Gertie and Doris loved to smoke.
They were smart, crazy smart, and their professors at Brooklyn College told them to talk less during class. To ask fewer questions. To stop arguing their points.
“Please,” their existential philosophy professor begged them once in class. He begged them on his hands and knees, before asking them to leave his lecture. “Stop asking me questions I cannot answer.”
Nothing less than the meaning of life. That was what Doris wanted to know. Good versus evil. Explain the Holocaust, Gertie demanded. Explain it from one of these god-damned books.
There were no answers. Of this, they were sure. Gertie was going to be an English teacher after college. It was the only job that made sense. She had already gotten married, which made her parents ask why hadn’t she stopped going to college. Gertie did not drop out of college.
Doris made no promises. With her, all bets were off. She wanted to be a revolutionary. She wasn’t sure how, but she was confident she would find a way. Through Marxist theory perhaps. Or marijuana. Or a man, a man named Bob.
After class, Gertie and Dorie went to the drugstore to buy cigarettes. They would sit at the counter and drink ice cream sodas and smoke cigarettes. They wore short skirts that showed off their garter belts when they crossed their legs.
The consensus of their classmates was that Gertie was the prettier of the two. Doris, after all, wore glasses. “I hate my glasses,” Doris declared. Without them, however, she was blind as a bat. She had lost them once, after having sex with Bob in his Manhattan apartment, finding her way to the bathroom. She walked into a door, giving herself a very impressive black eye.
Gertie loved Doris’s glasses. Gertie loved Doris. She admitted this to no one. Not to herself. Not to Doris. Not to her philosophy professor or her psychiatrist or to her husband named Dick. That was really his name. And she really was married.
Gertie had gotten married when she was nineteen, when she found out she was pregnant. Then, after the wedding, she learned about a doctor who would give her an abortion, and she did that. She had never felt the same way about her husband since. Dick was a Beatnik poet. He dressed in black and he liked to snap. Gertie would laugh when he snapped. She laughed at him all the time.
“He writes poem after poem about my sweet pussy,” Gertie told Doris. “It has gotten so bad that I went out and got a cat.”
Doris laughed. She did not know what to say. She had had sex and yet she was not comfortable talking about sex. Especially to Gertie.
Gertie and Doris were beautiful and scary and seemingly impervious to the world. Only they didn’t know it at the time. There is a photo of them together, brash, smoking, looking at the camera straight on, like a dare to the world. A dare that they had lost.
Gertie got pregnant again after college and this time, she did not abort the child. “I am not a bad person,” she told Doris. Doris had never said that she was. Gertie had gotten a job teaching high school English, a job that she quit and never went back to. She also ended her friendship with Doris.
Doris was only slightly more successful in following her dreams. She did, in fact, join a revolutionary group. She moved upstate. She learned how to fire rifles. She was learning, from a book, how to make a bomb. But then, Doris was arrested, the police raiding the group house she had moved into before she had had the chance to commit an actual revolutionary crime. Doris was pushed down to the ground, handcuffed, her glasses, her only pair of glasses, stomped on. Broken.
Doris was terrified, flat down on the ground, pepper spray burning her eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. In an instant, she realized that she was not a revolutionary, because revolutionaries could not be as afraid as she been. She had testified against Bob, just like that, with pleasure, if truth be told. There had been another black eye, one that had not come from a door.
Doris had her eyes tested, and not long after, she married her ophthalmologist. A nice man from the temple she had belonged to as a child.
Marcy Dermansky is the author of the novels Bad Marie, Twins, and most recently The Red Car. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Salon, and the Paris Review.