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Beauty Through Broken Glass

Exploring their relationship

By Millie Ehrlich

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In the fall of 1971, I was working as a secretary in a children’s art program at the Brooklyn Museum. One afternoon, while walking through the Botanical Gardens outside, I met Armand, a young Black art student, whom I perceived to be an “exotic” dancer on the other side of a cherry tree. Later that day, I was surprised to see him again, waiting for me in the hallway after office hours. When he kissed me, I felt my questions drop like petals to the ground and was caught up on the interplaying winds of romance and revolution.

After sharing the illicit adventure of exploring the inside of the dome together, we both felt ripe for further adventure…


That weekend Armand and I decided to go to the country together. We didn’t have hotel reservations. We just took the bus and got off, and right next to the bus stop was a cemetery, so we walked there for a while. There was a mutual understanding between us that a cemetery was a beautiful place to explore. It felt peaceful being by ourselves in the green open space among the worn white stones and weeping willow trees, and we strolled at a leisurely pace, Armand swinging a branch he had found to use as a walking stick.

“What do you suppose the stones are made of?” I asked.

“Probably limestone or sandstone,” he answered. “The obelisks look like marble.”

I wondered how he knew. Had he learned funereal art at the Brooklyn Museum?

We followed one of the symmetrical earthen paths that wormed through the landscape, occasionally stumbling on a wreath of dried or withered flowers, or a miniature American flag poking out of the ground. Out of a cloudless sky, the sun hammered down on the green and white checker board before us, making it shimmer like a mirage.

We continued for a long stretch in silence. Gradually, the sky began to change. It grew overcast, and the contrast of light and shadow the sun had thrown on the ground was replaced by a spreading dark mass. But Armand didn’t seem ready to leave.

I began to feel bored. I was worn out from looking at tombstones. I wished I could have been digging a grave with a shovel and pick axe or down on my knees, pulling up weeds and planting. Anything but this forced lethargy of leisurely walking without talking. What did we know about each other? That we both liked art? What about my pain? Or his? We were both hiding so much of the picture, painting with only the broadest strokes a bucolic scene of sky and meadow and open space.

I pictured Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with its one jarring detail--Icarus falling into the sea. In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of the artisan Daedelus, who invented a pair of waxen wings. The boy wore them and knew what it was to fly, until he passed too close to the sun and his wings melted. The painting shows only his legs as he plunges headlong into the water, while everything else in the painting fails to notice.

Having no words or melody playing between us felt physically painful to me. There was no softness to fall back upon. A cloud that didn’t have enough moisture to keep together was breaking up and falling apart. Disintegrating. It was my heart. No. It was my mind.

I was out of my body now, following myself, and saw how comical I looked in my ill-fitting jeans from behind. I barely had any behind. Armand was a skinny worm in his tee-shirt and chinos–except his head was a rosebush. The two of us were moving in slow motion. I watched Armand lift a football-sized foot and soundlessly slam it down, sending up a cloud of dust and softly floating clods of dirt. Who was this man I was walking beside and was about to die of boredom with? Why had we come to the outskirts of civilization?

I wished I could have kept up feeling inspired by beauty and by him, but with each step, I was dragging my heavy bones. I couldn’t think of anything to say, and wished Armand would say something. If only we could have been like ordinary couples I saw in ordinary places like shops and restaurants, who never seemed to run out of conversation.

“These gravestones are from the nineteenth century,” Armand suddenly observed--relieving the awkwardness--and together we examined some of them. At least, we were now both bending our bodies, straining our eyes, fingering cold stone, smelling the crumbly earth.

The stones were obviously weathered. Years of snow and rain had melted the archaic letters on their faces, making them hard to decipher. I wasn’t really interested in reading epitaphs, but Armand seemed to be entranced.

For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven

“Look at this one! Born 1862. Died 1867. A child.”

I could feel our shared sense of awe at Armand’s discovery. I felt alive all down my spine and in tune with Armand, as we listened to our own breathing. I could tell that we were both somehow mysteriously linked to this dead child of a century before. This was really our child, or it had been meant to be. In its absence and innocence, it reached out to us from the void where dreams were born–its colorless baby fingers clinging to ours like little tendrils of ivy.

“What are you thinking?” I asked Armand, to see if we were on the same wavelength.

“How sad it must have been for the parents,” he said.

That had never occurred to me. I was just thinking how like The Twilight Zone it was, but I immediately caught on to his idea and wanted to play my part.

We were mourners at a funeral--our shoes licked by the blades of grass that caressed the foot of the stone, and laced by the creeping vines that embraced its white torso. We lingered for a moment to savor the mystery of it.

We emerged through the gate at the end of the cemetery as high as if we had been mystics meditating in a vast cathedral whose ceiling was the sky.

Back in touch with my body, I enjoyed holding hands with him and matching my stride with his. He reminded me of a duckling, his boyishly unassuming body led by his large, decisive feet. He walked as if he thought he could change the world just by walking on it. I found this endearing, and wanted to accompany him through his dreams.

By the side of the road, he put his arm in front of my chest to hold me back from going any further. I thought he was being protective and curled his extended arm around me. I felt the warmth of his body flash into mine. But instead of letting my behind rest against his groin, he teasingly swung me out again.

“I dare you to hitch a ride,” he said.

“I dare you, too,” I answered.

“Which of us do you think they’d stop for?”

“Both of us, I hope.”

We both assumed nonchalant poses and stuck out our thumbs. A pale blue Chevy with paint peeling from its dented fenders, pulled over right away. Its long-haired, young, male driver beckoned to us--his fingers curled around a cigarette. A red-headed woman slouched in the seat beside him paused in the act of picking her teeth with a playing card and smiled at us sympathetically.

“How far you going?” asked the driver.

“As far as you’ll take us,” I said, laughing.

“What’s up ahead?” asked Armand more seriously.

“You mean directly up ahead? Roscoe. A small town. Nothing much. Just more country.”

“Sounds like where we’re going,” said Armand.

The driver signaled for us to get in the back. The woman pulled forward her dingy white vinyl seat to give us room and watched as we eased ourselves in. Then, as she turned forward again, I thought I saw a jack of spades slide out of her mouth.

We sat stiffly like the farm couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic--my thin lips and Armand’s full lips equally unsmiling, our heads erect, our noses sniffing out adventure. Then ten minutes later, at a bend in the road, Armand said, “Here’s where we get off.”

The driver pulled over, grinning at us in the mirror as we struggled out. Then, as we looked around at miles of farmland on one side of us and woods on the other, the driver and his girlfriend each flashed us a peace sign with their fingers. Armand and I waved back and wandered down the road.

Lost in Wonderland, we both loved being tramps on the road. Armand finally slipped an arm around my shoulders, and I slipped one around his waist. As the wind mussed our hair and clothes, we were blown along together fragile pieces of bramble that had gotten caught on each other. But our bodies were firm and warm, and as we pressed into each other’s sides, I felt a liquid longing well up inside me. And then, as dusk was approaching, along an empty back road, we found an abandoned truck that was still intact.

“Let’s climb inside,” said Armand.

I crawled in after him.

We settled ourselves in the semi-darkness, both sitting with our legs spread apart, facing each other.

“Now we have a roof over our heads,” he said.

It felt so cozy, I could almost see myself in a white kimono serving us tea. I laughed and purposely let my hair fall into my face, then threw my head back and let my hair fall back over my shoulders.

Armand reached out his hand to touch my hair, but instead of stroking it, as my father used to do when I was a child, he raked through it with his splayed fingers so the strands slipped between them. I felt surprise at this rough style of showing affection, but held his eyes with a look of tenderness, and boldly reached out my fingers to touch his hair. With a sense of awe, I gently made contact with the projecting frizz.

“It’s so soft,” I whispered.

With a look of patient acceptance, he let me press it in places. Our mouths were open as we crawled closer to each other, our fingers tangled in each other’s hair. Then I tasted our mingled saliva and felt rivers of water surging inside me.

Armand pushed aside rusty wires to expose a tattered rubber mat. We stretched ourselves out, lovingly entwined our bodies, and after exhausting ourselves, fell asleep for the night.

We got up the next morning to eat breakfast in a diner alongside the highway and looked at each other contentedly over plates of bacon and eggs, while examining a miniature jukebox on the table. We may have felt a little disheveled from wearing the same clothes two days in a row but were quietly enjoying a sense of adventure.

“What’s your favorite song?” Armand asked.

“I’m not sure. Maybe ‘I’m Leavin’ On A Jet Plane.’”

Armand flipped the plastic pages, found it, inserted a quarter, and returned my ecstatic gaze with a look of satisfaction while it played.

“What’s your favorite song?” I asked.

“‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine.’”

“Is that the name of the song?”


This time, I did the flipping, found the song, and inserted the quarter. Armand nodded his head to the music approvingly as it played. It sounded a little strange to me, as if the beat were being made by corks being popped out of bottles, but I was glad it made Armand happy.
“Will there be anything else?” the waitress asked.

“No,” we said.

I was sorry we had to leave the comfort of the diner and its music, and wasn’t sure where we were going next. I was finding it disconcerting not to have a destination or a place to stay, and was beginning to feel as if we were a pair of stray dogs.

That night we came to a college campus where a line of well-dressed people were exiting a building where a placard announced a performance of Moon for the Misbegotten was taking place. I felt a sudden pang as I watched those respectable middle class people walking down a milky pathway through the grass in their evening dresses and suits.

Armand and I stood at a distance, and I felt unworthy to go closer. My rumpled clothes and unwashed body may not have been visible, but I was aware of how unpresentable I looked–and of the fact that I was standing with a Black man. I was surprised at the sense of loss I felt. By joining Armand and going on the road like a vagabond–if only for a weekend--I had chosen the life of an outcast, and felt there was no way I could fit back into the comfortable white world.

But it had never been my world anyway.


“I moved out of my parents’ house,” I told Dr. Goldberg, “ into an apartment with two girls in the museum area. One roommate has a private room, and I share a room with the other.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Well, it’s nice living on my own, but it’s kind of awkward not having my own room.”

“I can understand that.”

“Armand came to the apartment to pick me up and we went for a walk. He told me he wanted us to get an apartment together.”

“What do you think of that?”

“We’ve only known each other for two weeks.”

“That’s kind of fast.”

“I know, but we were walking outside, holding hands, and it was so apparent we had nowhere to go.”

“Maybe you could go to the movies.”

I had to sit up from the couch, turn around, and show him my look of exasperation.

“Or you could get a room at a hotel.”

“It would be better if we had an apartment.”

“I think you should hold off until you think about it some more.”

“I have thought about it.”

I was actually carrying on this conversation face-to-face with Dr. Goldberg.

“And what decision did you reach?”

“I want to live with him.”

“I don’t usually make a practice of telling patients what to do, but in this case, I’ll make an exception. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to live with him.”

“Why not?”

I swung my legs down to the floor. I was too annoyed and excited to lie down again, even if I had wanted to.

“You’ve only just met the guy. Wait until you develop more of a relationship. Can you talk to him? Can he talk to you?”

“Not the way I talk to you. But we talk in another kind of way.”

“If you trust me, you would take my advice.”

I grabbed the shoulder strap of my pocketbook, wound it around my arm, and thought about getting up.

“I think now that I have Armand, I don’t need to see you any more.”

“You and I have a relationship.”

“Dr. Goldberg, you were the first person who taught me the meaning of the word ‘relationship.’ But now I think I have one with Armand.”

How easy it was to look into this man’s face now that I knew I had another man. I had been seeing Dr. Goldberg for a year, and he made me feel protected. He was kind and wise and took care of me, as my own father, who paid for the visits, didn’t know how to. He was even hairy like my father, whose hairy chest always astounded me as a little girl. I couldn’t see Dr. Goldberg’s chest, of course, but his face was bearded and arms were covered with curly brown hair.

“You still have a lot of unresolved issues. I don’t think it would be wise for you to break off therapy.

“I was lonely before and felt lost, and that’s why I needed to see you. Now I know where I’m going.”

“Do you?”

“Well, at least I’m going with someone.”

Armand’s face was smooth, and he didn’t have a single hair on his chest. He had the body of a boy who had not yet turned into a man. He was totally immature, and had no power over me but the power of pleasure. And yet that power was now swaying the balance away from Dr. Goldberg. In a way, Armand was also like my father. He was playful, and I wanted more than anything else to play.

“Are you angry because I opposed the idea of your living together?”

Don’t stop me from playing.

“I don’t need your advice any more.”

“I’d still like to try to help you.”

Can you give me the delicious feelings that I need--that I have to have?

“But I can make it on my own now.”

Armand was so different, he looked nothing like my father or my brother, or any Jewish man. So it was safe to play with him.

“I can’t stop you from doing what you want. But if you don’t come to see me any more, remember to keep listening to your feelings. Be aware of your associations from childhood, because that’s an integral part of who you are. And above all, don’t hurt yourself. Call me whenever you need to.”

In the next issue, Millie and Armand look for an apartment together. Will they find one?