predict that she would win fame as a concert pianist.

Once we were old enough to be allowed to ride the subway by ourselves, we explored the city’s museums and such landmarks as the Statue of Liberty. We often walked across the George Washington Bridge, and once or twice took the ferry to Staten Island. One Sunday we sailed up the Hudson on an excursion steamer to West Point. Oftentimes we were part of a group of teens, but Henry and I seldom strayed more than a yard or two from each other. Small wonder we were thought of as a couple—and a bit odd at that.

But it never occurred to me to put distance between Henry and myself in public because of the way she looked—not even after she had a late growth spurt and towered over me. We had too much in common, and I was too fond of her to let anything so insignificant get in the way of our purely nonphysical relationship. We shared many of the same tastes and interests, talked for hours about the important issues of the day, and, as we got older, became involved in causes that mattered to us. One year we sported Henry Wallace buttons, though we weren’t yet old enough to vote. Within limits, I was even able to open my inner world to her, a mutual trust and honesty that she reciprocated.

Although she was poles apart from other girls her age, Henry was at pains not to act the outsider. To the amazement of the boys who didn’t give her a second look, she used her athletic talents to show that there was more to her than met the eye. This in the days when it was virtually unthinkable for a girl to be included in a pickup game of basketball, touch football, or softball. Henry more than held her own in all three, but it was in softball that she excelled. She was a good hitter, ran the bases like a gazelle, and could throw the ball from center field, her favorite position, to home plate without a bounce. A fanatic Yankee fan (as was I), she knew the uniform numbers and batting averages of every player. When we listened to the game on the radio, she kept the scorecard. Joe DiMaggio, not any of the crooners or movie stars of the day, was her hero, and for many years she kept his photograph pinned over her bed. (Confession: I had a picture of Veronica Lake tacked on the wall above my bed.)

At fourteen Henry went to a summer camp for musically gifted children while I went to work in her father’s small stuffed animal factory. My job was to pack the fuzzy little creatures in cartons and take them to the post office. (Since I was underaged, I had to hide every time the door opened lest it be an inspector from the Labor Department.) The job was another link in the chain that bound Henry and me together. I would work at Ziege Toys for the next three summers.

The day after Henry returned from camp we went to our favorite soda fountain around the corner to catch up. (Henry always insisted on going Dutch.) We did not lack for things to talk about, but her manner suggested that she had something on her mind. Thinking I might get to the source of whatever it was, I asked her whether she planned to return to the camp the following year. Her answer, so beside the point, brought me up short. “You know,” she said, “you’re the only real friend I have.”

“But you have loads of friends,” I said, nonplussed, and started to tick off the names of several girls in our class.

“They’re nothing compared to you,” she broke in, her face flushed and her eyes welling with tears. I had an impulse to put an arm around her but stopped myself. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked with an anguished look. “Am I some kind of freak?”

I handed her my handkerchief and wished I were somewhere else. “What are you talking about?” I said. “You are a beautiful person, Henry. Never mind what others think or say.”

“Why has no boy ever asked me out?”

I sat dumbstruck, for I realized that the summer had passed her by without a romance. My reply must have seemed a long time in coming. “Because,” I finally said, “they’re still too immature.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said with sadly smiling eyes. “But it’s nice of you to say so.” She dried her eyes and gave me back my handkerchief neatly folded back into the original square. An uncomfortable silence passed between us on the way home. Fortunately we had only a few blocks to walk “I’m sorry for saying what I did,” she said when we got to her door. “Please put it out of your mind.” I assured her that she had nothing to apologize for and promised to forget all about it.

Late in September we were walking home from school one afternoon when I told Henry about the disastrous blind date I’d had the previous Saturday night with a girl named Chrysalis. “Unfortunately,” I said, “she didn’t turn into a butterfly.” To my surprise, Henry wasn’t a bit amused. “Don’t be mean,” she said. “That poor girl can’t help the way she looks.” Until that moment she had always been eager to hear about my dates, to know every detail, including whether I had kissed the girl goodnight. As we grew older her questions became even more explicit, obliging me to give her vague answers or lie outright.

I started to explain that Chrysalis had been extremely boring, but Henry didn’t let me finish. “I think you should ask her out again so that her feelings won’t be hurt,” she said. I thought at first that she was pulling my leg, but the expression on her face told me otherwise. Back and forth we went until she made me feel so guilty that I gave in. It meant another schlep to the Bronx by subway. Predictably, the second date was a bigger fiasco than the first, but Henry was pleased. “You conducted yourself as a gentleman,” she said, “and I’m proud of you.”

The incident gave me the first inkling that Henry had changed. By nature chatty and given to an easy laugh, she turned at times morose and taciturn. Her mood swings baffled me. Had I said or done something to offend her? The one time I ventured to ask her she simply replied, “No. Everything is fine.” In desperation I turned to my mother, who explained that it had something to do with hormones.

One afternoon we were riding the Broadway bus home from the Metropolitan Museum of Art when Henry caught me staring at a pretty girl sitting across from us. “You can’t seem to take your eyes off her,” she said rather crossly. I tried to make light of it, but Henry wasn’t through. “You and I both know I’m not much to look at,” she continued, words that cut into me like a serrated knife. “But there’s something you should know.” She took a breath. “I love you.” Just like that, loud enough—or so I perceived it—for all the other passengers to hear. Reaching our stop spared me from responding.

Walking home those few blocks felt like a slog from one end of Manhattan to the other. My parting words to her were, “Let’s just continue being friends.” It sounded inane even then, and the forlorn hope she expressed in response was another twist of the knife. “I’ll never give up hope,” she said and started to cry. I recall that scene every time I grumble about the miseries and heartbreaks of old age because it reminds me how complicated and cruel life can be in youth.

For the next few weeks Henry avoided me. Or was it the other way around? Then one day I was coming home from the grocery store when I ran into Mrs. Ziege. “Hello, stranger,” she said with ill-concealed sarcasm. “Henrietta hasn’t been herself since you’ve stopped visiting.” My first impulse was to say nothing and keep on walking. But my shoes felt cemented to the sidewalk. Besides, Henry’s mother, a large woman who could have easily squashed me like a cockroach, had me pinned against the brick wall of a building. “Has anything happened between the two of you?” she asked in an accusatory tone.

“Oh, no,” I said, searching my brain for a plausible defense. “I’ve been staying after class to work on a special science project.”

From the look on her face I could tell that she saw right through me. “I’m happy to hear it,” she said. “You know how fond my daughter is of you.” She paused just long enough for me to reconsider flight. “You can’t neglect her,” Mrs. Ziege went on. “Henrietta would be heartbroken.” Selfishly, I could think of only one thing at that moment: my job at Ziege Toys. I swallowed my resentment and said I would give Henry a call. I kept my promise and called her that night. In retrospect, I almost wish I hadn’t.

Later that year I came down with double pneumonia. Penicillin was not yet readily available. Instead of being sent to the hospital, I was kept home. Our family doctor stopped by every afternoon to look in on me. So did Henry, who let him in (having tidied up the bathroom beforehand), and kept me company until my parents came home from work. We played gin rummy and listened to the Cubs and Tigers battle it out in the World Series.

Henry sailed through high school with a near perfect grade score average and was our class valedictorian. She had many college acceptances and finally chose Smith. I decided to take a year off to complete my first novel and went to work at Ziege Toys, hoping to make enough money to pay for a year of college. Mr. Ziege promoted me to office manager, which made me suspect that he was entertaining hopes I would marry his daughter and eventually take over the business.

My mother would have like nothing better. “She is a good person and comes from such a fine family,” she reminded me time and again. As though I needed reminding. “Going steady doesn’t mean you have to marry her,” became her refrain. Yet marriage—and a more dependable career than writing fiction—were exactly what she had in mind.

 

I met Eileen Collins in my senior year at Columbia. A vivacious redhead and aspiring opera singer (she’d already had two supporting roles in the Amato Opera in the Village), she was by no stretch of the imagination anything like Henry. Not that I had reason to compare them. One difference did stand out, however, and it mattered. Eileen came from a devout Catholic family. Although my parents weren’t particularly religious, I knew they wanted me to marry someone Jewish. It was too early to tell whether Eileen and I would get serious (she didn’t let me kiss her goodnight until the third date), but I was madly in love with her. The last thing I wanted was to hurt my parents—or, for that matter—Henry, who had become more observant with the passing of years. What would happen to our unique friendship?

Although I was getting ahead of myself (not unusual when one falls in love), I needed time to think about my future—if any—at the Ziege Toy Company. Three publishing houses had already rejected my novel, while Ziege Toys had grown into a multi-million dollar business after merging with a much larger toy-making firm. The Zieges were now living in the posh Forest Hills section of Queens and had recently bought a magnificent country home on Lake Mahopac.

The Zieges’ good fortune had the predictable effect of spurring my mother to redouble her efforts to convince me that marrying Henry would open the door to a financially secure future. “Love will come later,” she assured me. “Mother,” I finally burst out one day as though I had been storing it up for years, “Henry and I have never so much as held hands.” She did not let up, however, and I finally became so exasperated that I made up my mind to propose to Eileen without further delay. For weeks after she accepted I floated weightless in another world.

While I was still trying to figure out how and when to break the news, the Zieges invited my parents and me to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Mahopac. I accepted their invitation with alacrity. For one thing, Eileen had already committed herself to spending the holiday with her family. For another, the weekend looked like an ideal time to make our engagement public. Simple decorum, I reasoned, would preclude any kind of unpleasantness.

Two surprises awaited me on my arrival. The first was the Zieges’ house. With six bedrooms, each facing the lake, and a speedboat moored to a private dock, it seemed to represent the epitome of luxurious living. The other, a far greater surprise, was Henry. For reasons now forgotten, it had been some months since we had last seen each other and I was overwhelmed by the change. Her hair was bleached and cut short. She had a newly sculptured nose. The face that had known no cosmetics looked like an ad for Revlon. And instead of the usual rumpled, ankle-length dress, she had on tight-fitting black slacks and a flaming red turtleneck sweater. “My,” I said when I found my tongue at last. “Don’t you look dashing.”

She twirled around a couple of times. “It’s the new me,” she exulted. “Do you like it?”

I said yes, that I’d almost failed to recognize her. She laughed and grabbed my hand. “Let’s go for a ride,” she said, pulling me in the direction of the dock. “Daddy named the boat ‘Henrietta’.” I begged off, saying I was susceptible to seasickness. That sent her into peals of laughter, but after further wheedling, she gave up. Dinner and the rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough. As dessert was being passed around I decided not to bring up Eileen. Somehow it didn’t seem right to announce our engagement in her absence.

Whatever possessed me to give Henry a peck on the cheek when she showed me to my room, it assuredly wasn’t liquor. The Zieges were strict teetotalers, ergo, no cocktails before dinner and no wine with the turkey. “The saleslady in Saks told me the perfume would have that effect,” she said, then grabbed me and kissed me fully on the mouth. It was so unexpected that I was speechless. Her fragrance clung to me long after I turned off the light.

At some point in the middle of the night I awoke to find Henry standing beside the bed. There was just enough ambient light to see that she had nothing on. Her white body glistened as if she had anointed herself with oil. Finger to her mouth, she pulled aside the blanket and slid in beside me.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I said.

She covered my mouth and cautioned me to whisper. “I was lonely,” she said. Her voice sounded strange. “I’m cold. Let’s snuggle.” I turned around defiantly and pretended to go back to sleep. I had never wanted anything so much as that she would get the message and leave. Suddenly I felt a hand in the area of my belly button. “Take me,” she pleaded over and over, like a little girl begging for ice cream. “For God’s sake, take me.”

Was it all a dream? When I tried to sit up Henry rolled on top of me and kept me pinned down. Her chest was as flat as an ironing board. “Henry,” I said close to panic, barely able to keep my voice under control. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Don’t you understand?” she said, eyes glistening. “I love you. I have always loved you, and I will never stop loving you.”

“Have you been drinking?” I asked and tried to wrap my mind around the unexpected predicament I found myself in.

She giggled. “In this house? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You’re not yourself. Please go back to your room.” I must have sounded like a parent scolding a wayward child. “This instant,” I added, struggling to keep from raising my voice.

She took my face in her hands. “At least kiss me,” she commanded.

“I will not. I insist that you go back to your room.”

“I won’t,” she said, and started to cry. “I’m going to stay right here with you.”

The situation looked as preposterous as it did hopeless. To look for another place to spend the night was out of the question; it would give rise to all manner of awkward questions in the morning. As Henry continued to caress me and demand that I kiss her, I suddenly remembered the flask with J&B I had had the foresight to pack. “How about a little nightcap?” I suggested.

“That would be dandy,” she said excitedly and dried her eyes on the sheet.

The question caught her off-guard and I was able to roll out from under her. I fished the flask out of my duffel bag and handed it to her. She swallowed long and hard, and some of the Scotch dribbled down her chin. She made a face. “This stuff tastes ghastly.”

“Sorry, it’s all I have.”

She let out a bizarre laugh. “Never mind. Now kiss me.”

I had never known Henry to be so brazen. It was as if the changes in her appearance had transformed the inner person. Desperate to have her leave, I promised to kiss her if she returned to her room. “First give me another drink,” she said. Against my better instincts, I handed back the flask. She took several large gulps in rapid succession. “You know,” she said with a misshapen smirk, “this doesn’t taste so bad after all.” She brought her face close to mine. “Now kiss me.” I kissed her gently on the forehead. “It’s your turn,” she said and pressed the flask to my lips. “Share and share alike.” I pretended to take a drink and again implored her to go back to her own room.

Again that strange laugh. “This happens to be my room,” she said, her speech now noticeably slurred. She waved both arms windmill fashion. “They’re all my rooms,” she said, her voice rising several decibels. “This is my house and you’re my guest.”

“Be reasonable, Henry. Got to bed and get some sleep. Otherwise you’ll wake up feeling like hell in the morning.”

“I feel like hell right now.”

“All the more reason to go back to your room.”

“You don’t understand.” She swung around and let her feet touch the carpeted floor. “No, you don’t understand at all.” She tried to stand, fell, picked herself up and this time fell on the bed like a stuffed doll. A minute later she was fast asleep. Nothing I tried would wake her. I took a mouthful of Scotch and considered my options. I could try to lift her and carry her back to her room, but at the moment I couldn’t remember which door was hers. Besides, the creaking of the floorboards might have woken some of the others. I covered her nude body with the blanket and retreated resignedly to a leather wing chair, determined to stay awake all night if necessary.

 

Bright sunlight came streaming through the open window when I awoke. For an instant I forgot where I was. My tongue felt like plasterboard and I had a pounding headache. Greatly relieved to see that Henry was no longer there, I stuck my head out the window to breathe in some of the fragrant autumnal air. That’s when I saw the crowd down by the lake.

 

Looking back, the police and medical personnel, the hordes of reporters and photographers, the meddlesome neighbors and other curiosity-seekers, the visitors come to pay their respects, the preparations for the funeral and the funeral itself, they all passed me by in a blur. Afterwards I couldn’t remember anyone at the graveside ceremony except my parents and Mr. and Mrs Ziege. They had lost their only child, a young, talented woman on whom they had set all their hopes. Both were in deep shock and had to be supported to prevent them from collapsing. I had lost a lifelong friend. Later that week I learned that the Zieges’ attorney had persuaded the coroner to rule Henry’s drowning an accident.

 

Fifty years have now passed. Most of the old crowd we grew up with is no longer alive. The few that remain are scattered around the country; others have vanished without a trace. As the final keeper of Henry’s memory, tomorrow, as I do every year around Thanksgiving, I will go to the huge and desolate cemetery in New Jersey where she is buried and leave a pebble on the simple bronze plaque that marks her grave.

Pete Philipps is a former writer and editor for The New York Times and Businessweek magazine. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, most recently in Marking Humanity.

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