Maria's Escape Hatch
Maria was ambitious—she wanted to get away from Fish Alley and have a home somewhere else in the world, anywhere.
It wasn't a question of being or not being a virgin; nobody was! The question was how to get over the business of not being with as little discomfort and involvement as possible.
She didn't talk to Mama about this anymore. Mama was too set in the rut that was Fish Alley to admit that there was a world outside the twelve square blocks along the waterfront where all the men worked as independent fishermen or on the wharf or in the fishery. After all, Mama had been born there and she'd hardly ever been anywhere else, except up on the hill to pick up or deliver ironing.
"Mama, why can't we move away from here?"
"Move? Why move? Move to where?"
"Couldn't we move up on the hill? To a better neighborhood?"
"Baby, the rent here is cheap ... And you think those families up there on the hill want us up there? They want us to do the ironing, but they want us to do it down here in Fish Alley, not on the hill ... where they live ..."
No, she didn't discuss it with Mama anymore. Mama had given up on herself, on life in general, years ago. But Maria felt she wasn't too far from gaining her own means of escape from this world she had always despised. She was the first Fish Alley kid in some years to reach senior high school, and they'd all but guaranteed her a stenographer's job when she graduated in two years.
And she had to make it! Remaining here offered a girl one of only two horrible options.
The first of these two dismal options would be to marry a Fish Alley man and become a dowdy housewife.
"Like you did, Mama?"
"Yes, like I did."
"And have a house full of hungry, snotty kids?"
"We don't have a house full, and you're not hungry. And you blow your own nose ..."
"Yes, we don't have it so bad...but that's because there's just the two of us ... if Papa hadn't died when he did ..."
And Mama no longer winced when Papa was mentioned, the Papa Maria remembered so vividly, though she hadn't really seen too much of him.
Papa had been in jail until Maria was almost three years old. (She never did learn for sure why he'd been put in jail!) He took a job on the wharf when he got out of jail and he'd come home evenings, when he came home at all, smelling of fish, garlic and cheap wine.
Papa drowned one drunken night about a year later, causing Mama to have a miscarriage.
But Maria knew why Mama thought of marriage as such a necessary article—they were all too familiar with the alternative route, that of not marrying at all, that of living with one (or more) of the Fish Alley men without benefit of legal ceremony. Maria and Mama knew a dozen girls who had taken this course.
Donna, for instance. At sixteen, Donna had become the regular girl of one of the waterfront men. She was treated like a Fish Alley Queen for a time. Then she got pregnant. The baby was put in the Foundling Home, and after a short time Donna moved in with another fisherman. At last count had had six babies by six different men, and she was only in her mid-twenties,
It would seem that a third option, virginity, would be possible. But Maria knew better. She'd seen a few girls try, but always with disastrous results. The best example was Christina. Everyone had known that Christina had really wanted to be a nun. So when her old man was in jail, six or eight of the Fish Alley regulars broke in and raped her. They even drew straws for her maidenhead.
Until recently, all this hadn't bothered Maria—it was all too remote. But then her slim, boyish figure began to fill out. Almost overnight, there was more than a hint of breasts and, in spite of hand-me-down clothes that never fit too well, the rounding of the hips was becoming noticeable.
Maria looked at herself in the mirror. Long black tresses, deep, big, dark-brown eyes and better-than-average complexion had been hers from the very beginning. She studied herself slowly, trying to imagine how her long-held assets and her recently developed features would affect the community.
The conclusion was all too obvious: it wouldn't be long before someone would notice her, notice that she wasn't a little girl, notice that she was big enough for fun and games. And, once noticed, the word-of-mouth would take its course.
("Maria? Little kid? Mama takes in ironing up on the hill? Say she's growing up, huh?")
Maria could picture this and other conversations, with the discussions of her new status reaching some local drinking bouts.
("And then somebody will figure it out ... that I'm a virgin! That will send them through the roof, challenge their manhood!")
And the fact that she was fifteen and still in school wouldn't help. Indeed not! This would be considered uppity and ever so condescending in the community.
And so, with time running out on her, Maria was driven into devising The Plan. She knew that (1) there wasn't a man in Fish Alley she considered fit to marry (and she'd checked them all out!); (2) being passed from one man to another was probably worse than marriage; and (3) remaining a virgin was impossible. She had to have a plan that would keep her from permanently falling into the clutches of Fish Alley, the clutches that held Mama all these years, a plan which would give her some time until she could escape to a world with more options.
So Maria did indeed formulate a master plan, a plan with five or six well-conceived stages. Some of her ideas came from sexy magazines, but in the main, her desire to escape, tempered with a little sadism, directed the making of The Plan. In the spring before her sixteenth birthday, she put The Plan into action.
The first stage took care of itself. Mama, who'd been talking up the merits of marriage as opposed to the only other known option, changed from the general to the specific.
"Maria, you know Charley Hankins? He's coming over this evening. Said he'd like to talk to you."
"What about?" Maria knew what about, but she asked anyway.
"He didn't say."
"Wasn't he married? A couple of years back?"
"Yes, but his wife left him ... ran off with another man. She's living with the other man on the other side of the wharf. Charley got a divorce."
"But Mama, he's what? Thirty-five? Maybe forty? I'm not even sixteen! Really, Mama!"
"But Charley's a good man! Works steady ... and he only drinks on Saturdays. You be nice to him ..."
And Maria was nice to him, since it fit into her plan. The three of them had coffee in the kitchen.
In their all-too-obvious attempts at subtlety, both Mama and Charley were working around to the critical subject when Maria took command of the conversation, which gave impetus to the first stage of The Plan.
"Really, Mr. Hankins, it seems that you're getting around to asking me to marry you. Isn't that what you and Mama are working up to? Now, I've got nothing against you personally, but, as you may know, I'm in my second year of high school. I'd like very much to graduate, something nobody in our family has ever done. And after I graduate, I'd like to work as a stenographer for a few years before I even consider getting married. I hope I'm not hurting your feelings, but if you are thinking of me as a wife, it would probably be best if you forgot it. Now, after I graduate and get settled into a new situation, if you still want to come around, well, we'll see."
She didn't mention Charley's age as compared to her own. She suspected that this would simply tempt Mama to line up some slightly younger suitors. As it was, though, word of this polite refusal got around and Maria was not bothered by any more wife-seekers—male pride being the factor she'd counted on.
The second stage of her plan called for the selection of a mate for an 'affair'. This stage, like the first one, initiated itself.
She was approached on the street by a member of the younger set, a particularly trashy specimen.
In reply to his indecent proposal, Maria said, "I'd love to, but I'd rather wait for a real man!"
"What the hellya mean?"
"You figure it out, Buster!"
In a matter of days, the waterfront was buzzing with verbatim accounts of this encounter. Word got around about a series of fights and brawls over the title of "Real Man". Maria enjoyed knowing that some heads were being broken, especially since she was not being pestered during the process.
It was chilly spring afternoon when Maria got off the bus she'd taken from school, as was her routine. She hurried on the two-block walk to the tenement building where she and Mama had a three-room flat on the ground floor.
A wide brute was leaning against the wall near the door facing of the hall that led to Maria's flat. From a distance, he looked a little cleaner than most of the local heroes, perhaps because he had on a clean tee shirt, and because his hair was close-cropped rather than in the sideburns-and-grease style that was the local rage.
"Been waitin'. Whereyabeen?"
And, of course, Maria knew by then that the tournament was over, that the "Real Man" had been chosen via combat.
"School. What do you want?"
A wide grin crowded his face. He was about twenty-five, slightly under six feet, but looking shorter because of a broad, think chest and heavy arms. His rugged face might have been handsome except for the square look it presented.
Maria knew him, as she knew all the waterfront men from seeing them through the years. This one was a tough called Bull, and he had many of the characteristics Maria found so objectionable: a fishy smell, yellow teeth, two tattoos, and a limited and often profane vocabulary.
"What I want? You know what I want!"
"You heard what I said to the last one who asked me about that?"
"Yeah, I heard. But you got a real man now!"
"Well, dammit, what do you expect me to do? Huh? Drop my drawers right here? It's not going to be as easy as all that! I'm in school every day till four, and Mama takes in ironing—that keeps us busy most of the time, especially during the week. Tell you what: I'll meet you at the drugstore at two ... on Saturday ..."
She didn't give Bull time to consider this a brush-off. She quickly disappeared into the building and closed the door behind her in her flat.
She knew this simply wasn't the way things were done around here. When a girl got with a man, it wasn't in the afternoon, and certainly not in a drugstore. These men didn't take such amenities into account.
But this began the third phase of The Plan, which called for her to draw things out as long as possible.
("Make the son of a bitch sweat ... and maybe teach him some manners!")
On Saturday, she kept Bull waiting at the drugstore fully half an hour. She got herself a Coke and sat with him in a booth.
"I'll have to cut it short today. We got in a lot of ironing at the last minute."
She knew she was skating on thin ice. And Bull looked as if he might get violent.
"I thought we'd ride around a w'ile ... borrowed a car!"
"Gee. I'm sorry, but you know Mama takes in ironing ... and if I don't get back pretty quick she might not let me go out again ... we have enough to keep us both busy till way in the night ..."
She slowly, even tantalizingly, sipped the Coke through a straw and watched Bull.
"What the hell? I dunno ..."
"Well, look, I'm sorry about today ... after I promised to come and all.... Anyway, I like to get to know a guy before I get too chummy.... You gotta be patient.... How about Friday? There's a movie I'd like to see ... and on Friday, if there's a lot of ironing, I can put some of it off.... Not like today; see, a lot of people want their ironing back for this Sunday...."
And, amazingly, she got away with the stall she was pulling on Bull. She knew this couldn't last much longer.
Friday night found her in a movie house, and Bull was all paws, as his big hands fumbled in her clothing.
Maria lost the plot of the movie and asked Bull if they could leave. Bull quickly agreed. Leaving the theater, she planned to enter the fourth stage of The Plan, one calling for yet one more postponement. And she knew this was going to be both difficult and dangerous.
In front of the theater, she said to Bull, "Take me home!"
"Home?" he panted. "Not home!"
"Well, where do you want to go?"
"Well, we could drive around ... stop someplace...."
"If you think I'm going to do anything with you on the back seat of a car, you're crazy!"
"Cheeezz! What in the hell do you want?"
"Take me to the Maxcey Hotel!"
This was the key, the big chance she was taking here. She gambled on his being broke after borrowing the car and then paying for the movie (she also noticed the further expenses of a pint of Old Hickory in his pocket, plus the unmistakable smell of a barber shop).
"Son of a bitch!"
And he did take her home, but only after some crude caresses and after her agreement on the following Saturday night as the time for the inevitable to happen.
Maria chose the hotel within walking distance of the waterfront, expensive by Fish Alley standards. She even went so far as to make reservations in Bull's name, making no effort to keep the rendezvous a secret.
And during the week, she did several double-checks on her system of birth control.
They got together early Saturday evening, the time being strategic to The Plan. It was late enough for Bull to have been drinking, carousing and shooting pool all afternoon after working on the docks all morning. And it was early enough, hardly dark, for them to be seen by a number of Fish Alley people.
They checked in at the hotel and wordlessly entered the room. Bull took a drink of whiskey straight from the bottle while Maria bolted the door. She turned out the lights, removed her shoes and panties, and stretched out on the bed with her skirt pulled up to her waist. Bull hastily threw off his shirt and trousers and pounced on her with all the finesse of a starving coyote. Maria appeared to be cooperating, but, actually, she was trying to protect her clothing.
Bull wheezed and snorted through the act Maria had been dreading. He spent himself quickly and tried to pull away from her, but she wrapped her limbs around him and held him inside her. His animal energy responded momentarily and the snorting and pounding resumed.
When this bout was over, she allowed Bull to pull away, but not for long. For it was then that Maria began another phase of The Plan: she snuggled close to him and whispered as passionately as she could, "Again!"
The surprised Bull responded quickly and the snorting act resumed. This proved to be a long, drawn-out struggle. And again, Maria kept Bull locked into her long after he was spent.
When she finally released him, Bull, panting, got off the bed and fetched the bottle from the pants he'd dropped on the floor.
Maria, with not a hint of passion in her voice this time, said, "Put the damned bottle down and come here. You can drink at home."
She grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him down on her. "Where's the real man now?"
"Right here," bellowed the Bull, as he tried to respond to her fierce embrace.
"Again, and right now!"
But he fought himself free of her. He rolled over onto his back, almost in tears. "It'll have to wait a little w'ile."
This was what Maria needed to end this stage of The Plan and to move into the Finale.
She jumped from the bed and shouted, "You big-talking son of a bitch!"
And before he could react, she'd gathered her shoes and panties and was out of the door. Bull leaped from the bed and chased her down the hall before realizing he was wearing nothing but underwear.
Maria stopped for a moment in the hotel lobby to put on her shoes and touch up her hair. The panties she left on a chair. And she covered the several blocks to Fish Alley in the time it took Bull to catch up to her.
Walking down the waterfront, Fish Alley, with Bull but a few paces behind her, Maria twisted the knife in Bull as the very climax of The Plan unfolded.
It was still early (it was hard for Maria to realize that the whole scene in the hotel room had lasted only a little more than an hour!). The poolroom, the two beer halls, and the hamburger joint were all full of Saturday night trade. The doorways of these places quickly filled with staring spectators as Maria strode, almost strutted, in front of Bull.
And all who saw knew where Maria and Bull had been!
"Come back with me," he pleaded.
"What the hell for? You can't do anything! You're not worth a damn!"
At this point even Bull realized that any further comment on his part would only add to his already tremendous humiliation. He turned and quickly vanished.
Maria continued her striding stroll in a glow of smug satisfaction, with the full knowledge that she was under the scrutiny of the crowds that remained in the doorways to watch.
A wry smile was trying to break through her closed lips: in the best scenario, she'd pulled it off, that is, beating the rat race for a time. Sure, she'd spent an hour in bed with Bull, but a good bath and some rest and she'd be almost as complete as before—as complete as she could be, living where she did.
She probably wouldn't have to worry about any more men for a while—they'd be afraid. After all, Bull was the 'Real Man' (and Maria had heard enough about the dozen or so heads that had been broken to cinch that title).
And now if somebody propositioned Maria, it'd be as if he were claiming to be more real man than Bull. Not likely!
Of course, all this could blow up in her face: in a rage, the humiliated Bull could recommend that she be gang-raped, but somehow this did not fit into what she saw as the man's self-image.
So maybe she could stay free of this type of problem for just two more years, or until she'd be out of school and away from the confines of Fish Alley.And maybe the real men in other places wouldn't be quite so crude, nor would they all smell like fish.