I can't compete with Romeo Malley (as Aliceann's co‑workers call him), but my own soap opera has undergone a change. 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, whose last name, by happy chance, was the same as Claire's. Ed always refers to her as Mrs. Swann, enchanted, I think, by its elegant sound.
"Her name is Claire, why don't you call her Claire?" I say, as irritably as if we were still married. Now that I've met Mr. Swann, however, Ed is going to hear a good deal 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 that I hardly knew what either 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 fifty-eight. 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 say, as we’re saying goodbye outside the restaurant.
"Just ask me over for dinner," he says.
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 twenty, I'd done it hundreds 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 arrives. I’ve done as much as possible ahead of time so that I can be relaxed and gracious when my guest appears. I throw half of my poor dolls in closets and under the bed. Doll collecting seemed like a terrific hobby until I begin picturing Eric's reaction to all those simpering little faces.
I show Eric around, tell him about my grandfather the archaeologist and my mother the poet, and try not to babble too much. Apparently I fail because he finally says, "When are you going to feed me?"
My dinner is unquestionably the worst I ever served. I overcooked both the swordfish and the green beans from Kathie's garden (Eric remarks that it really isn't important to him where they came from, so I know I've been babbling again); the baked stuffed potatoes are barely warm and taste funny—I think the grated cheese was stale— and my guest chooses not to sample my homemade salad dressing, perhaps because he's tasted the baked stuffed potato. He has his bib lettuce and mandarin orange salad very, very dry and straight up, like one of Ed's martinis.
"I enjoyed the dinner very much," Eric says as he’s leaving.
"Eric, that was the worst – " He holds up his hand and says, "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 decide, to drop him a note and one of my flying articles. Since he'd done some flying years ago, this would remind him of how much we had in common. In my note I asked him if he'd permit me to read a book he'd written (unpublished) about his research at a rehabilitation center for teenage alcoholics.
Another couple of days go by while I chew my knuckles, wear a path in my broadloom, and re‑live every dumb thing I'd said and done in the great man's presence. Every time the phone rang I'd turn up the classical music (Eric likes classical music) and trill 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 wouldl 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 raw vegetables and fruit. 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. . . .