Pages

Sunday, July 16, 2017

(1) "I FELT AS IF I WERE WITH SOMEONE'S WIFE AND HER HUSBAND HAD CAUGHT ME."

Enclosures for Ed Brecher
January 8, 1983
     My ex got himself a little bit engaged.  Of all his various ladies (names changed to protect the guilty), Claire Swann is high on my list of favorites.  Ed thought he'd lost her forever to Gerald, with whom she has been living for several years.  They had a sort of open commitment, which meant that either could go out with someone else, only neither should lie about it.  It was okay to say, "I'm going to be out tomorrow night."  It was not okay to say, "I'm going to Rhode Island to see my old buddy Al" unless it was true.
     When Gerald gave Claire the old buddy routine, Claire called Ed (her customary move when Gerald was away), and they met for cocktails in a condo apartment Ed owns in Boston.
     "Where would you like to go for dinner?" he asks.  "There are forty restaurants within walking distance; we could just start walking till we get to one you like."
     Claire says she wants to go to Joseph's.  She's never been there, as Gerald rarely takes her to expensive restaurants.   She and Ed are looking at the menu, when who walks into Joseph's ‑‑ of all restaurants ‑‑ but her roommate, Gerald, the buddy from Rhode Island, and a tall brunette who was obviously with Gerald.
     At first Ed wasn't sure whether the trio had seen them or not.  The men spoke briefly to the head waiter, then disappeared, much to Ed's relief.  He had a feeling he wouldn't be at his most debonair if there were a confrontation.  He was right.  A few minutes later, Gerald and Al, minus the young lady, reappeared and walked over to say hello to Ed and Claire.
    Claire and the two men exchanged banalities, and then they departed.  Later Gerald would explain the disappearance of the brunette by saying she had gone to the ladies room.  Yes, Gerald  had a lot of explaining to do; but this was after Claire's spur‑of-the‑moment trip to Florida with Ed.  He was leaving two days later, so she got a week's leave from her job and went with him.     
     Reporting all this to me the next day, Ed said that of the four actors in this playlet, he was by far the most shaken.
     "I felt as if I were out with someone's wife, and her husband had caught me.  I stuttered and turned red and knocked over my wine glass when I shook hands."
     Two things  made her furious, Ed tells me. One was Gerald's lying, in violation of their agreement,
and the other," I chimed in, "was Gerald's taking the brunette to Joseph's after years of not taking Claire."
     Yep, that was it, all right.  Nobody understands a woman like another woman.
     After Claire returns to Boston, she calls Gerald.  Claire is not as good about reporting to me as Ed is, so I'm not privy to all that was said during their meeting.  At any rate, she tells Ed she will probably to go back to Gerald "unless you have a better offer."
     "Well . . . we could try living together for six months and see how it goes," says Ed.
     No, Claire says, she is no longer willing to settle for just living with someone; she wants the security of a marriage.  My hunch is that she wants ammunition, such as a marriage offer from Ed, to make Gerald shape up.  Ed says he knows he'll be getting her on the rebound if they eventually marry, but as long as he knows it, it doesn't bother him.  The sort of thing that bothers him is what he'll have to give up:  me, definitely and quite rightly; his antique doll hobby, probably; and of course  someone will have to come in with a scythe and thin out his indoor jungle.
     As things stand now, Claire has picked July for the wedding but suggests that meanwhile they live their lives pretty much as before.  She spent the holidays with Gerald, and her fiance had his usual Christmas Eve get together with Ted's family and Aliceann and me.  Aliceann doesn't know he's engaged.
     Ed was wondering what he ought to give Claire for Christmas.   He showed me an embroidered shawl he and I found at a flea market last year.
     "It's pretty," I say, "but it cost only eight dollars, and Claire's a woman who knows values.  You'll have to give her something more expensive."
     "I could give her a three-carat diamond ring," my ex says roguishly. 
     "Give her three carrots," I mutter.
     It's not that I don't like Claire; I just wish Ed could find someone who'd marry him for himself.
     I can't compete with Romeo Malley (as Aliceann's co‑workers call him), but my own soap opera has undergone a change or two lately.  I have broken up with Jack, this time really really really for good, and about four weeks ago I met a man who appealed to me enormously.  In fact, I was as excited as a schoolgirl over Mr. Eric Swann.  Note that coincidentally his last name is the same as Claire's.  Ed is always referring to her as Mrs. Swann, liking, I think, its elegant sound. 
     "Her name is Claire, why don't you call her Claire?" I'd say, as irritably as if we were still married.  Now that I'd met Mr.  Swann, however, Ed was going to hear a lot about Mr. Swann this and Mr. Swann that.
       On our first date, Mr. Swann dismissed my views on the fairness of separate checks by saying he'd give me a choice:  I could either pay the entire bill or be quiet like a good girl and let him treat me.  I think he was an excellent conversationalist, although I  was so impressed with him I hardly knew what either one of  us was saying.  Eric looked much younger than his fifty‑six years, and I kept wondering what Tony Curtis's double was doing with an old lady of sixty‑one.  I remember his telling me that people often approach him in airports, asking for his autograph.  He obligingly writes,  "Barney Schultz," which is Tony Curtis's real name.   
      "Next time I'll treat you," I said, as we were saying goodbye outside the restaurant.
     "Just ask me over for dinner," he said.
     There was a time when the idea of whipping up a little dinner for two wouldn't have given me conniption fits and insomnia.  Dinner for eight or for eighteen, I'd done it dozens of times in the old days.  Now I lay awake rehearsing every damn step of that damn swordfish dinner, wishing I could go to sleep so I wouldn't look like a hag for Tony Curtis.
     The big night arrived.  I'd done as much as possible ahead of time so that I could be relaxed and gracious when my guest appeared at my door. I threw my poor dolls in closets and under the bed.  Doll collecting seemed like a terrific hobby until I began picturing Eric's reaction to all those simpering little faces.
     I showed Eric around, told him about my grandfather the archaeologist and my mother the poet, and tried not to babble too much.  Apparently I failed because he finally said, "When are you going to feed me?"    
     My dinner was unquestionably the worst I have ever served.   I overcooked both the swordfish and the green beans from Kathie's garden (Eric remarked that it really wasn't important to him where they came from, so I knew I'd been babbling again); the baked stuffed potatoes were barely warm and tasted funny -- I think the grated cheese was stale ‑‑ and my guest chose not to sample my homemade salad dressing, perhaps because he'd sampled the baked stuffed potato.  He had his Romaine lettuce and mandarin orange salad very, very dry and straight up, like one of Ed's  martinis.
     "I enjoyed the dinner very much," Eric said as he was leaving.
     "Eric, that was the worst ‑‑ " He held up his hand: "Just say thank you." 
     I knew he was going away for the holidays, so I tried not to take it personally when I didn't hear from him for a week.  But it wouldn't hurt, I decided, to drop him a note and one of my flying articles.  Since he'd done a little flying years ago, this would remind him of how much we had in common.  In my note I asked if he'd permit me to read a book he wrote six years  ago (unpublished) about his research at a rehabilitation center for teenage alcoholics.
     Another couple of days went by while I chewed my knuckles, wore a path in my broadloom, and re‑lived every dumb thing I'd said and done in the great man's presence.  Every time the phone rang I turned up the classical music (Eric liked classical music) and trilled a hello.  It was always anybody but Eric ‑‑ one of my sons, Kathie, Ed calling from Florida, and a couple of times, poor Jack, who must have noticed the trill leaving my voice.
     Then I got a call from Eric.  He thought "Mutiny on the Skyknight" was amusing.  As for my reading his work, he never lets the manuscript out of his apartment, but he'd be happy to have me come over and read it.  I could rest assured that he wasn't dangerous, he hadn't raped anyone in at least five minutes. 
     "Come over at about 6:30, we'll have a drink, and you can tell me as an experienced writer what you think of my book."
      I started out in the rain for the hour's drive to Sharon.  As I pictured it, we'd have a cocktail, I'd read the manuscript for an hour or so, and then Eric would suggest that we go out for dinner.  No other scenario presented itself.   
     The first thirty pages of Eric Swann's book dealt with Eric Swann ‑‑ how he happened to be one of the select group chosen out of three hundred applicants to work on whatever social project he  chose, with all expenses paid for a year.  There were letters of recommendation from colleagues at the university where he is a sociology professor; there were newspaper interviews with pictures of Eric, and there were descriptions by Eric about how Eric felt about all this.     
     "This is fascinating," I murmured.  (He lied about my dinner, remember.)
     The author had been reading over my shoulder and talking continuously, which explains why I got nowhere near my goal of a hundred pages out of seven hundred.
     At eight-thirty, Eric asked if I was hungry.  Hungry?   With all these crackers and all this Wispride cheese?
     "I have some food in my refrigerator," he said.  To prove it, he offered me some carrot sticks.  I knew this was God's way of punishing me for advising Ed to give Claire three carrots.  I also had a pear and some almonds.
     "This is the kind of food I've eaten ever since I was a kid," Eric said.  "I always liked fruit and raw vegetables.  I didn't know they were good for me."
     I reached page fifty at eleven (Eric inserted a bookmark), said a malnourished goodbye, and headed for home.  I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or stop at McDonald's.
     I dined on a peanut butter sandwich in my kitchenette and went to bed.  For the first time since I'd met Mr. Swann, I slept the blissful sleep of the unsmitten.
     Ed, aware of my heavy date, tried to reach me the next day, and finally found me at Kathie's.  How he laughed at my account of my disastrous evening.  "When I couldn't reach you all day, I  was afraid you'd run off with him and I'd never see you again."
     "I promise you I'll never run off with a man who eats carrot sticks."
     "I'm going to look pretty good to you when you get down here next week!" Ed said.
     I told him he looked pretty good already.  Dear familiar, comfortable, practically normal Ed. . . . 
April 1983
     Meeting Mortimer was a stroke of good timing.  Jack called to say he was moving to California, and we agreed to write, but that chapter is clearly finished.  Mortimer is my friend Vivien's uncle, tall, gray, and handsome, and recently widowed.  Vivien sensed that he was lonely and asked us both to lunch.  A week later I invited him to a documentary of New Guinea at Harvard's Science Center.  We flinched companionably over the initiation ceremony for adolescent boys (already we had something in common; we disliked the sight of agony).  Later we shared a pizza at Mortimer's house in Dover.  He told me about the ski lodge he manages in New Hampshire and asked if I'd like to drive up there to see it some time.  I said sure, why not?
     A few days later he called to discuss his plans.  What he had in mind, I learned, was not a round‑ trip excursion but two days and two nights of togetherness, starting on Wednesday.  No strings attached; the cottage had two bedrooms.  I would drive to his house, and off we would go, a couple of strangers, for a mid‑week weekend.  Whatever happened to the little girl whose mother warned her never to talk to strangers?
     "Mortimer," I said, inverting my thoughts, "aren't you taking an awful chance?  You don't know a thing about me."
     "You don't know anything about me, either.  What time would you like to start?"
     "Well, I figure you can't be a homicidal maniac, or Vivien wouldn't have introduced us.  How about one-thirty?"
     "P.M.?  Good grief, woman, what time do you get up in the morning?  I was thinking we'd stop on the way for lunch."
     "That's what I was trying to get you off the hook of," I stammered ungrammatically.  Eleven years with un-hungry Jack had left me unprepared for such an enchanting suggestion.
     "I like to eat! And I'd like to take you to lunch!"
     Chalk up another point for Mortimer.  He doesn't enjoy the sight of agony, he's not a homicidal maniac, and he likes to eat.   How could so many wonderful qualities be combined in one person?
     Mortimer wanted me to arrive in Dover at 8:30.  I said I could make it by 9:30 if I skipped my calisthenics.   His promise that we would do calisthenics together didn't reassure me about this "no strings attached" business.  At the end of our previous date I had stated my views on Dutch treats: if he took me to dinner and a movie, the next time it would be my turn.  Mortimer said he'd go along with this, but the trip to New Hampshire would be on him.  As manager of the ski lodge, he was provided with both a station wagon and an expense account.
     With all these stars appearing in his crown, Mortimer was beginning to look like my savior.  I hoped I wouldn't embarrass him by genuflecting too often.
     "We'll dine out one night," Mortimer was saying on the phone, "and have steak or lobster at the cottage on the other.  Do you like lobster?  Hello?  Hello?  Are you still there?"
    "Yes, I like lobster," I replied faintly.
     "There's something wrong with this connection.  I'll see you Wednesday at 9:30."
      Mortimer was a good driver and a good conversationalist.  In no time at all, it seemed, he was pulling up to a restaurant not far from our destination.
     "Are you hungry?" he asked.
     What a dear, sensitive man!  Yes, I was hungry, I confessed.  We had the house salad, an order of onion rings, and hearty chicken sandwiches heaped with our choice of white or dark meat.   Mortimer chose white, but this was hardly a flaw. Jack Sprat and his wife had no difficulties.
     After Mortimer and I had licked our platters clean, we drove to the lodge.  He pointed out the various buildings and their functions; the sauna, the indoor swimming pool, and the dining room, all of which were closed for the season.
     "Our" cottage had two bedrooms, as advertised, but Mortimer blandly carried our suitcases into the larger one and showed me which bureau drawers to use.  It was time for me to face facts and tell my roommate something that was going to shock him.
     "Mortimer, maybe I should have told you this before, but I have a problem."
     "What's that?" he asked, hanging our coats in the closet.
     "I can't sleep with anyone.  I mean literally.  I can't sleep in the same room with another person."
     "Now that's just nonsense!  We've hardly stepped over the threshold, and here you are, putting roadblocks in the way.   Don't be so negative."
     "Mortimer, I've been an insomniac for years, and I know from experience that the slightest sound or movement keeps me awake.  And then I look awful the next day and feel worse."
     "You're being a defeatist.  You just think you can't sleep.   Wait and see, I'll have you so worn out tonight you'll sleep like a baby."
     My insides gave an excited little jump.  This was what it was all about, wasn't it?  For the first time in eleven years I was going to make love to another man.  Mortimer went into the living room to build a fire while I unpacked.  What would  it be like, I wondered, placing my folded Lanz nightgown in the drawer.   I had tried on half a dozen the night before and finally selected one that was neither too bashfully utilitarian or too brazenly sexy ‑‑ like the sheer red mini laced with black satin ribbons.   I didn't want to scare the man to death.  After all, he was sixty-seven and undoubtedly anxious about his virility.  I was confident I could prove to him that all he needed was a mature, understanding, patient woman.  Yes, I would be gentle.
     I'll skip non‑essential details and get right to the preliminary bout.  A lean, muscular 6 ft 2, Mortimer's hugs were of the boa constrictor variety.  I had to beg him to ease off, as he was crushing my ribs.  Next came that first kiss.   At least I assume it was a kiss.  It felt more like assault and battery.  Mortimer's technique was to jam his mouth against mine and then suddenly jerk our heads sideways.  I had to go along for the ride to avoid whiplash.  He must have picked up his notion of passion from Ramon Navarro's silent movies.  My lips were burning, not with passion but with pain.  I longed to tell Mortimer, if I could retrieve my mouth for a minute, that he was coming on too strong, too fast.  I pried myself from his stranglehold and gasped, "Mortimer, take it easy!"  I rubbed my neck, which felt dislocated.
         Communication is vital, say the experts.  I communicated to Mortimer my credo on kissing.  I told him mouths were important to me.  I liked soft, tender kisses. I stood back and examined his mouth and found nothing wrong with it.  He just didn't know how to use it.
     "Let's try again," I said, "but remember, I break easily."
     We tried again.  This time Mortimer cut down on the pressure but added a new element:  a huge rubbery tongue rammed its way past my teeth and filled my mouth like an inflated balloon.  My cheeks were bulging and so were my eyes, since his nose had blocked my nostrils.  I was suffocating.  To sum up, Mortimer never received my communication on kissing.
     Onward to bed, over which hovered my vision of the experienced woman of the world coaxing to life the latent fires of an aging lover.  That pretty fantasy exploded all over the ceiling when I saw bearing down on me an apparatus that might have looked enticing to a bull's inamorata but scared the hell out of me.  Thank God I hadn't brought the red nightgown.
      Distressing though it was to resort to a cliché, I found myself protesting, "My God, Mortimer, there's no way."
     He was convinced lust would find a way, but it wasn't until he worked himself down to plausible proportions (by thinking of other things, he told me later) that I let him get anywhere near me.  I mean really, where would I find a psychiatrist that dealt with split persons?
     Somehow I survived our coupling, but I can't say I enjoyed the experience.  My mind was already boggling at the thought of a second night with this bull.  I would have given ten lobsters‑‑twenty, even‑‑to be safely at home in my own little condo in my own little bed.  Alone.  Oh, what a beautiful word that can be.
     I did persuade Mortimer that I wouldn't be happy unless I slept in the other room.  First thing in the morning, before I had time to zip out of bed and into my slacks, Mortimer crawled under the covers.  For a while, he pressed himself against my unresponsive body and tried to turn me on by blowing into my ear.   Instead he nearly knocked me out with the odor from his unbrushed teeth.  After he gave up, I lay there trying to think of an excuse to get home before bedtime.    
     Mortimer would have liked to spend the morning necking.  I showed him my mouth, which was blistered and peeling, and asked if we couldn't just hold hands.  Or how about going to the village and getting a couple of books or a newspaper?  We could go for a walk, and then we could sit and read in front of the fireplace.  Wouldn't that be nice?
     "The trouble with you, Barbara," said Mortimer, "is that you treat a couple of days together as if they were just any old days.  The things you're talking about are routine.  I think people should enjoy each other by being close instead of just sitting and reading."
     "Mortimer," I said, "speaking of a couple of days, I have to be home by seven tonight.  I forgot about a long distance call I'm expecting from my father."  A long distance, indeed.  Dad had been dead since 1937.
     Mortimer didn't argue with me, and he left me alone for the rest of the day.  Not literally, because we did go for a walk, and we browsed through a shopping mall.  He wasn't bad company with his clothes on. During the drive home, I told Mortimer I liked him as a friend and maybe we could have dinner together once in a while. . . .   
    

No comments:

Post a Comment