Excerpt from Shining Through
In 1940, when I was thirty-one and an old maid, while the whole world waited for war, I fell in love with John Berringer.
An office crush. Big deal. Since the invention of the steno pad, a day hasn’t gone by without some secretary glancing up from her Pitman squiggles and suddenly realizing that the man who was mumbling “…and therefore, pursuant to the above…” was the one man in her life who could ever bring her joy.
So there I was, a cliche with a number 2 yellow pencil: a working girl from Queens who’d lost her heart to the pride of the Ivy League.
And to make matters worse, John Berringer bore absolutely no resemblance to the typical Wall Street international lawyer, the kind whose gray face was two shades paler than his suit. Sure, a girl could wind up losing her heart to one of those dreary men. There’s nothing quieter than an old maid’s bedroom, and in that black stillness it’s so easy to create magic: A lawyer with the profile of a toad—Abracadabra!—is transformed into an Adonis, pulsating with passion under his pinstripes.
But John didn’t need any of that midnight magic to turn him gorgeous. The big joke in the law firm was how could I not have a mad crush on him. “You’ve got to be made of iron, Linda,” one of the girls said at lunch, “not to go nuts for those blue eyes. They’re blue like-” Someone at the far end of the table called out, Twilight! And someone else chimed in, No, like a clear lake … but with a funny kind of depth, like on a cloudy day. John Berringer made poets out of stenographers. Someone else piped up, Come on…blue like pansies, and Gladys Slade, my best friend, called out from the head of the lunch table, “How can anybody even think of the word ‘pansy’ in the same sentence with ‘Mr. Berringer’ in it?” Everyone giggled.
In private, Gladys said, “Listen, Linda, don’t kid a kidder. I’m the first person to understand your not wanting to make a public announcement, but even if you didn’t care about looks, think about brains. I mean, you’re always reading the papers and wanting to talk about—oh, God, you know English naval power. Or French politics. So aren’t you attracted to someone brilliant like him? I bet he loves all that boring stuff.”
“It’s not boring. Three quarters of the world is—”
“He’s so charming,” she cut me off. “Like a blond Cary Grant.”
“Gladys,” I explained, “when you sit across the desk from this guy day in and day out, you realize he’s always charming. It kind of wafts up from him, like B.O. Don’t you get it? It doesn’t mean anything. And his looks…Yeah, he’s handsome, but what’s behind it?”
“That’s for you to find out,” Gladys ho-ho-hoed.
“I’ve got to tell you,” I said, “there’s something deepdown unappealing about a man who knows he’s stunning and uses it. You know, like it’s six-fifteen and you’re so tired all you want to do is suck your thumb, but he has fortyseven letters he still wants to dictate. So he flashes that five-thousand-watt smile and that’s supposed to brighten up your life and make you want to go on. But see, a guy who pulls that sort of thing isn’t…”
“Oh, come off it!”
“I’m serious, Gladys. And he’s much too blond. Girls are fair. Guys should be dark. And with those big blue eyes. It’s like some artist made him up to illustrate ‘Cinderella.’ Can’t you just see him, with green stockings and those bubble shorts, holding a glass slipper?”
“I can see him with green stockings…and without green stockings.” This was a very racy remark for Gladys, whose idea of wild sex was Fred Astaire loosening his tie.
“He’s Prince Charming,” I said. “Who needs it? I’ve got to stay late when he asks me, even if he looked like a pile of you-know-what. It’s my job. But he thinks: Ha! I’ve charmed her. I’ve got her where I’ve got all the girls, in the palm of my hand.” I looked Gladys straight in the eye. “You know why he doesn’t do a thing for me? Because he’s a woman’s man. Not a real man.”
Naturally, I was lying through my teeth. But I kept my secret love a secret. I would not let myself (as his secretary) be honorary president of the John Berringer Fan Club. What I felt for John wasn’t meant to be shared with the girls. It was precious, and different.
Because even way back then, I felt I was different.
But was I (am I?) really different in any way from all the women from Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx who trekked up the stairs from the subway every morning and got lost in the dark canyons, the gloomy buildings that loomed over Wall Street? Well, I’m not in Queens anymore. I’m certainly not a secretary. I’m not the girl I was.
But how did I get all the way here from there?
Because when America finally did go to war, the other subway secretaries fought Hitler by saving their bacon grease in fin cans and putting makeup on their legs instead of silk stockings. My fight, though, was different—perilous, real. I wound up in the middle of the Nazi hellhole. Me, Linda Voss.