The Story of Us
- Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- October 22, 2020
Remembering a dear friend and the many books we shared.
It’s a rainy morning, perfect for reading in solitude or with a close friend; parallel reading, like parallel play — not the same book, but together. Rather than reading, though, I’m writing to celebrate parallel reading with a particular friend, Jane.
We attended the same college but didn’t know each other — she majored in history, I in English. After graduation, my college roommate shared a Manhattan apartment with Jane. When my roommate moved, I stepped into the Midtown flat and into one of the friendships of a lifetime.
Jane and I split the rent, $200 a month each. The apartment overlooked an airshaft and was the size of a hotel suite; the building had once been a hotel for musicians playing Carnegie Hall around the corner. We saw classic films in the Carnegie’s basement cinema several nights a week. I’ve never felt more sophisticated than I did when drinking my first espresso from a white cup in the Carnegie café.
Jane grew up in a New York suburb; I’m from suburban DC. Her familiar Manhattan was foreign territory for me. She was my guide, worldly though never a snob. New York is a treasure trove but, coming from Washington, I was shocked that museums charged admission! Jane belonged to many, and her membership cards were my membership cards while we lived together and on every visit since.
You could buy truly cheap seats to plays and concerts in those days, and we did. The Metropolitan Opera was cultivating young audience members. For $30, we saw three operas, toured the costume shop, and received a subscription to Opera News.
Our kitchen was snug as a phone booth, but we entertained. Her go-to for recipes was Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times International Cookbook (mine, Fannie Farmer). We produced Craig’s moussaka for dinner parties; she poured bargain wine from her beautiful pottery pitcher from Toledo. (Ohio, I assumed. Spain, she explained.) We hosted a picnic for Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Hamlet. We brought champagne to toast the fireworks after Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. We had fun out on the town of towns.
But on this grey day, what I am celebrating are evenings reading at home. Our living room had a non-working fireplace. We pulled comfortable chairs to the hearth and drank sherry like girls training for old age. We read books, papers, magazines. We talked about everything. Jane held passionate opinions, often the opposite of mine. With an historian’s memory for facts, figures, names, and dates, she often argued me under the table — cheerful, intellectual sparring.
I never got a New York driver’s license, but I had a library card (and was carded once before being permitted to enter the reading room of the main library on 42nd Street without a grownup). Fresh out of school, I reveled in free-range reading. Visits to the Donnell Library were routine as grocery runs.
Jane discovered the Mercantile Library on East 47th Street, founded in 1820 to divert young merchants from bars and billiards. I forget how much my membership cost (not much, worth every penny). The collection was idiosyncratic, good foraging. Jane read her favorites: history, biography. Me? Fiction, fiction, fiction.
Lunch hours, I walked from Park Avenue, where I was a paralegal, borrowed a new novel — or an old one like Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini — and settled into the Merc’s reading room. It smelled of paper and paste like the Browsing Room (aka the Drowsing Room) at our college library and was just as conducive to naps. Refreshed, I returned to the office. The Merc has moved to Brooklyn now, part of the Center for Fiction, but last year, Jane and I visited another still-extant subscription library and searched the card file for Sabatini.
After a wonderful year, I moved to London. Though I returned to the States, I never lived in New York again. Jane and I remained close, often visiting — and reading — together. Sometimes, we had reunions with the friend who introduced us, staying in Jane’s more spacious digs 20 blocks north of our original flat.
We’d go to museums, to plays at Jane’s favorite (the Irish Rep), to eat out. Afterward, in robes and slippers like almost-old ladies, we’d sip sherry and read. We’d scheduled a reunion for March, had tickets for my nephew’s Broadway debut. But the world and pandemics are what happens while we’re making other plans. March, like everything else, was canceled.
Throughout these months, Jane and I stayed in touch about what we were doing and not doing, and what we were reading. What Jane had mostly been doing was fighting another round with her too-familiar opponent, cancer.
A featherweight, she’d punched way above her class and survived more bruising bouts than anyone should have to, or doctors expected. Long ago, she gracefully gave up kayaking world-class rapids and adventure travel. Recently, as daily life became increasingly challenging and rugged, she kept reading, continuing her fierce tracking of history in the making: politics.
But not too long ago, Jane said she could no longer bear reading the news. It was tiring for her to talk, hard to email. I rifled through my stash of postcards and scribbled a few lines most days — spinning filaments of memory and connection, for myself as much as (or more than) for Jane. The final postcard was a picture of the card catalog we enjoyed last year.
I hurried to mail it, knowing time was short.
I was writing this column when the call came. My friend of the keen mind and generous heart is gone, leaving no forwarding address. I’ll miss her opinions and suggestions as I read on alone, researching a new novel. But I’ll stay tuned because, well, you never know with good readers and good friends.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s new collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song is forthcoming in spring 2021. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.