Love and Herman Cogan
It was the fall of 1961 and Cogan was alone again. He looked around his apartment for something to do. Not one to make a mess, he saw little to clean, nothing to rearrange. He had dusted the previous Monday, the morning after Carole had broken it off. “It’s you, not me,” she had said. “You lack ambition. You lack spunk. You lack…” Cogan felt her searching for another key attribute of life. He wanted to say “glistening hair,” but he knew she wouldn’t find that funny. In the end she shook her head, said goodbye and left. And now Cogan, straightening a stool in his small kitchen, thought, “What next?”
His relationships with women always ended, sometimes well, sometimes, as with Carole, not. Hershey Moscovitz, Cogan thought. There’s a guy with little to recommend him. He’s short and fat. His nose is slightly to the right of center and one eye droops. He began losing his hair at twenty-two and he flunked out of college. He is a shoe salesman with scant upward mobility. And yet. And yet he is married—happily, it seems to Cogan—to Joanie Morrison, his high school sweetheart. Joanie is no Marilyn Monroe, but she is tall—several inches taller than Moscovitz—and trim, and. has an engaging smile.
“Why is this so difficult?” he asked his friend, Stern, the druggist.
“It’s a crap shoot,” Stern said. “Stay in the batter’s box and keep swinging, Herman. Eventually, you will meet the right girl.” Cogan left the pharmacy with an antacid and a gnawing feeling that persistence is not the problem.
He opened one eye. The room was still dark and the woman lying next to him on the bed was snoring lightly. She had youthful, thick hair splayed out across the pillow like a holiday wreath. Like Cogan, she was forty-two. He closed his eye and hoped she would remain asleep long enough for him to formulate a tactful plan to get her out of his apartment.
This was Sandra Mellman. They had met only a few days earlier at a synagogue social. She was new to the neighborhood, having only recently moved to Albany Park from the far South Side. “Somewhere close to Mississippi,” she had joked. It might as well have been. Cogan was familiar with only a small part of Chicago: Albany Park, on its Northwest Side. But the South Side was a mystery, like Mississippi or Uruguay.
Their first date, two days before, had been downtown: Lunch and a movie at the Chicago Theater. After the movie, they walked to Buckingham Fountain. It was there, in front of a herd of water spouting seahorses, that she flung her arms around him and kissed him. It was a sensuous, aggressive, wet kiss, and Cogan was thrilled. She was a secretary for four accountants at Rubinow & Clarke, CPAs. “It’s not a typing pool,” she assured him. “I handle everything for these guys. All junior level. That’s why they have to share me. I’m good at what I do.” The next night after a quiet dinner at the Gold Coin, Sandra invited herself back to his apartment.
On one hand, he wanted to wake her to tell her how beautiful she was. He wanted to continue talking with her, see her lovely smile. On the other, this feeling frightened him. He feared it was too much, too soon. “Well,” he could say after a peck on the cheek, “coffee?” What if she dragged him back into the bed? Would he let that happen—she was a very satisfying sexual partner—or would he beg off? “Work,” he could say. “Got to open up at eight thirty. Client coming in.” That’s it, he thought. Have to meet a client. It wasn’t true, of course. He didn’t have a client waiting for him. A paucity of them was another of his problems since opening his own insurance business. He felt awkward having her hanging around in the morning and he wasn’t sure why he had this sense of unease. Perhaps it was too domestic.
But Sandra was up and out of bed before Cogan could say anything. “Got to run. Get home. Shower and change clothes. Need to be downtown in an hour for a staff meeting. It was great, Herman. I’ll call you.” And she was out the door.
It was great? No morning-after kiss? No hug? Cogan felt…what? Relieved? Not quite. Violated. But what was the violation? Not the sex. That he liked. Her aggressiveness? Cogan was ambivalent about that. It was new. “It’s the Sixties,” Stern would say. “Get with the program.” He was willing to learn the program. What he couldn’t forgive, he realized, was her forceful taking control of the situation that morning, their very first morning. She could have just as aggressively doted on him, made him feel like Cary Grant to her Eva Marie Saint. But no, while he was debating with himself about how to bring this long date to a conclusion, Sandra had grabbed the helm and steered the ship to her port of choice. I’ll call you, she said.
“Why not?” he asked himself on the short walk to his storefront office. “Let her take the lead. Is that such a terrible thing?” His reluctant answer was yes. Isn’t it like opening a door? The man opens it and waits for the woman to cross the threshold. It’s his move, not hers. Should there be an on-going relationship with Sandra, this would have to be worked out. Addressed. Maybe they could alternate days. She would take the lead on Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Friday’s. He was being silly. Perhaps they could share in making these decisions. He had no idea how that would work. But he felt Sandra was someone worth making adjustments for.
“It’s a New Woman kind of thing,” counseled Stern from behind the drug store counter. Cogan had stopped in for an Alka-Seltzer and advice. He fudged on the circumstances, of course. Sexual activity is not something he’d discuss with his friendly druggist. Even in the Sixties.
“What about Helen?” Cogan asked. “Has she turned into a New Woman?”
“No, thank goodness. After twenty-two years of marriage, we’re both too old to change. My advice? Force yourself to be open to new ways of doing things.”
Cogan could hear the phone ringing as he unlocked the door to his office. He rushed to answer it and was disappointed when it wasn’t Sandra. Well, that’s something, he told himself. Surely being disappointed meant he was looking forward to her call. Was this it? Was he in love with Sandra Mellman? He warned himself for the umpteenth time not to conflate sex with love, to which he responded aloud, “Easier said than done.”
Sandra didn’t call that day or the next. “After our last date,” he said to Stern on the third day, “she said, ‘I’ll call you.’”
“Kiss of death,” said Stern. “The ‘Don’t call me,’ is silent, like the e at the end of trouble.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Cogan said, lifting the glass with the Alka-Seltzer.
“Of course, it could be a ploy.”
“What kind of ploy?”
“She reads the magazines,” Stern said. “She knows men are turned on by strong women, aggressive women. Maybe she’s just acting this way to get your attention.”
Cogan laughed, but the idea intrigued him. Was Sandra playing the New Woman role just to lure him in? Reel him in like a fighting amberjack? Did she think it was a turn-on? Did he want to be reeled in? He called her that night. She seemed somewhat cool, but she agreed to go to dinner with him on Saturday.
Cogan was born and raised in Albany Park, and hadn’t strayed far beyond it. Sandra meanwhile worked in the Loop. He knew she got up early and took the L downtown. He pictured her walking down State Street, past Carson’s or Goldblatt’s, stopping perhaps to look in the windows at the new fashions. While Cogan was in Albany Park, alone in his office, Sandra was likely surrounded by dozens of people: at her desk, around the office, on the street. She’d probably go to lunch with her co-workers. He wondered if some of the accountants had made passes or asked her to lunch. Or dinner. He wondered if she went.
Cogan’s saw his life as circumscribed. He lived in a second floor apartment half a block from Kedzie Avenue. Stern’s drug store was at the corner. His office was four doors down. The grocery, fruit and vegetable shop, barber, and candy store were all on this block. His grammar school was two blocks away. High school and his synagogue, three blocks. Three movie theaters, the Gold Coin and three other restaurants, bars, the A&P, all within five blocks, all so stultifyingly familiar. Maybe that was part of it, Cogan thought. Sandra was worldly, while he was provincial.
“I’ll be out in a second,” she yelled when he rang her doorbell. She lived with her mother on the second floor of a three-flat six blocks from Cogan. Sandra slipped out the door without offering to introduce her mother to him. “Pizza?”
“Pizza’s great,” Cogan said.
She took his hand as they walked toward the bus stop. “I’ve missed you,” she said.
“You said you’d call,” Cogan said.
“Did I?” Cogan thought her tone was coquettish. He let the remark pass, waiting to see how the evening progressed.
It progressed back at his apartment, in his bed. “Won’t your mother worry?” he asked Sandra at midnight.
“I told her not to wait up. I’m a big girl. It will be fine.”
Such confidence! This is a woman to be reckoned with, he said to himself. But a small, unspoken voice whispered in this head, “Am I up to it?”
Cogan awoke at five. He gathered his clothes and dressed silently in the dining area. He left a note for Sandra: “Early start. Coffee in the cupboard. Let yourself out.” He signed it “H.”
She called him before lunch and asked what they were doing that evening. Not, he realized, are you free tonight. But what are we doing. The assumption tickled him. He liked that part of this New Woman.
They went on in this way for three months. Cogan was ecstatic. Every morning he looked forward to the next time he would hold Sandra’s hand, caress her. He brought her candy and flowers. He commented on her loveliness. He liked her smile. Certainly, this was love.
One afternoon, Cogan and his friend Bony Fishbein were in the Loop for an insurance seminar. They had eaten lunch at Carson’s Men’s Grill and were walking back to the insurance company office on LaSalle. Bony pointed across the street at a couple walking hand-in-hand. “Isn’t that Sandra?”
“Hard to tell,” Cogan said. But he was sure it was. Was he sure they were holding hands? It was a busy time, cars clogged the street and people were scurrying past each other on the sidewalk. It was a brief glimpse. They could have been walking next to one another, not holding hands. Maybe there weren’t even together. Cogan assessed the possibilities. He was hurt. Still, he had no ties on her. They hadn’t talked about their relationship. She was free and he was free. Why then did he feel betrayed?
“Bony and I were downtown this afternoon and thought we saw you,” Cogan said over dinner at the Chinese Much Luck restaurant.
“Yes,” she said. “I was with one of the accountants. I noticed you across the street.”
“You were holding hands.”
“Tim and I have gone out a few times. Jealous?” She reached across the table for his hand, but he withdrew it. “You are jealous,” she said with a laugh.
He didn’t have the right vocabulary to respond. He wanted to say, you were unfaithful, but he couldn’t. Unfaithful meant there was an obligation to be faithful. He thought there was, while she obviously didn’t. Could he blame her? Had he said, like a high schooler, let’s go steady? Had he addressed in any way their future together?
“Damaged goods,” Bony said the next day over lunch. He could trust Bony to be discreet and Cogan had told him everything. “Walk away,” Bony counseled. But that’s what always happened. Either he would walk away or the woman would. Cogan was tired of walking away. Not this time, he thought.
“I think there’s something here, Sandra,” he said after the movie, when they were in his apartment. “I’d like to give it the best chance of success. Let’s just stick with each other for a while. See how it develops.” He had carefully chosen his words. He had rehearsed in front of the bathroom mirror.
She laughed. “After all the time we’ve spent together, you’re not ready to say you love me. You’re not ready to make a commitment. You just want a comfort girl, right? Like the fucking Japanese. You think ‘there’s something here?’ Listen to yourself, Herman. We’re middle aged people, not teenagers.” She dressed without another word and slammed the door on her way out.
The next morning, he told Stern that Sandra had demanded a commitment. The druggist said, “I know you love her.” At lunch, Bony said, “It’s over.” Cogan’s stomach was churning. He knew they were both right.
When he called Sandra that evening, her mother said she was busy and couldn’t come to the phone. The next morning he called her at the office and she hung up on him. He wrote her a note:
I’ve been stupid. I do love you. I think I have from the start. Give me another chance. I promise I’ll get it right.
He attached the note to a half dozen roses and had them delivered to her office. There was no response. A week went by during which Cogan could not concentrate on business. He took the L downtown and waited in front of her office building.
“Got a minute?” he said when she walked out at lunchtime with three other women.
Sandra stood there looking at him for a few seconds. “No,” she said and, grabbing the arm of one of the other women, walked off.
Cogan felt stabbed. Bludgeoned. Kicked in the kishkes.
When he told Bony, his friend couldn’t believe it. “You tell her you love her and she won’t even give you the courtesy of a minute? Wow. What a ball buster.”
Later at the drugstore, Cogan was surprised to find that Stern agreed. Or both of them were just trying to make him feel better. He didn’t know which.
In the weeks that followed, Cogan threw himself into his work like never before. He signed five new customers. He understood that Sandra was history and he told himself that even though the experience was painful, he had learned from it. He spent hours wandering alone through River Park in the afternoons, crunching the autumn leaves like a schoolboy, following the paths that meandered lazily along the North Branch of the Chicago River. Bony invited him to sit in on his weekly poker game and he decided it might be good to go. These were guys he knew from high school and to his surprise he had fun. Artie Portman said, “Where you been hiding yourself, Herman?” His mother called from Florida and he told her things were fine. He was worried that if he told her how he really felt, she’d be on the next plane up. Winter rolled in off the lake early that year, burying the city in two feet of snow. Cogan busied himself tidying up his apartment, dusting, doing the laundry. Bony called: There was a synagogue social the week before Hanukkah. Cogan decided to go.
About the Author:
Robert Sachs’ fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Free State Review, the Great Ape Journal, and the Delmarva Review among others. He holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University. His story, “Vondelpark” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. His story Yo-Yo Man was a Fiction Finalist in the 2019 Tiferet Writing Contest. Read more at www.roberthsachs.com.