"I wonder," Natalie asked shyly, "if you could tell me how to find this address." She showed the woman the card on which she had written Julie Hutchinson's address. "Is it within walking distance from here?"
"Oh, I would think so, unless you're in a hurry," the woman told her. "That would be just between Park and Madison—closer to Park. Do you know New York?"
Natalie smiled and shook her head. Can't she see the hayseeds in my hair? she thought.
"Well, you're on Fifth, now, and 65th. You want to walk north on Fifth—" she pointed—"until you get to 79th. That will be up by the Metropolitan." She looked at Natalie, expecting some kind of recognition. Natalie looked blank.
"You don't know the Metropolitan Museum of Art?" Natalie shook her head.
"Goodness. If you have time while you're here, do stop in there. They're having a special exhibition this month, of impressionists. Here, I'll give you a brochure." The woman handed her a brochure on thick textured paper, with a reproduction, on the front, of a pastel and hazy painting of a woman holding a child.
"Now, when you get to 79th, which is up by the museum, turn right. Go one block and cross Madison, and then in the second block, almost to Park, you'll find this address."
"I don't think there's any possible way that you could get lost. But if you do, just get a taxi." The woman smiled at her.
Help, thought Natalie, suddenly panicky. Should I give her a tip? I've given everyone else a tip. The taxi driver. The doorman. The bellboy.
But the woman had turned away pleasantly and was talking to a dapper man in a pinstriped suit who wanted to know if a telegram had come for him from Oslo. Natalie made her way to the street and began walking north.
WELL, SHE THOUGHT. Here I am. And, as usual, not knowing what to do next.
She stood uncertainly on the wide sidewalk and looked again at the building. It was an apartment building, older than many in the neighborhood, smaller than most, and thoroughly elegant. A gray-haired doorman in a brass-buttoned green uniform stood at the doorway and spoke occasionally to the few people who entered or left. He helped a young woman in a white uniform with an English baby carriage and exchanged a few laughing remarks with her as she started off toward Central Park with her charge. Then he opened the door of an arriving taxi, took the packages marked Bonwit Teller from a middle-aged lady in a deep blue linen dress, and escorted her into the building. He looked at Natalie curiously.
I have to get out of here. If Julie Hutchinson comes out of that building, I am going to faint.
She walked slowly back toward Fifth Avenue, idly leafing through the brochure from the Metropolitan Museum. On the last page, it mentioned the hours that the museum was open and the fact that it contained a restaurant. Suddenly Natalie was very hungry. It was already two o'clock; she had left Maine early in the morning, and hadn't eaten since dawn.
She crossed Madison Avenue and headed toward Fifth and the museum. It's nice, she thought, finally to have a destination. Even if it is only for lunch.
Seated with her salad and iced tea beside the shallow pool and its tall, thin sculptured figures, she thought over her alternatives carefully.
I could go back to the apartment building and simply pay her a visit. Except that I would be too scared. And it wouldn't be fair to her, to do it without any warning. Cancel that idea.
I could go back to the hotel and call her on the phone. Except I'm scared to do that, too. How can I explain things on the phone? She might hang up on me.
I could write her a note. I should have done that before I came. But I was afraid she wouldn't answer. If I mailed it right now, she would get it tomorrow. I think. I could ask her to call me. I could explain how far I've come. She would have a little time to think, and then she'd call.
And if she didn't get it tomorrow? The next day is Sunday; no mail deliveries on Sundays. And I have to leave Sunday, anyway.
I can't waste this trip. I have to do something.
(I could sit here surrounded by sculpture and people and cry. That's what I feel like doing.)
Then, as quickly and clearly as one of the water drops falling from the fountains of the shallow pool, she realized what she would do.
I'll write a note, and I'll give it to the doorman in the green uniform. I'll go back to the hotel, and wait for her to call.
If she doesn't call?
She will. Because she's my mother.
There was no one waiting for tables; it was three o'clock now, and the lunch crowds had passed. Natalie got another glass of iced tea, and took from her pocketbook the stationery that she had found in her room at the hotel. It was pale gray, embossed at the top with the name and address—and phone number—of the hotel.
"Dear Mrs. Hutchinson," she wrote.
That doesn't seem right, she thought. Well, what should I say? Dear Mother? No way.
She took out a second sheet of paper and wrote firmly, "Dear Julie." The rest came surprisingly easily.
This will come as a surprise to you, and I hope not an unpleasant one.
My name is Natalie Armstrong. I am the child to whom you gave birth in September 1960, in Simmons' Mills.
I am now seventeen years old. For the past two months I have been trying to find you. Now finally here I am, a few blocks away from you, and I am at a loss about what I should do next.
I don't want to disrupt your own life in any way. My life, too, is a happy one.
But I want so much to see you, and to talk. Perhaps all these years you have been wondering, too, as I have.
I will be at the hotel for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Would you call me, there? Please.
She folded the paper, sealed it in the pale gray envelope, wrote "Mrs. E. Phillips Hutchinson" on the outside, left the museum, walked down the long steps, across Fifth Avenue, down to 79th Street, across Madison, and back to the apartment building. The doorman was hailing a taxi for a man and a teen-aged boy who had just come from the building.
"Excuse me," she said to him, after the taxi slid away from the curb and eased itself into the traffic.
"Yes?" He smiled.
"I have a note that I'd like delivered to Mrs. Hutchinson," said Natalie, a little nervously.
The doorman looked at his watch. "It's almost four," he said. "I believe she'll be back very soon. Would you like to wait in the lobby?"
"Oh, no," said Natalie. She took the note from her pocketbook, and gave it to him, with a dollar bill. "Please, would you just give this to her when she comes back?"
"Certainly," he said. "Anything else?"
"Yes," replied Natalie, suddenly exhausted. "Would you get me a taxi, please?"
The streets were a blur as she sank against the creased, scarred leather of the taxi seat. Now, she thought, I'll have to rehearse what I'm going to say.
But there wasn't time. She had barely entered her room at the hotel and taken off her shoes, when the phone rang. Natalie's stomach lurched as if she were on the top of a ferris wheel, at the place where you begin to slide over into the downward curve, and the ground disappears for a moment, so that you hang in space and feel for an instant as if you will fall. She took a deep breath, cleared her throat, and picked up the phone on the third ring.
"Hello?" Natalie said.
"Natalie? This is Julie Hutchinson."
The voice was uncertain, soft, carefully modulated, sophisticated, and friendly. Oh, thank you, thought Natalie. Thank you for the friendliness. Tears formed in her eyes and fell on her cheeks, released in a surge from the tentative bondage that had held them there somewhere in her head all day.
"Yes, this is Natalie. Oh, I'm sorry—" she said, realizing that the tears were obvious in her voice. "It's just that—"
"I know. I know. It's all right." There was a sudden shakiness to Julie's voice, as well.
"I'm okay," said Natalie, wiping her face with the back of her hand, like a small child. "I just didn't know if you would call at all, and I didn't know what I would say if you did, and—"
"Natalie. That's a lovely name."
"Thank you. It's my grandmother's name but no one ever calls her that. Everyone calls my grandmother Tallie; they always have, and—" I'm babbling, thought Natalie, embarrassed.
"You know, I saw your taxi leaving. My own pulled up just behind yours, and when George gave me your note, he pointed and said that you had just left."
"I didn't want to see you. He said you'd be back soon, and I didn't want to take you by surprise like that."
"Thank you. Your note, in itself, was a surprise, of course. In fact, I've been sitting here reading it again and again. But, Natalie, it never occurred to me not to call."
"I'm so glad," Natalie whispered.
"I confess I'm at a complete loss. I have no idea how you ever found me. Do you live in New York? Of course not; you're at the hotel. Where have you come from?"
"Maine," said Natalie. "I've never left Maine. I've lived there all my life."
She could hear Julie sigh.
"Natalie, it was such a long, long time ago. But I have wondered. For years, I've wondered. I don't know if you realize this, but when you were born, I was just—well, I was only—" Her voice broke.
"I know," said Natalie. "You were very young. Younger than I am now."
"And I couldn't—" Julie's voice shook. "There was just no way—I wanted to—"
"I know," said Natalie. "I understand. It doesn't matter. What matters is that finally I found you. And we can talk."
"Natalie," Julie said, "I don't quite know how to go about this. You can understand, can't you, that it would be a little awkward for me to invite you here?"
"Yes, of course. But I can see you, can't I?"
"How long can you stay in New York?"
She could hear Julie thinking, in the silence.
"And you're all alone?"
"My goodness. Listen, Natalie, don't try to go out for dinner tonight. Not by yourself. Have dinner in the hotel. I wish I could invite you here, but we have company coming, and I just don't see how—"
"It's all right. I was planning to have dinner here, anyway."
"Well, then. Here's what we'll do. I'll meet you for lunch tomorrow. Have you ever been in New York before?"
"No. I'm overwhelmed by it."
Julie laughed. "I should think so. I was, too, once. Oh, there's so much I'd like to show you, and we won't have time. Let me see. Do you know the Russian Tea Room?"
Natalie chuckled. "I don't know anything."
"Of course not. I forgot for a minute. Well, take a cab tomorrow, around one, to the Russian Tea Room. That's West 57th Street, near Carnegie Hall. I'll meet you there. Now, don't try to walk or take a subway. It won't be very expensive to take a taxi, and it's much safer."
"Okay." Natalie wrote down the name of the restaurant, and the address.
"Natalie, do you need any money?"
"Oh, no. That's not a problem."
"Well, I don't know how you chose your hotel, but do you realize it's one of the most expensive in New York?"