It was 1971, late summer or early fall, and in my memory the day is cast in an amber kind of glow, all warm hues and soft edges. I was twenty years old, a college dropout, still snagged on some rickety splintered bridge between little girl and functional adult. I had recently returned to our family home on Long Island to figure out what to do next; my boyfriend in medical school waited in Chicago, his offer of marriage only vaguely answered. On this particular day I had accompanied my father to Brooklyn, where he had a couple of business appointments. He dropped me off on Flatbush Avenue to wander until he was done.
There was a sign advertising a big sale in the dress department of a bargain basement store and I went in to take a look. The clothes were cheaply made and basic, but I figured I could use a new dress if I decided to go back to Chicago, or even if not, and the seven-dollar price tag was convincing. I chose one in beige, a soft jersey fabric, and very short, which was the style. It seemed easy to wear and versatile, and its neutral generic-ness didn’t hem it in to any particular purpose. I could wear it to work if I got a job, or out on the town if I ever went anyplace, or to a marriage civil ceremony, if things went that way. I counted out the bills and carried it off, a soft heap of fabric in a small paper bag.
Now I walked along the street carrying my plain-wrap new dress, feeling inexplicably pleased with myself, and thinking I might stop for a cold soda, or meander over to Prospect Park. It was a beautiful day. Sunshine drenched the city, store windows gleamed, sidewalks glittered. People were moving slowly, as though they knew this moment would never come again. There was something dreamlike about it; my worries receded, and it didn’t seem to matter so much what I’d be doing next. I felt I had prospects, even if just by virtue of being young and alive. I felt equipped.
I noticed a young man standing on a corner, reading a map, his knapsack propped against a lamppost. He looked up, said hello, and seemed willing to loiter and chat. Spencer was his name, and he was visiting from Sydney, Australia, a place so remote I could barely imagine it. He was older than me, though not by much, and handsome in a nothing-special way, handsome the way my new dress was wearable, with even features, an easy smile, nothing promised, but nothing excluded. Spencer had no particular agenda, and he wondered what I’d recommend he see while he was here. We walked a bit, with no destination in mind, and we talked about everything, in the way that confidences sometimes spill out with a stranger. We enjoyed each other’s company.
Spencer seemed an emissary from a faraway continent, and I sensed some deeper significance in our unlikely meeting at this odd junction of my life. I found his accent refreshing, and appreciated his nonchalant aura of adventure and travel. I pictured ferries and railroad tickets, luggage on docks, a well-worn passport in the pocket of faded dungarees. Heck, maybe I’d even visit him in Australia one day. Would I like to see Australia? I had an invitation now. And just because it had never occurred to me, that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. There was a whole world out there, and Spencer radiated with possibilities.
Oh, I wish I could say that I ran away with Spencer, or even that we spent the day together. But my father would be back at two to pick me up, and despite the glimmers of defiance in me, my default position was compliance and resignation. And I’d like to tell you that I said no to marrying the boyfriend in Chicago, but it seemed like the line of least resistance at the time, an easy way out, although it wasn’t. In less than a month, I would be wearing my beige mini-dress at the Cook County Courthouse, becoming the wife of the medical student. I would spend that night crying and the next few years leaving, and a decade of confusion would ensue. It was a necessary detour, I suppose.
But for a few minutes on Flatbush Avenue in 1971, music drifted from doorways, traffic thrummed, sunshine washed over me, and I was a golden creature who could have stepped right through the wide open door of the world. I was very young and had not yet ruined anything irrevocably.
Instead I boarded the train of inevitabilities for which I’d been programmed, looking back only once as I left. Spencer stood there shining like a stack of untold stories.