The Girls In Their Summer Dresses

by Irwin Shaw (1939)

FIFTH AVENUE WAS shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort. The sun was warm, even though it was February, and everything looked like Sunday morning—the buses and the well-dressed people walking slowly in couples and the quiet buildings with the windows closed.
       Michael held Frances’ arm tightly as they walked toward Washington Square in the sunlight. They walked lightly, almost smiling, because they had slept late and had a good breakfast and it was Sunday. Michael unbuttoned his coat and let it flap around him in the mild wind.
       “Look out,” Frances said as they crossed Eighth Street. “You’ll break your neck.” Michael laughed and Frances laughed with him.
       “She’s not so pretty,” Frances said. “Anyway, not pretty enough to take a chance of breaking your neck.”
       Michael laughed again. “How did you know I was looking at her?”
       Frances cocked her head to one side and smiled at her husband under the brim of her hat. “Mike, darling,” she said.
       “O.K.,” he said. “Excuse me.”
       Frances patted his arm lightly and pulled him along a little faster toward Washington Square. “Let’s not see anybody all day,” she said. “Let’s just hang around with each other. You and me. We’re always up to our neck in people, drinking their Scotch or drinking our Scotch; we only see each other in bed. I want to go out with my husband all day long. I want him to talk only to me and listen only to me.”
       “What’s to stop us?” Michael asked.
       “The Stevensons. They want us to drop by around one o’clock and they’ll drive us into the country.”
       “The cunning Stevensons,” Mike said. “Transparent. They can whistle. They can go driving in the country by themselves.”
       “Is it a date?”
       “It’s a date.”
       Frances leaned over and kissed him on the tip of the ear.
       “Darling,” Michael said, “this is Fifth Avenue.”
       “Let me arrange a program,” Frances said. “A planned Sunday in New York for a young couple with money to throw away.”
       “Go easy.”
       “First let’s go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Frances suggested, because Michael had said during the week he wanted to go. “I haven’t been there in three years and there’re at least ten pictures I want to see again. Then we can take the bus down to Radio City, and watch them skate. And later we’ll go down to Cavanagh’s and get a steak as big as a blacksmith’s apron, with a bottle of wine, and after that there’s a French picture at the Filmarte that everybody says—say, are you listening to me?”
       “Sure,” he said. He took his eyes off the hatless girl with the dark hair, cut dancer-style like a helmet, who was walking past him.
       “That’s the program for the day,” Frances said flatly. “Or maybe you’d just rather walk up and down Fifth Avenue.”
       “No,” Michael said. “Not at all.”
       “You always look at other women,” Frances said. “Everywhere. Every damned place we go.”
       “No, darling,” Michael said, “I look at everything. God gave me eyes and I look at women and men in subway excavations and moving pictures and the little flowers of the field. I casually inspect the universe.”
       “You ought to see the look in your eye,” Frances said, “as you casually inspect the universe on Fifth Avenue.”
       “I’m a happily married man.” Michael pressed her elbow tenderly. “Example for the whole twentieth century—Mr. and Mrs. Mike Loomis. Hey, let’s have a drink,” he said, stopping.
       “We just had breakfast.”
       “Now listen, darling,” Mike said, choosing his words with care, “it’s a nice day and we both felt good and there’s no reason why we have to break it up. Let’s have a nice Sunday.”
       “All right. I don’t know why I started this. Let’s drop it. Let’s have a good time.”
       They joined hands consciously and walked without talking among the baby carriages and the old Italian men in their Sunday clothes and the young women with Scotties in Washington Square Park.
       “At least once a year everyone should go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Frances said after a while, her tone a good imitation of the tone she had used at breakfast and at the beginning of their walk. “And it’s nice on Sunday. There’re a lot of people looking at the pictures and you get the feeling maybe Art isn’t on the decline in New York City, after all—”
       “I want to tell you something,” Michael said very seriously. “I have not touched another woman. Not once. In all the five years.”
       “All right,” Frances said.
       “You believe that, don’t you?”
       “All right.”
       They walked between the crowded benches, under the scrubby city-park trees.
       “I try not to notice it,” Frances said, “but I feel rotten inside, in my stomach, when we pass a woman and you look at her and I see that look in your eye and that’s the way you looked at me the first time. In Alice Maxwell’s house. Standing there in the living room, next to the radio, with a green hat on and all those people.”
       “I remember the hat,” Michael said.
       “The same look,” Frances said. “And it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel terrible.”
       “Sh-h-h, please, darling, sh-h-h.”
       “I think I would like a drink now,” Frances said.
       They walked over to a bar on Eighth Street, not saying anything, Michael automatically helping her over curbstones and guiding her past automobiles. They sat near a window in the bar and the sun streamed in and there was a small, cheerful fire in the fireplace. A little Japanese waiter came over and put down some pretzels and smiled happily at them.
       “What do you order after breakfast?” Michael asked.
       “Brandy, I suppose,” Frances said.
       “Courvoisier,” Michael told the waiter. “Two Courvoisiers.”
       The waiter came with the glasses and they sat drinking the brandy in the sunlight. Michael finished half his and drank a little water.
       “I look at women,” he said. “Correct. I don’t say it’s wrong or right. I look at them. If I pass them on the street and I don’t look at them, I’m fooling you, I’m fooling myself.”
       “You look at them as though you want them,” Frances said, playing with her brandy glass. “Every one of them.”
       “In a way,” Michael said, speaking softly and not to his wife, “in a way that’s true. I don’t do anything about it, but it’s true.”
       “I know it. That’s why I feel bad.”
       “Another brandy,” Michael called. “Waiter, two more brandies.”
       He sighed and closed his eyes and rubbed them gently with his fingertips. “I love the way women look. One of the things I like best about New York is the battalions of women. When I first came to New York from Ohio that was the first thing I noticed, the million wonderful women, all over the city. I walked around with my heart in my throat.”
       “A kid,” Frances said. “That’s a kid’s feeling.”
       “Guess again,” Michael said. “Guess again. I’m older now. I’m a man getting near middle age, putting on a little fat, and I still love to walk along Fifth Avenue at three o’clock on the east side of the street between Fiftieth and Fifty-seventh Streets. They’re all out then, shopping, in their furs and their crazy hats, everything all concentrated from all over the world into seven blocks—the best furs, the best clothes, the handsomest women, out to spend money and feeling good about it.”
       The Japanese waiter put the two drinks down, smiling with great happiness.
       “Everything is all right?” he asked.
       “Everything is wonderful,” Michael said.
       “If it’s just a couple of fur coats,” Frances said, “and forty-five dollar hats—”
       “It’s not the fur coats. Or the hats. That’s just the scenery for that particular kind of woman. Understand,” he said, “you don’t have to listen to this.”
       “I want to listen.”
       “I like the girls in the offices. Neat, with their eyeglasses, smart, chipper, knowing what everything is about. I like the girls on Forty-fourth Street at lunchtime, the actresses, all dressed up on nothing a week. I like the salesgirls in the stores, paying attention to you first because you’re a man, leaving lady customers waiting. I got all this stuff accumulated in me because I’ve been thinking about it for ten years and now you’ve asked for it and here it is.”
       “Go ahead,” Frances said.
       “When I think of New York City, I think of all the girls on parade in the city. I don’t know whether it’s something special with me or whether every man in the city walks around with the same feeling inside him, but I feel as though I’m at a picnic in this city. I like to sit near the women in the theatres, the famous beauties who’ve taken six hours to get ready and look it. And the young girls at the football games, with the red cheeks, and when the warm weather comes, the girls in their summer dresses.” He finished his drink. “That’s the story.”
       Frances finished her drink and swallowed two or three times extra. “You say you love me?”
       “I love you.”
       “I’m pretty, too,” Frances said. “As pretty as any of them.”
       “You’re beautiful,” Michael said.
       “I’m good for you,” Frances said, pleading. “I’ve made a good wife, a good housekeeper, a good friend. I’d do any damn thing for you.”
       “I know,” Michael said. He put his hand out and grasped hers.
       “You’d like to be free to—” Frances said.
       “Tell the truth.” She took her hand away from under his.
       Michael flicked the edge of his glass with his finger. “O.K.,” he said gently. “Sometimes I feel I would like to be free.”
       “Well,” Frances said, “any time you say.”
       “Don’t be foolish.” Michael swung his chair around to her side of the table and patted her thigh.
       She began to cry silently into her handkerchief, bent over just enough so that nobody else in the bar would notice. “Someday,” she said, crying, “you’re going to make a move.”
       Michael didn’t say anything. He sat watching the bartender slowly peel a lemon.
       “Aren’t you?” Frances asked harshly. “Come on, tell me. Talk. Aren’t you?”
       “Maybe,” Michael said. He moved his chair back again. “How the hell do I know?”
       “You know,” Frances persisted. “Don’t you know?”
       “Yes,” Michael said after a while, “I know.”
       Frances stopped crying then. Two or three snuffles into the handkerchief and she put it away and her face didn’t tell anything to anybody. “At least do me one favor,” she said.
       “Stop talking about how pretty this woman is or that one. Nice eyes, nice breasts, a pretty figure, good voice.” She mimicked his voice. “Keep it to yourself. I’m not interested.”
       Michael waved to the waiter. “I’ll keep it to myself,” he said.
       Frances flicked the corners of her eyes. “Another brandy,” she told the waiter.
       “Two,” Michael said.
       “Yes, ma’am, yes, sir,” said the waiter, backing away.
       Frances regarded Michael coolly across the table. “Do you want me to call the Stevensons?” she asked. “It’ll be nice in the country.”
       “Sure,” Michael said. “Call them.”
       She got up from the table and walked across the room toward the telephone. Michael watched her walk, thinking what a pretty girl, what nice legs.