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Baby Chicks and Free Speech, a short story
Here I am, sitting on the long, narrow side patio of “Ye Olde Neighborhood Coffee Parlor” listening to yet another, tiresome & self-aggrandizing, homeless guy tell some adoring young female his “war stories.” So this one night, under this bridge… they usually begin, as does this one.
And then they arrive as quickly as possible (as does this one) at the “no one dares to call the police on me anymore,” stage, or is it no one dares call the state troopers, or the FBI, or the CIA, or the NSA? Whatever. Boils down to the fact that some dangerous, or just plain, old, drug-addled sociopath, is trying to pick up a drunk, defenseless-seeming chick (and I do mean chick – even her hair is fluffy like a newly hatched & dried chicken’s) on the side porch at “Ye Olde Neighborhood Coffee Parlor.” Then I hear the magic words: crazy bitch! Bingo!
So, to cut a long, boring, pointless ordeal short, I let him have it in the face with both barrels. Told him from where I sat, not even lifting my head to look, or my pencil from page of the blank composition book I was writing in, that if he could call someone a “crazy bitch” loud enough for me to hear him all the way at the opposite end of the uncovered concrete patio, then I could call him a “stupid, fucking sociopathic, prick asshole” as loud as I wanted to, from my end of the patio.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s your right of free speech.” And then he went inside to have the management call the cops on me. Ooh, he just trotted back out to tell me he works at the College of Law — he’s real important!
The poor, homeless chick I was afraid was going to end up as a body dumped by him somewhere along the nearest exit of the nearest interstate is not going with him now, she’s clutching her head and moaning how she was “just on my way to the lake, man!” She sounds like Janis Joplin after a shot of heroin and half a bottle of whiskey. I just kept telling her I loved her, over and over and over. And that he most definitely did NOT love her. Or have her best interests at heart.
I gave him a fucking piece of my mind. Maybe I didn’t save her life, but I definitely saved her poor, little, skinny ass from a predatory, muscle-bound hunk of steroidal ego-maniac-ism. With a tanning booth tan, or maybe it’s a spray tan, who gives a fuck. I think the other patrons inside this place just told him to get the hell out of here. We’re all here, some of us twice a day, almost like clockwork – since this is the first time I’ve ever seen him, I doubt he is a “regular.”
Oh, but the poor, unjustly accused, wee man-child protests plaintively he was “just trying to do somebody a favor, buying a homeless person a cup of coffee.” The “crazy bitch” he referred to outside on the patio was, drum roll please… his mother! Wow, there’s a shocker. What sociopath/serial killer/manipulator/user/con man/misogynist/racist/violent/physically or emotionally or financially abusive A-hole doesn’t blame their “crazy bitch” of a mother for everything they’ve brought on to themselves!
I told him she must really love him, his mom, especially when he calls her “crazy bitch” to her face on Mother’s Day! I thought his head would explode right there, all over the rusty, rickety, nasty tables the owner is too cheap to replace. Why I keep coming back here, I’ll never know. My nephew says it’s haunted… maybe the spirits are trying to get me here so they can tell me something I desperately need to know. What if I don’t want to listen to them? And I don’t! Not the bad ones, anyway. So I generally try to ignore them all, altogether, because trying to sort the good spirits from the bad spirits seems like tempting fate.
Miss “Chicken Little/Little Chicken/My Little Chickadee” would have paid handsomely for that “free” iced coffee drink with a priceless piece of her tiny, bony ass. Look on the bright side: maybe she would have left him with a little something infectious and/or potentially itchy to remember her by. Of course, if she had gotten pregnant, he would have denied everything, including ever having met her. And pity the poor child born of such a freak-o-zoid union!
Now the musclebound sociopath is gone, back on his expensive racing bike, continuing on his way to the neighborhood weightlifting “meat market” joint three blocks down the road, where he can peacock his spray-tanned asshole-ry around for all the other macho/macha bodybuilders. College of Law employee? We’ll just see about that. Yeah, that’s what I thought… nobody on the staff possesses his distinctive face. How considerate of the College of Law to have its own mini-facebook thing! Legal Sociopath Dude vacated the premises, and quickly. Thank you, all good spirits haunting “Ye Olde Neighborhood Coffee Parlor!”
No Nice Guys
Maynard was a nice guy, but I wasn’t interested in nice guys. I was scared of myself, the bitchy hardness that came out when I got involved with anyone nice. I had only met him in the first place because he lived next door and had, unknown to me, borrowed my alarm clock from a friend who was watching my apartment while I was out of town.
Maynard was tall, muscular but tending to softness around the gut and under the chin. When was our relationship over for me? The night of his birthday, when he got plastered and ended up sobbing and retching on his bathroom floor. He lived across the courtyard from me in a studio with lots of windows, high ceilings, and a cavernous, tiled bathroom. He cried that night about his dead cousin, Willow, who had gotten leukemia in high school. I despised her in absentia for dying, and him for getting all snot-nosed in front of me about it. Weakness brought out no soft, mothering impulse in me, rather the urge to shake the offender by the shoulders until their eyes rolled and their teeth rattled. I saved my own weakness for either my cat or my grandmother. I trusted no one else.
Oh, I could be loyal in times of need, I could help fallen friends and lovers limp bleeding into the safety of my rooms, but once the crisis was over, I’d cut them loose the way I’d learned to cut my mother out of my heart. Any other way and I’d end up going down with them, and that would help nobody. Who would pick me up when I fell? I never asked. Some were kind enough to volunteer despite my tough silence, and to them I was forever grateful. I respected those who kept me at arm’s length.
Maynard’s snot turned me off forever. It wasn’t the only thing I didn’t like about him, but the last straw. His other really bothersome weakness was premature ejaculation, which I only aggravated by yelling at him after the fact. I’d quit taking the Pill and had an abortion the year before. “I risked getting pregnant for that?” I’d hiss at him in the dark. I wasn’t good for him, but only I was strong enough to admit it. He wouldn’t have left me without my forcible eviction.
It was, alas, a time in my life when every man I met wanted to marry me. They all had some flaw or another — lack of intelligence, or prowess in bed, or a cool hand with money. None of the men in my family ever suffered financial crises or setbacks. They were shrewd operators never late on bills. It was what I expected. Not money, but calm in the face of acquiring it. Though when I met the man who I severed Maynard’s and my relationship for, it was true he was already past the struggle to get on his feet. It was myself I didn’t trust, not them. My own ability to withstand hardship. I knew I’d already used enough for a lifetime, I knew in that way I was weak. I knew they’d take me down, or I them, and so I looked for a boat in good repair, no leaks.
How did I become so hard? By being slammed again and again. I defied them all. Sheer defiance and hardness is what kept me going after those boys spent a year or two barking at me. They could sense my strength, which is why they kept at it. I have an inner core that will not let me stop. Suicide never an option. Too cowardly. I despised my mother’s weakness. I didn’t set my cap for my husband, I set my cap against him. With the first three questions, I tried to drive him away, out of my space. When it didn’t work, I figured God meant for it to be. I was wrong. God helps those who help themselves.
My friend Betty and I had gone dancing that night, the night I met Andy. The slang we used for it was “trashing guys.” We’d flirt and get them to buy us drinks and then trash them emotionally, either in person or later on the drunken drive home. We were predators in those days, emotional predators. The key was to get in and out without being hurt. Get into the guy’s emotions, wallow around for a while to make ourselves feel good, then get out, with the least injury to either party as possible.
Andy asked me to dance, but initially I said no. I said no because I thought I was his second choice, I thought he had already asked my blonde, blue-eyed, large-busted best friend to dance and had been turned down. She was older, more experienced, and more opinionated than I, so I deferred to her judgment of him.
I was wearing an odd outfit, not the kind of thing I normally wore. The whole evening had been designed by Betty and me as an act of revenge. Revenge upon men from our pasts, and revenge upon nameless, faceless men careening toward us from the future. The present was only an intersection between men past and men future. Men were sport, to be played with and exploited for whatever happiness or financial gain could be had.
I wanted to drive Andy away from that very first moment. He seemed drunk, boyish and soft. I wore a lavender skirt, a saffron silk blouse, and had pulled my hair back from my face severely. On my lips was bright scarlet lipstick. I must have stood out in that room of tired secretaries and tense professionals. He was a sucker for redheads.
“Have you ever had a homosexual experience?” I asked. The shock flitted over his features like a wisp of gray cloud over the full moon. That’s not the sort of question strangers ask each other during the first fifteen minutes of acquaintance. Not usually. The fucked-up thing was, he answered truthfully. Why didn’t he run? Surely he knew from the first moment what he was getting into. I had read somewhere that from a third to a half of men had had homosexual experiences. Even my first love, the wholesome boy next door, had engaged in a circle jerk with his favorite male cousin. But my husband was probably more terrified of homosexuality than any man I’d ever met.
“No, I haven’t,” Andy answered. I didn’t care whether he was telling the truth, I was impressed he’d managed to answer at all, rather than leaving. No, I did care about the truth — but that would come later. Right now I was doing my best to shock him, to wipe that jovial grin, gin-induced, off his quaint, antique-looking face. He was a small-town boy from the North who thought the South was one more place he’d conquer. He didn’t understand Spanish moss, magnolias, or reptiles. His hometown was on the banks of the Hudson, across the river from fashionable Yonkers. His town was the poor stepchild of all those arty, antique-y types coming from New York City and Hartford. He thought he was sophisticated. His choice of wine was sweet German white, and that made him cultured.
“Hah,” I replied, scrutinizing his clothes. Pressed khakis, long-sleeved plaid shirt, penny loafers. He wasn’t my type, he wasn’t scruffy enough to catch my eye. “How old were you when you lost your virginity,” I asked. He flinched a bit, but recovered admirably. He stared into my eyes and breathed in and told me he was seventeen at the time.
“Seventeen,” he said. I believed this. It was the same age as I’d been. He didn’t ask me any questions — or did he? Did I answer my own questions before he asked them of me?
“So, do you have any strange rashes,” I asked, question number three. This was in the days of herpes, and it was something I was on guard against with every person I came in contact with. My father had been a pioneer in the genital herpes field, in suffering from it, and he told me it was something I definitely didn’t want to get.
“No,” Andy said. He told me later, that exact moment was when he felt he was getting somewhere, which he was, though not for the reasons he thought. He wouldn’t be repelled — in fact, he stuck fast like a leech. Only I didn’t want to pry him off. I wasn’t physically attracted to him — he was a soft-bodied man, mostly unremarkable features, with a high, fluty voice. But I figured if I couldn’t drive him off, if nothing I said shocked him, maybe he’d never let me down. That, of course, wasn’t the case in the end. I have a former friend who says all endings are contained in their own beginnings. In the end, he let me down, way down, fast, not gently or carefully. But by then he was the father of my son, so I couldn’t kill him. He was so stable, so settled. Just not very nice. But, remember? I wasn’t looking for a nice guy.
Betty hooked up with this ungracefully-balding guy who had his shirt opened to the bottom of his breastbone. You know, the side-combers? I didn’t see his appeal, but she did. He ended up being a one-nighter. My fish ended up being a 12-year-job. Betty, to this day, nearly 30 years down the road from that night, is still single. She lives alone, has had a series of cats. She’s only on her third. I’m on my third, too. Not cat, husband.
So Betty, who had driven us to the bar, wanted to leave with her semi-sleazebag. I calculated quickly whether I wanted to leave with them or trust this new man to ferry me home. He’d already emptied his wallet to show us its contents — driver’s license, business cards, credit cards. He’d already paid our bar tab. I figured I’d get home alive and unharmed.
Betty floated out with Mr. Temporarily Wonderful. Andy and I sat awkwardly with his friend Bob. Bob was magnificently ugly, with a long, thin, sallow face and the biggest, most obviously broken nose I’d ever seen in real life. To tell you the truth, I was at first actually more interested in Bob than Andy, that is, until I heard Bob’s horrible story. Bob was so nice he was pathological. His wife had left him for another man — thank God they’d still been childless — and had remarried within the year. Bob had, for the occasion of his ex-wife Gloria’s wedding, agreed to put up his former in-laws while they were in town to attend the nuptials. He gave up his own bedroom and slept on the couch. He had dark circles under his eyes.
He seemed to want praise for this course of conduct, but all I could manage to say was, “You’re way nicer than I’d ever be,” which was better than strangling him and closing those big, sappy, brown doe-eyes (which unfortunately highlighted his unattractiveness even further, rather than ameliorating it) forever. Yes, I wanted to kill him for taking that level of shit. How could a grown man in his 30s with a Ph.D. in Statistics be so fucking stupid? He wanted a nice pat on the head for it, too. So, though he had a nice tortured, poetic quality because of his malformations, I had to let him pass by, unmolested. He would have been pathetically in love with me in about two seconds. No, Andy seemed more of a challenge, even though he wasn’t tortured or poetic. It would take me years to figure out his weakest spot and forge just the right weapon to destroy him, and, in the process, me.
Mythology, it’s all a question of mythologizing one’s life. The fatal flaw. Mine is an internal coldness, an inability to be moved to tenderness except by a child or an animal, and not even reliably by those. I had to be hard to survive that loveless house I grew up in. My mother was never affectionate unless she was drunk. Then she wanted to snuggle, but also then she disgusted me. Eight years old, I said to her, coldly and flatly, “Get out of my room.” The big wounded cow-eyes, deer-eyes, dog-eyes. Brown bottomless pools, floating in a glissade of unshed tears. Yeah, she could always get choked up by my rebuffs when she was drunk. The bitter smell of her scotch and water, the urine-tinged color of the liquid in her glass, became the Devil to me. All wrongs flowed from that bottle. I was only twelve when I dreamt I’d murdered her.
But back to that night at Richenbacher’s, the night that gave rise to the next twelve years, and birthed a child amongst the misery. It wasn’t all misery, not for the first few years. Not until we got married. So Andy and I got up and walked to his car, a white Japanese semi-luxury sedan. He was so proud of that car, a demo with less than 10,000 miles on it, and even prouder of the bargain he felt he’d gotten.
He drove me home. I was by then intoxicated by the long night’s booze and cigarettes. Outside the bar, my ears felt stuffed with cotton, temporarily plugged by the amplified music. I could just about hear my own heart beating, and I could feel my pulse in my throat, my fingertips. I remember little but the tenseness between us. I knew I was affecting him, and that knowledge was beginning to affect me. It wasn’t him (though he had lovely blue eyes, thickly lashed) so much as it was the idea of him — a man, breathing faster, blood rushing to his pelvis, hands a-tremble, a man in thrall of me.
Men are all alike to me that way — women are individuals, to be met as such, but men are always toys — what button pressed creates the thrilling response? Their desire is so much more pathetic than a woman’s. This forlorn appendage, either airborne or nodding, plumping between their legs. They’re so vulnerable, really. Though we women aren’t as strong, though we seem vulnerable to them, even in the throes of lust, we know no one knows. Our sexuality is owned by us, which makes those Muslims need to cut it out of us. They can’t stand our privates being truly so.
I lived then in a second-floor garage apartment. My stairwell was private and steep, the old, unpainted wood treacherous in a hurry. More than once, I’d fallen up or down those stairs. Still, I loved that place. Three large rooms, plenty of windows, and private. It was an island fortress and I never had men sleep there. I went to their rooms, where I could leave if I chose, without having to ask. I didn’t like waking up with my sex partners. I’d sleep a couple of hours after the act and drive home in the wee hours, reveling in the still quietness of the mostly sleeping streets. I’d take a hot shower and go to my own bed untouched.
Not just my apartment was a fortress, but my body, too. I hadn’t learnt surrender, and wouldn’t until I was 33, same age as Christ when he began to Save. And oddly, the man who taught me to surrender was the last man on earth I would have expected it from. I slept with him only because I’d given up, totally, on my life. It was a symbolic suicide, as close as I could come to killing myself. It certainly killed my marriage and the circumstances of my daily life. Almost three decades later, the terrain of my days is unrecognizable to me. Such a marvel of transformation, all brought about by one little fuck.
No, it wasn’t an act born of Christian virtue, but it was inspired by deep faith in myself. I was reaching out, for life, from a situation that felt like death. Andy would not discuss God with me — it was too private, he said. Yet I was his wife at the time.
While I was ascending the stairs to my apartment, Andy behind me, I hear him say, “You’re gapping.” I turned to look at him, a question on my face.
His finger pointed to the back of my skirt. The zipper had undone itself, though the hooks holding the waistband were still secure. It was a skirt I loved, with a delicate plastic zipper — my grandfather had bought it for me on a visit to California, at a very fashionable and expensive boutique. It was lavender, a synthetic fabric that imitated perfectly crushed silk tissue. It had a Russian cut — wide waistband, full circle hem, delicate string ties to loop in a bow in front. The color was pale lavender, buff like the breast of a dove. I felt invincible wearing that skirt, but now somehow the zipper had broken.
All you could see through the gap was the blazing yellow silk of my blouse — a gift from my favorite cocaine dealer’s French-born wife. It was low-cut, with a double-breasted front closure. Double-breasted but collarless. I had chosen to put the two garments together, bright flame on top, shy dove beneath, because it felt like by putting those clothes on I was perversely parading my naked soul. Same for the combination of schoolmarm bun and blood-red lipstick. See me! I was saying as I’d dressed that evening. See me, a bundle of contradictions, a split personality though both halves are always present and awake. I will at once ravish you and wait to be ravished. Andy’s error was seeing only half, half of the whole. He saw whichever half was at that moment most convenient for him to see. He could not embrace the full duality, it confused him and made him withdrawn, irritable and bossy.
Still, my gapping zipper embarrassed me terribly. I wonder if things would have happened the way they did had the skirt stayed intact. No, we didn’t sleep together that night, or even for weeks afterward. But pausing on the stair in my dim, closed stairwell, on the treacherous stairs, to inspect the rupture of my finery, gave just enough time to give me the heady sense of intimacy. And it was a more intimate moment between us than most which followed, even those involving both of us nude. In that moment, I made more of him than he was. My sense of reality dulled and faded, and Romance sprang its ugly, ill-timed head. I let him in my heart before I let him in my body, a mistake I had never made before and would never make again.
He didn’t even kiss me that night, nor did I kiss him, and for that I was glad. I was turning over a new leaf with Andy, or at least I would try. I would not sleep with him too soon. Some strange restraint held me back, where typically I’d not have cared. Was it his eyes? Some glint in them, something secret, and something I’d have to lie in wait to catch. For him to be taken seriously, I had to wait to fuck him. If he was too easy, I’d lose interest too soon. Not easy as in getting him into bed — I knew if I touched his belt he’d surrender. I meant easy as in figuring him out. The sense of mystery had to linger, if I were to hook myself. I wanted to swallow the bait this time, be caught, not just mouth the taste then spit it out when I felt the fisherman’s jerk. I had to set the hook myself. We stood in my living room and exchanged phone numbers.
“My office is practically next-door to you,” he said.
“Oh, really?” I said, displeased. I didn’t want to imagine him nearby. But there it was, a leaden fact, immutable. Already, I didn’t like his job. I’d never grow to like it, either, and after years went by it was one of the bitterest things he flung up in my face, my despising his choice of profession. But it seemed such a bore — why else were they called statisticians?
The next time I saw him was unannounced, at my front door. In fading daylight, he stood squinting at the blue writing on my door, traces of a mad former boyfriend, written when that boy was tripping his head off just prior to his first breakdown. He’d been tight with money, and too neurotic. He prided his family on being genetically insane — father, two older brothers, even the family pooch. The only sane one was his mother and she the only one in that family who disliked me. At that time, the mothers of the boys and men I dated fell into two categories, and only two. Either delighted to fantasize about me someday producing their grandchildren, or hoping grimly I’d fall into the next open pit and perish, if not from the earth, at least from their son’s life. The writing, blue and spidery, was an LSD-induced ode to my beauty, and my cruelty. Andy seemed amused rather than put off. He asked if I wanted to go for ice cream.
“Would you like to walk over to the ice cream place?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, though sidewalk strolls were, to me, pointless and inane. Too slow — I bicycled or drove where I had to go. I liked the wind in my face, or the fan of the car’s air-conditioning. But I ambled, I strolled, I put one foot in front of the other, pretending I did it all the time. Paul — the LSD boy — had complained bitterly about my failure to walk with him.
Was that cheating? If I had said no, would Andy have backed away, at least slightly? Would a butterfly’s wings have brought a halt to the sea-change then occurring? I wanted to be first agreeable, then indispensable. I would always have doubts, for the entire relationship I would have doubts, but I chose it nonetheless. It felt like a last chance, though of course it wasn’t. It was like a prayer I had made as a girl — if this happens, everything will be all right. If this happens, I will be safe from harm. Safe from harm, from hunger, from dirt, from infectious disease, from accidents, from failure. If this happens, nothing bad will happen.
I ordered strawberry cheesecake on a sugar cone. He had never eaten a sugar cone. They were the only kind I ever had eaten. Should that have been a clue? A family that buys cake cones, how could I find life’s happiness with the product of such a tribe? People who ate white bread, cut lettuce with a knife to make salad, people who never hugged. People from the swamps of the Hudson River. I hadn’t known there was such a thing. I thought the whole state looked like the Bronx. But when I met his parents, they loved me. Rather, his mother loved me, but that was enough. I don’t know that Andy’s father truly loved nobody, even his own wife, so I didn’t feel left out.
We ate our ice cream while strolling back to my apartment. Andy got into the habit of calling me from his office, late, as if to impress me with his work ethic. At the time, I thought I was what drew him to his office, the transparent ruse of being a block from me. I was wrong, very wrong, but even after I knew that I did not cast him off. I had set my own hook, bound myself to him out of some inexplicable sense of honor. I’d double-timed enough men by then — I was going to act the Girl Scout from now on. Never wanting to inflict harm, but somehow always ending up that way.
“Can you go out to dinner this Saturday?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “What time?”
“I’ll pick you up at 6:30,” he said.
He showed up with a bottle of wine, two glasses, and a red and white dishtowel in his hands, like a waiter. He seemed so charming, so boyish, below me on the stairs. I stood looking down at him until he broke the spell.
“Aren’t you going to let me in?” he laughed.
We drank the wine in my living room — the plants I loved were healthy and green, the light through the bamboo blinds turned everything gold-dust shimmering. I wore the lavender blouse that matched my skirt with a pair of gray velvet knickers. I’d left my hair down, and curled it softly. I knew – rather, I hoped — I was beautiful. Then, I hoped, now I know. I wanted to be loved even though I didn’t believe in love myself. I’ve always been in awe of religious faith, for instance, even though mine is rather shrunken, dried and prune like. Taught by nuns as a child, their certitude inspired in me not ridicule, but the hushed reverence of a fan. It didn’t matter whether I believed — they had enough belief for me.
And so it was with men — only those who believed in romantic love could catch my fancy, though if asked privately I would pooh-pooh romance as a sop for fools. I was too rational for Romance, but I could appreciate others’ romantic feelings as works of art, gifts of faith.
For instance, I could only refer to sexual intercourse as fucking. “Let’s fuck,” I’d say sincerely. Perhaps my tone misled my audience. Andy didn’t like that word, forbid me to use it. I had to call it “making love.” I didn’t know what love had to do with it. The feelings I got that made me want to take my pants off weren’t tender but greedy. I couldn’t say making love — I compromised on going to bed or having sex, both of which Robert found horribly unromantic. But then, I was unromantic.
The antics termed Romance inspired in me nothing more or less than the tender forbearance one exerts toward a child describing Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. I’d get dewy-eyed watching my lovers get dewy-eyed, letting them carry me into a fantastical dream, but then, the clinical, adult eye would take hold. I couldn’t love the men I was fucking while I was fucking them. Fucking was too hard for love. Love was too tender for fucking. At its finest, the violence of fucking can transcend all violence and seem for a moment tender, just like on the slow-motion replays football can seem balletic. But football isn’t ballet, no matter how desperately we yearn to make it so.
I held off going to bed with Andy until he seemed unable to wait. Waiting was so new to me it wasn’t difficult because I reveled in its novelty. Little did I dream I wouldn’t bed another man for twelve years? If you’d told me that at the time, I would have had you involuntarily committed to an asylum. It accrued day-by-day the way Alcoholics Anonymous folks accrue sobriety. One day at a time. The close calls I had were few and far between, but there were, indeed, close. When the dam broke, twelve years of pent-up longing swept out, and like any flood, too much of a good thing can be deadly. Twelve years of desire can flood the whole town. My desire was a fierce tidal wave, way over my skill to navigate. I was a tiny figure trying to stay upright, dancing along the blade of a tsunami.
For our first date, Andy and I drove to the restaurant he’d chosen, downtown in an old renovated townhouse. The chef was from Hawaii, a former body-builder who had competition photos of himself hung in the small bar. He specialized now in reduction sauces — brews simmered for hours down into their thickened essence. An example was a macadamia nut sauce — a gooey, sweetish, delectable drizzling over sautéed or broiled grouper. Or a red bell pepper cream sauce. Stocks, simmered for nearly a day.
This restaurant billed itself as Continental but was named after a large Sicilian town, Palermo. Perhaps that was a nod to the mob money which kept it afloat. Maybe Chef Duke had met his personal bankers at one of the muscle shows he’d competed in in Las Vegas. The Hawaii-muscleman-Mafia connection. It all made perverse sense, especially when you took your first bite of his awesome food.
Chef Duke had an equally awesome wine cellar. Adjusted for inflation, Andy spent about two hundred dollars on our first dinner together, one at which I did not even order an appetizer or dessert until urged to repeatedly, for fear of appearing greedy or gluttonous. Again, I suppose he was trying to impress me with a display of his resources on tap.
I was happy not to make any clumsy faux pas at the table, nor to spill my wine on my blouse. I was tipsy by then, and the food and wine and the candlelit, classical-music infused surroundings went to work on my innards. Andy’s eyes grew wide and misty and tender. It was a phenomenon of nature — I’d been programmed to hunt down scarce resources, he’d been programmed to hunt down a receptive, fertile mate. He had the job and the cash, I had the potential and the eggs. Does this seem unromantic? No, it was the highest romance of all — the next generation securing the means of its entry into the world. Hitching a ride from the eternal, spiritual realm to the finite, temporal one. Needing those chromosomes to meet and dance, just as our own need got met by our parents, in just as starry-eyed a way.
Everyone looks better at a five-star restaurant. All possibilities are ripe for exploration. Andy and I actually didn’t sleep together that night, however, because I was really trying to hold out. The thought of not sleeping with him until we were married (even though I was far from virginal) even crossed my mind. Crossed but kept right on walking. I was a third-quarter-of-the-20th-century kind of girl, after all. I wouldn’t buy the merchandise without a test drive. Which would come later.
At dinner, he ordered an expensive bottle of wine. I flew in those days after a glass or two, and still do. So the candles in the restaurant seemed magical, dancing flames like sentient beings, and the song they sang was the oldest song in my head. Love, love, love went the chorus. That elusive gnat, love, and the one I swatted away from me most of the time, seeing it as the annoyance it actually is.
The wine tasted like the flowers which had heralded its existence. I was like a bee slammed into a flower against its will. Do bees have scruples? I did, and even while I saw the dreaminess growing in his eyes, I felt myself unwilling to stop the surge. I knew, as I have always know, that I can love no one but myself, and that by allowing him to love me I was bringing injustice into the world. I was no stranger to injustice.
In my state of intoxication, I fell back on all the rules I’d ever learned. Such as, encourage him to talk about himself. I was then and am still a most adept examiner. I know what to ask, and how and when to ask it. I know this without being able to tell anyone else how to do it. How do you teach another to inhale and exhale, even when they are unconscious? Another rule I knew was, let him order for you. I did not address the waiter in any way except when asked a direct question, and then my answers were directed to Andy, who relayed them for me as if I spoke another language. Some people love to feel important, and the quality of the illusion is irrelevant.
He ordered for me, fish, which I had grown to detest in childhood, since my father fished nearly every weekend and it was a plentiful source of protein at our family table. I voiced no objection, and in truth, when the fish came, grouper sautéed gently with a macadamia nut white sauce, it was delicious. I grew to like fish in restaurants, and for that alone, I suppose I owe my first ex-husband eternal thanks. I learned that if you trust the chef, it doesn’t matter what you order. Choose your chef wisely and eat whatever it most pleases him to send out from the kitchen.
The fish went into my mouth, forkful by dainty, ladylike forkful, and I swallowed gratefully. The wine, of course, kept flowing into my glass, which kept raising itself to my lips. I don’t remember what I had for dessert other than the fact it was delectable and sweet. Yet even in my drunkenness my resolve was set against bedding Andy that night. Too soon — I could not tell with utter certainty whether the hook was firmly set. I could not bear such disappointment if he rejected me. He was so safe, so stable, and emotionally inflammable. I needed then to surround myself with asbestos on all sides.
I managed to leave the restaurant without falling once. Stepping delicately in my high heels and my gray velvet knickers, my dove-lavender blouse, I made my way back to Andy’s conveyance. It was early enough that there was to be an Act II, but in driving while trying to decide what Act II would consist of, we discussed music. This brought on a cheerful disagreement as to whether the jazz standard “Birdland” had accompanying vocals. I swore it did, swore I’d heard a version by The Manhattan Transfer only recently, in fact. A gleam of competition entered his eyes, and, exhilarated, he drove madly to the record store at the mall. We raced breathlessly under the metal gate of the store as it was going down. They had a copy of the Transfer’s recent album, and there it was on the cover.
Andy was so happy to be proved wrong. It had hardly ever happened to him. Later, when I met his father, that man told me how Andy had intimidated him beginning at age eight. I was stunned. Andy had a secret vow that he would never marry any woman who couldn’t beat him at chess. He told me this after the first, and only time, I beat him. Yet I had fulfilled his prophecy. We didn’t play after that, much, for me the joy had gone out of it. I didn’t understand Andy’s view of competition. I only competed with myself. I didn’t need anyone for that. Companionship was what drove me to intimacy. A longing for oneness with another. I figured it was because my mother hadn’t done such a bang-up job of it in my infancy, or because my father was brittle and sarcastic.
Oneness was the elusive brass ring that kept me getting back on the carousel. Always searching, never finding. I really tried to believe I’d found it in Andy. I convinced myself over and over again we were meant to be together, that fate had invisibly decreed our destiny as a couple. I was trying so hard to have faith. Years later, a man whose deep judgment I trusted almost like my own told me it wasn’t my attempts at that faith in intimacy that were to be faulted, merely the repository of that faith.
“You weren’t wrong to have that kind of trust,” he said. “You were wrong in choosing him to give it to.”
The right impulses, but the wrong decision. Story of my life. After that first date, that first lovely disagreement and its resolution, only a few weeks after all that, I graduated from college. The culmination of four years of hard work and assimilation of knowledge, it was to be a symbol of how disturbed my family life had become. My roots were jumbled and confused, to be sure. This threw Andy into high relief — the light that revealed the cracks and faults in my family simply bounced right off him. He shone like a sane angel among mental patients. It is how mistakes are born. We look, and we think we see. It is an illusion. Lives can be built on less foundation.
My mother was thin-lipped with jealousy that weekend. Her own college career had been abruptly cut off by getting pregnant with me, a fact which even under far more ordinary circumstances she never failed to remind me. On this day, her entire body was stiffened by reproach aimed squarely between my eyes. The high point was after a couple of drinks Friday night, when she bolted out of my apartment to ramble the neighborhood on foot and I had to plead with her to return so she wouldn’t freak out my grandparents. I felt the anger emanating from her physically. You know when you hold two magnets together at the wrong end, they push themselves apart? That was my mother’s and my relationship on a good day. This day was in no way good. I felt that if she could kill me and get away with it, she would. Her eyes glittered with hostility, though eventually she returned to the apartment, and for that I was grateful, since tomorrow morning I had to get up early to prepare for the big ceremony.
The graduation ceremony was held in an enormous indoor basketball stadium. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of us. The speaker was Buddy Ebsen, a pre-med graduate back in the 20s. I sat in my cap and gown with my Bachelor of Science tassel (the funny thing is, for four years I had thought I was working toward a Bachelor of Arts – who knew Psychology was a science?), and scanned the bleachers for a familiar face, but found none. I knew my loved ones were out there somewhere, but the knowledge came from faith, hope and charity, not hard evidence. We graduates were seated in the sunken pit of the basketball court, and the closest seats were fifteen feet above our heads and so far back the spectators looked like dolls. There was movement and buzzing, and when my row was called I launched myself blindly up the aisle and toward the stairs and waited to hear my name. I prayed I would not trip and fall on the wobbly steps in my unaccustomed high heels.
I perambulated over the stage and grasped all hands proffered to me. Someone moved my tassel to the other side and I went back to sit through the rest of the ceremony. The speeches seemed long and boring though I tried to glean insight and inspiration from them. The graduate speakers seemed cloyingly sweet: too good to be true. Meanwhile, my body called out to recline somewhere, anywhere, cold hard concrete would do just fine in a pinch.
People always think I have so much passion, so much energy, when it’s not true at all. All I have is a voice inside demanding action, good deeds, and accomplishments. I only do things to quiet that strident voice. It beats me up, if I let it. There’s always what I want to do and what I should do, and they’re seldom in accord. What I should do usually wins out.
We went to dinner to celebrate at the same restaurant where Andy and I had our first dinner. My grandparents, my mother, Andy and I. My grandfather was a type of alcoholic — he’d always been functional, never lost a love or a job or his fortune by drinking, but he had lost some of his native intelligence, some of his humanity, and by that I mean that most times he drank, it was to excess: he could not stop, and after a few drinks he got mean. Extremely judgmental, no, condemnatory, and loud. He would tell you how wrong you were and he didn’t care how many others overheard. Once, when my mother was still in her late teens, he threw her out of the house, bodily, along with some of her things. They made up, eventually, because of my grandmother, but it was a bitterness between them that was only to be healed by my mother’s premature death. Yes, her parents were to outlive her, that was her best revenge on them for whatever it was they did to her to make her hate not only them, but her own life. Of course she blamed her parents for her unhappiness. It was easier than trying to alter the way she took in the world.
At dinner, Grampa ordered a Michelob, Nana ordered a Rob Roy, Mom ordered a glass of wine, Andy ordered a gin-and-tonic, and I had a glass of champagne. Or maybe we all had champagne. It had been my favorite drink from the first sip I had of it, from my uncle’s stash of Dom Perignon.
I watched my family and my new boyfriend interact awkwardly at the table. The food was excellent, as it had been on my last visit. When the bill came, Nana paid it, handing hundred dollar bills to the waiter. He never returned with her change, and gave himself about a 50 percent tip. She was too afraid of my grandfather’s discovering to his displeasure how much our celebratory repast had cost to confront the management. She told me later, when there was no remedy. Andy was aghast and critical of her inaction. Critical, also, of the waiter, but more critical of Nana. It was a preview of what their relationship would look like in the years to come.
Andy and I went our separate ways over the Christmas holiday — I was starting law school in the new term after New Year’s. I went home to Fort Lauderdale and my old haunts that after only two years had grown foreign to me. He went home to the banks of the Hudson River, where I imagined him looking up old flames with the same curiosity as did I.
Everyone seemed pitiable, compared to Andy’s self-assurance. And yes, when you’re next to that kind of self-absorption for any length of time it comes to seem usual, normal. Lesser mortals, on a far less certain path, did not hold the whispered potential of safety, the lure of an impenetrable fortress of wise career choices and ambition. If you were successful in your job, my reasoning went, then you would be successful in everything. Things would fall into place behind the swiftly advancing career the same way bowling pins would fall when the pin in front, at the point of the triangle, carries the rest with it. I believed that a good job and an absence of substance abuse meant I was home free. I doubt I would have persevered through law school without Andy’s unspoken pressure. He’d broken up with one fiancée when she dropped out of her graduate history program — I wasn’t going to follow her path, not after his obvious distaste with her decisions. He’d found her wanting and gotten rid of her. She wasn’t good enough for him — and he never asked the question of whether he was good enough for her. Of course he was! He brought home a generous portion of bacon, he was on his way to somewhere grand, somewhere important. He ruined her life, in the end. She never married. She grew fat and neurotic. He has her on his conscience, though he never lets anything bother him too much.
I remember his secret conferences with her on the phone — he’d take the call, then go into the closet in the dark so I wouldn’t hear everything. She was trying to make him feel guilty, he said. He never imagined that perhaps guilt was something he ought to feel, the way he’d treated her.
She made several decisions without consulting him. She bought a vacuum cleaner, and a honeymoon to Bermuda. He decided he’d dump her for that, and for abandoning her graduate study. She worked as a bank teller when I met him, for God’s sake! She wanted to have babies, quit working. An unpardonable sin. Later, it became his MO to derail professional women. I was only the first.
I spoke to him by phone on Christmas Day. Our Florida patio was warm and breezy — typical tropical Christmas. His home on the Hudson River was unseasonably warm, so he could wear my gift to him — a Polo shirt. Lacoste was passé, Ralph Lauren was in. Ralph used to be a euphemism for vomiting. My biggest flaw, to Andy, in those days was how I dressed — he was on notice from day one as to my tastes, but chose to ignore them. His power of mind control was frightening. If he decided black was white, don’t try to persuade him otherwise.