Volume 33, Number 4


James Marino

Growing up, Martha was gangly and all elbows and knees, and her feet were too big. She looked like she’d be clumsy, but she was anything but. Her feet, her mother said, well, she’ll grow into them. And about the elbows and knees, probably classmate and class wit Wesley said it best in his treatment of the culminating assignment for the seventh grade, an essay, “Describe a Classmate.”

“Looking at Martha you would expect her to be awkward, like if a four-chair section of those folding wooden chairs they use for the Town Hall meetings suddenly came to life and tried to clatter down the stairs to the first floor, but she is not.”

Mrs. Ingalls red-lined Wesley’s analogy not because she worried Martha’s feelings would be hurt. She’d red-lined it because the expression Wesley had used was awkward. At the bottom of the first page of the essay she wrote:

“You can do better than this.”

Martha never saw Wesley’s essay. Not that she would have been hurt or insulted. She didn’t have any time to consider things like that; she had too many other things going on and stuff to do, and she was having too much fun.

All through grammar school she had lots of friends, both boys and girls, and she loved sports. She just liked boys and girls the same. She didn’t have time to figure it out. She was very good at sports. She was very coordinated even though she looked gangly, and she was always picked first on the playground for games. If she wasn’t already one of the captains.

The first team sport she learned was in first grade. It was a game called slug-ball. It was played the same as kickball, but instead of waiting at home plate to kick the ball rolled to you, you tossed up a rubber ball and hit it like a volleyball serve and then ran for first base. Martha was one of the best players at slug-ball.

Her favorite sports were field hockey and softball, and her freshman year in high school she made varsity. She was elected team captain in both sports sophomore, junior and senior years. She didn’t have time for boys, and the only subject she found interesting was what used to be called Home Economics. Her father was a little disappointed because she was an only child, and he’d always planned for her to attend college. Money wasn’t an issue. Her family’d done well in the Twenties before the Crash and had enough in real estate to survive the Thirties. But her father held out a thin hope that maybe she’d come to her senses and take college course subjects so that when the time came she could attend what used to be called normal school and graduate to become a teacher, or do the business courses and become a secretary. Home Economics, as far as he was concerned, was just for girls who planned to get married and have babies. He thought Martha was better than that.

But she found Home Ec fascinating, especially the sewing part. She had a natural ability, along with perfect hand-eye coordination and spatial recognition, and her teachers were impressed. She was definitely a natural, they all agreed. There were a lot of them, because this was in the Thirties when all the girls were required to take Home Ec, so their word carried a lot of weight. 

In junior and senior year she won the dress competition, and one teacher encouraged her to think about becoming a teacher and promised her support. Back then there weren’t many scholarships for girls, but teacher recommendations went a long way. 

When it came to boys in her life there were only two.

In summer camp before seventh grade she’d heard you were supposed to like boys, so a boy named Brian became her almost-boyfriend that year, where being boyfriend-girlfriend consisted mainly of carrying the girl’s books, holding hands and every so often a kiss with your eyes open. That’s what you did in the fall of ’27. But she didn’t see the charm in it, and she and Brian drifted apart, but were good friends all through high school.

Her first real boyfriend was in her junior year. His name was Ted. Ted was a senior and the captain of the football team and very popular. He was popular because he was very handsome, and his family was rich. His father even bought him a Stutz Bearcat with the rumble seat, and he always had a flask of gin on him, and senior year he sported a raccoon coat everywhere he went because that’s what they wore in Michigan, where he was planning to go. Any girl would do anything to be with him, to be seen with him, and some of them did. In fact Ted got jaded about it. He liked Martha immediately. She didn’t go mooning around him—in fact, she didn’t know he existed. Plus she was athletic and self-assured and wasn’t a gossip like most of the girls. And she wasn’t playing hard to get. She just wasn’t playing. She was immersed in the dress design for that year’s competition and had no inkling of Ted at all. It took him two weeks to get her attention and another week to get a date. He was very polite meeting her father and mother despite the gin on his breath, and he’d had the foresight to leave the raccoon coat at home. Their first date was to a movie and then to the ice cream parlor after. A lot of their classmates were there, and some of the girls looked envious of her. Next week at school a few of them were purposefully rude to her. But things like that never bothered Martha. They didn’t bother her because she never noticed them.

Things went on swimmingly with Ted for a month or so and then one night he got fresh. It was time, Ted’d decided. With his natural charm and good looks, not to mention the Bearcat, raccoon coat and flask—though Martha never took any gin—what girl in her right mind wouldn’t be flattered, he figured, and he made his move.

What little Martha had heard about forbidden delights, with butterflies in the stomach and the near-swooning passion didn’t happen. She just didn’t like it. There was no tingling of the nipple, no near fainting desire to be subdued, only a clinical flat numbness on her nipple. Ted sensed her reaction, though it was only a slight shifting away from him in the front seat. That was their last time together. Ted avoided her for a week or so and then bumping into her in the hall, made some vague excuse, but he really didn’t need to. Martha, her mind racing about a last-minute alteration to her dress for the competition, it took her a few seconds to recognize him. He said something lame and walked away. He’d make a catch for some other lucky girl.

Martha’s father was visibly relieved when Ted was just a memory in the rearview mirror.

But after a while, in private moments, Martha wondered.

What Ted had tried didn’t appeal to her. It wasn’t so much that Martha felt she had been violated. It was more like she had been disrespected. Not only that, but it wasn’t something Martha wanted. She wondered about that. But then field hockey and the dress competition crowded her thoughts, and she was the same old Martha she’d always been and gave him no more thought.

Over the summer she heard something about Ted, and it took a minute to register who he was, and then she remembered. Ted had got a scholarship to play football at Penn State, but his father had refused to let him accept. Ted was still sowing his wild oats, his father said, and he wasn’t about to let him waste the school’s money on someone who wasn’t interested in an education. So Ted went into his father’s business. Halfway through her senior year she heard that Ted had improved so much that his father had relented, and Ted was going to Michigan in the fall. If he’s going to waste any money, with his raccoon coat and gin flask, the father said, it’ll only be my money he’s wasting.

Senior year went by fast for Martha, and before she knew it she had to think about her future. It was time to think not only about college, but about life too.

Just before graduation she thought about Ted again and what she’d felt, or not felt at the time. She’d heard somewhere that some people were asexual. They got no pleasure from that sort of thing. She looked it up in the public library but back then there wasn’t much literature on the subject. From the little she got, she decided she must be one of those. She didn’t know how to feel about that at first, but she wasn’t ashamed the way people thought you were supposed to feel. She was more centered than that to let it bother her. And anyway, it was time to get ready for college.

Come to find out she didn’t need the college fund her father had put aside for her. She had three colleges she planned to attend, and two of them had offered her scholarships. But she didn’t care about the money either way. She was just interested in picking the right school for herself. The best choice for what Martha wanted to study was in Boston, but they didn’t have sports for girls yet. A college in Vermont and one in Connecticut did, and she spent a toss-and-turn weekend making up her mind which one.

It was Connecticut.

Miss Cross, her sewing class mentor, had seen the spark of genius in Martha, and wrote in Martha’s yearbook: “Congrats, Marty, Class of ’33. I know you’ll go a long way.” 

Martha like Marty. A few boys in grammar school years back had called her that because she was as good—or better—than they were, and the biggest compliment she ever received was when one of the kids from another neighborhood said she threw like a boy. Marty. It never took, but now, thinking ahead, she’d be Marty when she got to college. 


Danforth College was a small women’s college in western Connecticut, and in the 1930s instead of dorms they had a row of houses on three sides of the school, and each one had a house mother and how many girls boarded there was determined by how many bedrooms there were. Male visitors were allowed only in the common area, the downstairs parlor. The house they put Marty in had eight girls boarding there. The house mother, Mrs. Nagle, was a widow and had turned her private residence into a college room and board, and for board she made breakfast and dinner. For the few girls home at noon there was a plate of sandwiches and milk. She kept up the common area and changed the towels twice a week, but the bed clothes were the girls’ responsibility. Once a week, on Saturday, they were required to strip the beds and make them up with the fresh sheets and pillowcases Mrs. Nagle set outside each bedroom. Laundry was available on Tuesday and Thursday, but some girls paid Mrs. Nagle to do theirs for a small fee. 

Marty and a roommate were assigned a room on the second floor by one of the two bathrooms, and Marty liked her right off the bat. Like Marty, Gerri had had enough of her birth name and had decided to change it for college.

“So, it’s Gerri, from Geraldine, I’m guessing,” Marty said, as they were inspecting their room and choosing who got which bed and drawers, “like I’m Marty from Martha.” 

“No,” Gerri smiled, finished with her sweaters in the bottom drawer and putting her suitcase under the bed. “I was Stephanie, from my grandfather Steven, and I didn’t like it so I just thought what would I like to be called, and Gerri just came to me. So Gerri.” 

That got a laugh out of Marty, and by the time they had their room squared away and went down to their inaugural dinner at Mrs. Nagle’s table they were fast friends.

Danforth was a two-year institution in what used to be called a finishing school for young women, but Marty had chosen it because Miss Cross assured her they had the best dress design instructor in the country, and that was what Marty wanted more than anything, and at the table she learned that four of the girls were returning for their senior year and the other two were like her and Gerri, new to the school. The older girls tried for a sort of European sophistication and contrasted sharply with her new roommate.

Gerri had freckles and a pert nose and personality to match. Her hair was always in a tangle, like her organizational skills, but that made her all the more endearing for that. The senior girls all seemed interested in only being “finished” in the correct way so they could land a husband, but Marti and Gerri were only interested in learning what the school had to offer. Gerri was taking up the cooking aspects of Home Ec and Marty the sewing part. They both loathed the American Lit survey course all freshwomen were required to take. All the other girls loved the course because Mr. Atrim taught it. He was a dreamboat in bow ties and tweeds and spoke in smooth rolling tones. He championed the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and as he spoke while tamping tobacco into his pipe, he made quite a few converts. The first week Gerri broke Marty up with her imitation of “Professor Amen,” by rolling her r’s and mooning her eyes ceiling-ward, all the while tamping her thumb deep into her other closed fist and then pretending to suck in the first puffs of smoke, and Marty had to hide her face in her pillow to keep from screaming the house awake. It was the anchoring of their friendship. They enjoyed each other’s company immeasurably and spent every available minute together, from walking to classes together to sharing the same corner of Mrs. Nagle’s dining room table. Weekends they spent outdoors on a blanket spread in Mrs. Nagle’s back yard, solving the world’s problems and how they would improve the teaching of Home Ec, until the colder weather forced them indoors. The winter they spent in front of the fireplace in Mrs. Nagle’s parlor and sharing revelations they’d come across in their studies. But they weren’t always housebound. Once they went to New York City for a weekend and twice had taken the train into Hartford to see a play. Their favorite pastime was casually judging the seniors who seemed on the edge of panic as they neared the end of their education and still hadn’t landed a fiancé.

“By Car-rist, Bar-bar-a,” Gerri said one night in perfect imitation of Mr. Atrim, “are you telling me that you’ve yet to land a man?” Marty laughed, her eyes filling with tears, but Gerri didn’t relent. She stood, waggling her head in perfect Mr. Atrim style, so that her hair flopped all over. “But, Bar-bar-a: really?” Marty had to wave Gerri off, complaining it was hurting her sides.

Marty could not imagine ever losing Gerri as a friend.

But then it happened.

It was toward the end of April, and by a freak of nature the weather sky-rocketed up to over eighty-five degrees for a perfect summery day, and half the girls ditched classes for an afternoon of sunbathing. Towels were spread out all over Mrs. Nagle’s back yard, and everybody pretended to be studying, but none of them fooled Mrs. Nagle. She could tell from the sunglasses and shorts and halter tops that the girls were more interested in getting a base for their summer tan and gossiping than in Hegel or Socrates. 

Then there was a sudden cloud burst. It hit them, the water as warm as in a shower, soaking them to the skin. The girls all shrieked and ran into the house to change and dry off. 

Marty got to the bathroom first and stripped off her wet clothes. In the mirror her hair was flat and there were beads of water on her shoulders and breasts. Just as she stepped out of her panties and reached for a towel the door opened and Gerri burst in. She ran into Marty and almost knocked her over.

Marty, frozen by Gerri’s sudden appearance, was conscious of Gerri’s eyes on her breasts, her stomach and below that. Gerri made her eyes go up and smiled. “Sorry.” She blushed and left.

Marty was still for a moment.

Very aware of her skin and the rain.

And her nipples were hard.

They had never tingled before.

She was very aware of her skin as she moved the towel, patting herself dry.

Marty and Gerri didn’t speak of it the rest of the semester, and a few times over the next month Marty woke up in the middle of the night. Dreams had woken her. She didn’t remember what the dreams were about, but she knew Gerri was in them.

She thought Gerri was having trouble sleeping as well and wondered if she had dreams too.

A few times Marty was tempted to bring up that afternoon but she could never bring herself to and there was something different about Gerri now, and there seemed to be something between them that hadn’t been there before.

When the semester was over they wished each other a nice summer and said see you next year, but it was kind of stiff and awkward.

All summer Marty wondered about Gerri and how they would act when they next saw each other. 

The next year when Marty returned to Danforth she had two surprises waiting for her. The first was that Gerri hadn’t returned, and Marty had a new roommate. She was a girl from Georgia and very distant. It might have been because she was a freshwoman boarding with a senior. That was rare at Mrs. Nagle’s, having roommates from separate classes. The second was when Mrs. Nagle asked Marty if she had a minute, and they went into Mrs. Nagle’s private sitting room, and she explained to Marty that over the summer she’d got a letter from Gerri, apologizing for not returning, but that she had decided to change majors and had been accepted at a business school near Boston. There was a line down at the bottom of the letter and Mrs. Nagle said Marty should read it for herself.

“Please,” the line went, “give Marty all my love and tell her I will miss her. I will think of her often.”

Marty felt her eyes stinging, and when she handed the letter back she saw Mrs. Nagle’s eyes were wet too. They said no more about it.

That year went slow at first but then sped up as graduation neared. Marty thought of Gerri from time to time, almost mooning over the times they’d shared, and when the time came for the next step, she was ready.

The most of the girls in Fashion Design were planning on beginning their fashion careers in New York City or even Paris, but in a final class, Marty’s teacher told the girls that the coming place to be wasn’t Boston or Paris or London, but Hollywood. They had had talkies for a few years now, she said, and color movies would be the next step in technology. There was this thing they were working on called Technicolor, and when you think back on the all the musicals they’d done in black and white, and all the costumes needed, and realized color was the next step, you could see the studios were going to need plenty of wardrobe technicians. Imagine the costumes they’re going to need when they go to color, she said. It really opened Marty’s eyes and to add to the lure of Hollywood, the teacher took her aside and told her she knew someone in one of the studios she could recommend Marty to, to get her foot in the door.

“You’ll start at the bottom and work hard,” she said, “but with your skills and sense of style and the way the studios are expanding, you’ll move up in no time.”

This rare praise from her teacher was heady stuff, and Marty found herself excited and ready to take the plunge.

“There’s just one thing,” the teacher said.

“What’s that?” Marty asked.

“This person at the studio,” she said. “This woman. She likes girls.”

The teacher could see by the little squiggle on Marty’s forehead that she didn’t understand.

“She doesn’t like men. She likes girls.”


Marty thanked her, and that was where the conversation ended.

A week later just before graduation Marty found the letter of recommendation in her room, and she was excited. Her future awaited her.

Then she blushed as two things occurred to her in rapid succession. The teacher must have thought that Marty was that way, and there must have been more in Gerri’s letter than Mrs. Nagle’d told her about.

She thought a moment, remembering Gerri’s kind of wacky humor, and a smile came to her face. Then she remembered Ted’s advances back in high school and her flat reaction to it. There was no comparison to how she’d felt with Gerri’s seeing her rain-wet, naked. Even now her breath came faster, and she felt a small tingling.


She would always think of Gerri and miss her in a special way. If they ever connected again, it would be by long distance, and their letters would never speak of some things or that rainy day.

And now the names Marty and Gerri made all the sense in the world.

They were boys’ names.