|Jan/Feb 2016 Nonfiction|
Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton
November 16, 1996
Dr. Joan wore a light brown sweater, a long skirt made of several layers of black diaphanous material. Her hair was brown, shoulder-length, and several times as she spoke she idly tousled it. Her fingers were slender, pale and elegant, with manicured oval nails, and she had on several ornate, perhaps antique, silver rings. She carried a plaid shawl.
I didn't see her come in. I was writing in my notebook, then happened to look over at the bar. I saw a slender, attractive woman looking in my direction and she mouthed the words: "Are you John?"
I nodded, rose and walked over, shook her hand, gazed into her eyes. Green? Hazel? "Would you care to join me?" I said. She said sure, picked up her glass of red wine and followed me to my table.
It didn't take long to get around to a discussion of music. She said she'd once had a genuine peak experience, one of those unforgettable things that stays with you for the rest of your life. In her twenties, she was a member of the chorus of a symphony orchestra, in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth. She was four feet from the baritone and when he sang those opening phrases...
O Freunde, nicht diese Toene!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere!
...she was overwhelmed by the joined voices, the surge and ebb of oceanic sound, the interweaving layers of meaning of that transcendent work. The conductor, she said, was Eric Leinsdorf, who then was at the end of his career. He led the orchestra not so much with his gestures and the baton, but with his eyes.
I lowered my head, closed my eyes, and felt a slight shiver. Yes, yes, I could feel what she felt then. I knew and loved that music.
"When you said peak experience I thought you were being hyperbolic," I said. "But indeed it must have been."
She asked about my family.
I replied I might be a distant relative of James Joyce, but wasn't sure.
"Is that important to you? Would it help you write better?"
"No, not at all. But on the other hand, it would be nice, wouldn't it?"
I added that my mother's maiden name was indeed Joyce, so there isn't much doubt there is a relationship there somewhere, however distant. Also told her about one of my Irish ancestors who was arrested and convicted of sheep stealing during The Hunger.
"He was transported from Dublin to a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia. After serving out his sentence, he began farming and acquired property. His son grew up and decided to move to America, to get a job on the railroad. That would be my great-great grandfather, Jack."
"How did you come to learn about music?" she asked.
I told her that when I was ten or 11, I was in a grocery store and saw some LP records in a rack, and one seemed intriguing, so on an impulse I slid it under my belt, closed my jacket over it and walked out. Later at home I played it. On one side was Beethoven's Fifth, and the other was Schubert's Eighth. I was enraptured by both, but Beethoven spoke to me, directly. I went to the Belmont Avenue Public Library and read biographies of Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart and the rest. I found a classical music station on my radio, and of course I listened to it daily. Every Saturday afternoon, Milton Cross at the Metropolitan Opera.
"You could say that your Irish ancestors made you steal that record."
"Can one inherit thievery?"
Was I religious?
I replied I wasn't, but then I found chanting a Zen mantra quite useful. I was drawn to the ancient, esoteric concept of Akasa, which says every utterance, every action, every thought is recorded somewhere, and we are held accountable for our actions, and sooner or later we experience the consequences of everything we've done. It's actually comforting, because it means justice exists. There's a great symmetry to it.
"What's your mantra?"
"Om, mani, padme hum. I got it from Peter Mattheison's book, The Snow Leopard."
She looked surprised. "That very book is on my desk at home, seriously overdue at the library."
I laughed. "Spooky!"
"I've been studying Yoga on and off for a while," she said, "and I want to get more into Zen meditation. That's why I'm interested in your experience with it."
She lowered her eyes. "But this is an area where I feel vulnerable."
"Why on earth would you feel that way?"
"It's something I've not done, but ought to have done."
"My critical inner voice."
"Ah, yes. I've got one of those, too."
Building up library fines, she said, was something she inherited from her father. "He was an intellectual, a Communist in Greenwich Village, in those exciting days of political idealism. He knew John Reed, and a bunch of other famous and gifted writers. He also was somewhat of a demanding tyrant."
"He used to summon me to his study and demand that I listen to and comment on his poetry. I struggled to come up with plausible positive things to say. But his stuff was so abstract, opaque."
"Delphic," I suggested.
"Ha! He was hardly an oracle. More like a pompous windbag."
"It also means deliberately obscure or ambiguous."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Webster."
"He loved his Cohibas, a cliché of a Freudian oral fixation. I detested the smell. He wrote a lot of political stuff for The New Masses and other publications. I was 17 when he died."
The waiter stood by our table with a pencil poised over his pad. She questioned him about the ingredients in various items on the menu, and when she made her selection, she wanted it prepared in a way that might perhaps be different from how it's usually prepared. The waiter said that wouldn't be a problem. After I ordered the filet mignon and baked potato, he asked if we would be having desert. She shook her head, and I flipped the plastic-covered pages of the huge menu to the offerings and said I'd have the carrot cake with cream cheese icing.
She smiled. "It doesn't take long for you to make a decision."
"You have absolutely no second thoughts, or are in any way indecisive."
"No. I know exactly what I want, and by god I'll have it. And you?"
"I'm quite particular about certain things. Restaurant orders being one of them. Have you seen When Harry Met Sally? That scene in the restaurant? Well, that's me."
I didn't remember Sally's ordering technique, but her fake orgasm made a permanent impression. Sally's point wasn't that women were great actresses, but rather that men are so easily deceived. Should I say something to Dr. Joan along those lines? Nope. Not a good idea.
She beckoned the waiter and said, "Do you think I will be blessed any time soon with my food?"
He nodded. "Yes, very soon."
I was taken aback by her sarcasm. Does she do this all the time? And if so, why?
Soon the shrimp and pasta and a salad arrived and she asked him to grate the parmesan cheese. He ran the hard pale yellow block over the shiny grater, showering tiny white slivers on the dark green leaves.
Dr. Joan said she'd once studied flute and hung around musicians who were at Julliard, and she always knew that they and she were not alike. They loved all the practice and studying, but she didn't. She lacked the passion and commitment they had for music.
She asked if I had liked being married, and I said yes, I did, very much so, even though it didn't end well. The first two of three years were absolutely splendid, however. No regrets.
"So what did you learn from the experience?"
"I've come to understand that wanting something is having as much of it as you'll ever have."
She wanted me to repeat the phrase, and I did. But she appeared puzzled, still not quite grasping my meaning.
"You did graduate work in History?"
"Yes," she said. "But I was told I wouldn't be invited to pursue a doctorate."
"They claimed my thesis was poorly written. Deficient in technique. Not the way history is usually written. I knew damned well how to write history properly, but at the time I didn't want to do it that way."
I laughed. "Good for you!"
We fell silent.
"So what are you thinking about now?" she asked.
"Your experience with Beethoven's Ninth. You know I'll have to steal that anecdote and put it into one of my short stories."
The waiter appeared.
She looked up at him. "Did you know this man just said he would steal something from me? What do you think about that?"
And I interjected, "Well, I've told her of my intent, so that makes it all right."
The waiter turned to her and said, "At least now you know what's coming. It won't be a big surprise."
November 17, 1996
During dinner I inspected Dr. Joan closely. I thought then, and still think, she would not be a disappointment disrobed. Of course I feel this way.
I'm not as decisive as I made myself out to be when I so quickly decided on the carrot cake. Lifelong ADHD still sometimes puts me into a state of stuttering confusion. Over the years I've learned to get around it, disguise it. Working hard to hide my flaws is perfectly normal. No question she was doing the same.
Regarding her sarcastic jab toward the waiter, obviously she felt it wasn't something to be ashamed of. And she may have had a point. We'd waited long enough for the arrival of our order, after all, and she wasn't afraid to directly address it. Me? Conflict averse, I would have just fumed silently. Of the two responses, which is more indicative of mental health? Don't answer that.
As for my inheriting thievery from Irish ancestors, starvation drove my great-great-great grandfather, nothing else. But then wasn't I always hungry for what classical music invariably provided me? Seems like I just can't get enough of it.
I wish I hadn't told her I'd steal her Beethoven's Ninth anecdote. It just confirmed her ridiculous notion of my inheriting thievery. Thieves are serial offenders. Have I stolen anything, large or small, in the past few decades? Nope.
November 19, 1996
I called, asked what she was doing.
"I've bought a ton of roses and I'm putting them in vases all over the place."
"So shall we meet on Sunday as planned?"
"Yes, that would be VERY nice."
Her reply was quick enough to convince me she really meant it. The plan was to first meet at a place called Anthropology, an up-scale antique shop, on Lexington near 101st, that had loads of interesting stuff, including jewelry. Then we'd have dinner at a restaurant within walking distance, one that her mother had strongly recommended.
"You collect jewelry?"
"Oh, yes," she said. “Maybe you could buy me some."
I paused, somewhat puzzled by her unexpected suggestion, but I managed a laugh. "We could start with the least expensive, and gradually work our way up."
"Or, you could tell me what you imagine you'd buy for me."
"Perfect," I said. "I write fiction."
At Anthropology I was precisely on time, and she stepped out of a cab a minute later, which pleased me. But unlike her openness and warmth at the bistro and then during our telephone conversation, she now seemed distant. Aloof. She walked the aisles of the store ahead of me, as if we weren't together, and it was awkward following her, watching her inspect an old oil lamp, pretending that everything was perfectly normal.
Her cool distance continued at the restaurant. To my questions she gave short answers and seemed reluctant to meet my gaze. I wondered if I'd said or done something to annoy her. Only after we finished dinner and sipped coffee did the temperature start to warm up.
We touched on the subject of psychotherapy, and I said, "Did you know Anna Freud is reported to have said that she and her father believed writers and psychoanalysts were in the same business?"
"No, but it's probably true," she replied.
"Anna was referring to Tolstoy. How profoundly deep he got in the portrayal of his characters, as well as the objects they gathered around themselves."
"So, Mr. Writer, what do you make of my fascination for antique jewelry?"
I smiled. "What do you make of it?"
Surprisingly, Dr. Joan seemed eager to share. She was terribly embarrassed to admit that very recently she bought herself a necklace for $950. She'd told the owner at Anthropology she didn't want to put the item on her American Express, but rather would pay for it by check. Furthermore, she insisted that under no circumstances was he to ever mention this purchase to her mother, also a long-time customer, because if he did she'd deny it.
"Why would your mother disapprove?"
"I'm not sure she actually would, but then maybe she might, and that would lead to conflict and unpleasantness. I work hard to avoid conflict, but sometimes she can really be the bitch, and there's nothing I can do that pleases her."
Dr. Joan added that she'd decided it was time to indulge herself in such extravagances, because middle age was rapidly descending upon her, and if she doesn't do it now, then when?
"And of course there's the fact that no important man in my life has ever given me jewelry. And that's perhaps why I suggested you might buy me some. I admit it was, uh, a bit over the top because we hardly know each other."
I thought for a moment. "From my point of view, it was pleasant."
"Yes. Because it was more of a 'come here' than a 'go away.'"
She smiled. "Usually I'm totally defensive and am quick to send vibes that give men the feeling I'm unavailable."
"Yes, I see that. Seriousness and intellectuality are good ways of keeping others at a distance. I do it. You do it. Maybe we're doing it to each other right now."
"Nevertheless you've learned a lot of private things about me in only two dates. And I'm wondering if you've revealed to me as much as I've revealed to you?"
"I've not refused to answer any of your questions."
More revelations from her followed. I took careful mental notes.
She said all the important lovers in her life, as opposed to the merely casual, were—guess what?—photographers. Her brother spent a lot of time taking pictures of her with no film in his camera. He didn't want to waste film on his goddamn SISTER, but he thought going through the motions was good practice.
"Pictures of me are rarely flattering," she said.
"I'll take that as a challenge," I replied.
"Some of the men in my past were incapable of giving. Or receiving. But then there was one who was suffocating in his pursuit. He kept sending me red roses. And I hate red roses."
I pondered that for a second or two. "But on the phone you said you bought a lot of roses and were putting them in vases."
"Oh, those were yellow roses."
Later she gazed into my eyes intently. "Do you find me intimidating?"
I grinned. "I'm way too arrogant for that. And besides, I'm drawn to acutely intelligent women."
"Like your ex-wife?"
"Yes, but I hope you're not like her." I paused, shook my head. "That was a very stupid thing to say. I'm sorry."
"No, it's all right. You've piqued my curiosity. Tell me what you meant by it."
I explained that when I met Elizabeth, she was still reeling from a dreadful experience with a man who—huge surprise—turned out to be a sociopath. He spent a year being the perfect partner, always considerate, always leaving loving notes to her, and so on, and then one morning he calmly announced that they were now in what he called an open relationship. He informed her he was leaving in a few days for an Anarchist convention in Paris, and he'd be going with a young girl he'd just taken up with. Elizabeth could either accept this, or not. It didn't matter to him either way. Her wounds were still fresh when she and I met. And even after we were married, this sociopath seemed to be standing at the foot of our bed, grinning. She couldn't shake him.
"It was traumatic realizing that she could no longer trust her gut instincts, her intuition. She'd never been so wrong before, so it meant such a horrid betrayal could happen again."
"Don't worry, there are no ex-lovers of mine hovering nearby," she said. "But I do have a few stray ghosts."
"Ghosts are okay," I said.
November 25, 1996
We began with "The English Patient" at Lowe's on Broadway near 86th Street, and then took a cab to her brownstone home and office, where she called for a large pizza with anchovies. She put on Gould's Goldberg Variations, and I inspected her brightly lit living room. Three woodcuts on what looked to be hand-made paper, of three different views of a peddler's cart, one of them signed by a man named Solomon and marked "artist's proof." Near the door, a portrait in profile of a wigged figure who resembled Mozart. On the top of a low bookcase four or five oil lamps, authentic ancient Roman artifacts she'd bought on a visit to Milan.
On a shelf was a collection of framed photos. I bent down to get a better look. I was startled to see Joan playing a flute, alongside a blonde woman who bowed a cello. Both of them were wholly naked, with foliage as a backdrop. Joan's breasts were wonderfully ample, and her bare right foot was caught in an up-beat.
"We were actually playing when that photo was taken," she said.
I didn't ask if the photographer was one of her ex-lovers.
I turned to an 11 x 14 family portrait. Gray-haired father, a strikingly handsome man with wire-rimmed glasses and a moustache, a pure bred aristocrat, erect in bearing, a little starburst of light on his glasses. Her smiling mother next to an intense Joan, and at far right a somewhat uncomfortable, self-conscious brother with a small hole in the sleeve of his sweater.
"A family of the '60s," she said.
Another was of a dozen little girls in a ballet class. "Which one is you?" I asked.
She invited me to try to identify her among the others. I put on my glasses and peered at each small face, looking for the demeanor most intense, the most serious. I pointed.
"Verrrry good!" she said.
From time to time her phone rang, and she went into the dining room to answer. Some of them, she said, were desperately needy patients, some were colleagues, or friends. Finally, thank god, she turned that damned phone off.
We settled on the couch near the burning fragrant logs of the fireplace. As Gould continued to grunt through the variations, Joan's slim elegant fingers explored my face, my neck, and slid across my forehead gently, and then went slowly through my hair from front to back. I closed my eyes. She ran the back of her hand across my lips, then pressed firmly against my mouth, and I bit gently, and she presented her fingers one after another, and I continued to bite gently each in turn. I opened my eyes. Her face appeared in my astigmatic blur; she serenely regarded me with lidded eyes. She resumed running her fingers through my hair, gently across my scalp, and those languid, fluid motions seemed like those of a sorceress, a magician.
"I could hypnotize you," she said.
Then slowly she whispered: "Diamond. Stud. Earrings."
November 28, 1996
The weather was surprisingly mild so we met at Strawberry Fields in Central Park and sat on a bench near the John Lennon memorial, a circular mosaic modeled after one unearthed in Pompeii, a gift to New York from the people of Naples, Italy. We had still another extended, intense conversation. The men in her life, she said, simply were not gift-givers; it didn't occur to them she'd love to get presents. That was my cue. I'd show her that for sure I wasn't anything like those thoughtless dummies.
The first was a CD of the Diabelli Variations. To accompany it, I made a tape recording of my reading excerpts from Maynard Solomon's analysis of that transcendent work. I remembered her saying she was more of a listener than a reader, that's how she learned and comprehended best.
The second was a matted and framed enlargement of my shot of a gibbous moon, taken with a tripod-mounted $5,000 Sigma 500 mm f/4.5 telephoto lens I rented from B&H, the big photo equipment store in lower Manhattan. In the darkroom I superimposed a figure eight on the moon's silvery surface. Why? Because she'd earlier described how much she loved skating at night at Wollman rink. One day she imagined herself doing a figure eight, envisioning all the movements, the shifting of weight, the kinesthetic sense of it, and then when she went out there on the ice, she executed it exactly as she had visualized it. Above her in the night sky, of course, was a gibbous moon.
She accepted the first one with a smile. And, later, the second one with a slight frown.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I'm not used to this kind of thoughtfulness," she said. "I'm having a neurotic reaction."
"Don't worry," I said. "We'll get past that. And the fear as well."
That was me, boldly pretending to be a swinging dick in the jungle, not afraid to take the initiative. And her smile told me she was open to my testosterone-driven behavior, actually expected it. She seemed to be saying, Let's do this the old fashioned way. In the romance dance, a guy always should lead.
At her place she handed me a gift-wrapped CD. It was "Officium," an album by Norwegian tenor-saxophonist Jan Garbarek, accompanied by The Hilliard Ensemble. It was, she said, recorded at the monastery of Propstei St. Gerold, in Austria.
"Would you like to hear it now?"
I was prepared to like it. A lot. But Garbarek's sax was a reverberating atonality. His riffs were incoherent, a gloomy echoing in a vast edifice that was erected to strike awe in the minds of the ignorant, malleable masses.
The chorus entered:
Parce mihi Domine, nihil enim sunt dies mei.
Quid est homo, quia magnificas eum?
I looked at the liner notes. The translation:
Spare me, O Lord, for my days are nothing.
What is a man that thou shouldst magnify him?
What disgusting religious balderdash!
"You don't like it," she said.
I paused. "It takes three, four hearings for a new piece of music to yield to me, or I to it."
"My first reaction doesn't mean I won't come to love it over time."
She looked skeptical. Of course I was lying.
I thought it odd we were, in effect, engaged in a ritual of comparing tastes. I like this. Do you? No? Does that mean our relationship is doomed from the start? Is it necessary for both of us to like something?
But beyond that I couldn't help but think her understanding of music was limited, or deficient. Evidence? Earlier she'd made it clear she wasn't like the Julliard students she hung around with at Columbia. They had genuine passion for music, and found extended, laborious study and practice enjoyable, whereas she never did.
Her second present was "The Immense Journey," by Loren Eiseley, published in 1946, a collection of writings purportedly outlining the history of humanity. The flap copy said when first published it sold more than a million copies, and was translated into 16 languages.
I slogged through it. Like my reaction to the tenor sax guy, I was totally turned off. It was a leaden, endless, opaque, pseudo-scientific rambling. I read along, hoping it would elicit my admiration or understanding, but pretty soon I concluded it merely was something Eisely promised, but never delivered.
Only one of his sentences seemed reasonably insightful: "On the world island we are all castaways, so that what is seen by one may often be dark or obscure to another."
I wondered: who was projecting darkness and obscurity in this courtship, she or I?
December 1, 1996
On still another date, Dr. Joan described being called a few years ago by Todd, a fellow therapist. He was excited. Nearly manic. "You've got to drop everything right NOW," he'd said. "You've got to get on a plane immediately, because I want you to help me facilitate a group in the wilderness of Canada, a vision quest, part of an Outward Bound type of program."
Of course she had to accept because she respected this driven, intense man. He was a natural born guide, mentor. And the whole thing turned out to be among the most profound experiences of her life. In the Canadian forest were intense lectures, sweat lodges, fasting, going out for 36 hours of meditation and seeking a personal vision.
In the darkness at three in the morning, she became frightened. And Todd offered her his sacred pipe. He said it would help her, keep her from harm. She accepted it, and that acceptance led to a profound earth-shaking transformation. For the first time in her life, she allowed herself to be vulnerable, to yield, to trust in the pipe offered by a man she admired and trusted.
"What kind of pipe was it?" I asked. "Like the ones Native Americans used?"
"I suppose so."
"Did it have a long stem?"
"A bowl made of wood, or clay perhaps? Were feathers attached?"
"I don't remember those details," she said. "But I'm wondering why you're interrogating me so relentlessly. Why is it so important for you to know what it looked like?"
I hurriedly explained that I sought those details so as to be able to locate a similar pipe, perhaps at the Natural History Museum or elsewhere. "I thought taking a high resolution photo of it, and framing it, would be a nice gift for you."
It was hard to interpret the look on her face, or to discern the meaning of her single-word reply. Was she disappointed that I was driven by an honorable motive? Or did she believe my repeated questioning of her was a disturbing replay of her father's relentless emotional batterings?
December 4, 1996
She dragged me to Yefsi Estiatorio, an Athenian-style eatery on York Avenue near 79th St. We were directed to a table along a wall, but Joan said she would rather sit over by the window, and so we did. As we talked I occasionally looked out at the storefronts and the people walking by, most of them bright, young, energetic, well dressed. The waiter was a tall, swarthy man in black jeans and a partly unbuttoned white shirt, convincingly Mediterranean. He spoke with a thick Greek accent.
I had avgolemono, which the menu described as traditional Greek chicken soup, and a big plate of fried calamari. She ordered psarokeftedes, a mixture of cod and shrimp.
She spoke of the upcoming eight-day-long Hanukkah bash at her parents' house, a yearly ritual she was obliged to attend.
"I'm always uncomfortable being among all those people," she said. "The adults yapping away endlessly, the kids playing with a dreidel, the lighting a candle on the menorah. How about you? Did you enjoy Christmas?"
I replied that such holidays were for others, not for me. After the death of my grandmother when I was six or seven, I was left to myself in an empty house, in the care of a couple of ignorant, abusive drunks, my father and his brother.
Joan's face showed concern, pity. A reaction I was quite accustomed to. "Oh, that sounds awful," she said.
"No, I actually came to enjoy being alone. Solitude for me is a perfectly natural state."
"But what about your mother? Where was she?"
"She left me in the care of my grandmother when I was a year old."
"I can't imagine growing up without a mother. It must have been terribly painful and traumatic."
I shook my head. "Not as much as you might think. You can't miss something you've never had."
"Denial ain't a river in Egypt," she said, smiling.
"Okay, that very well may be, but I'm not aware of it. And of course that's the whole point of denial, isn't it?"
"So tell me more about Elizabeth," she said. "What drew you to her?"
Joan's continued interest in the women of my past seemed odd. Probably because I had absolutely no desire to hear anything about the men in HER past.
"Well, I admired that she worked her way through graduate school in England by singing and playing guitar in pubs. Her thesis was on Mary Ann Evans, the English novelist of the Victorian era, whose nom de plume was George Eliot."
"She seduced you with music."
"To an extent, yes. She had a beautiful voice and she was quite adept with the guitar. Except for the anomaly of one of her chord progressions, which was clearly off. I wasn't alone in the criticism. Her brother—a working musician—had exactly the same complaint."
"She told both of us to fuck off."
"What, besides her inability to forget her sociopath, do you think caused the breakup?"
"I asked Elizabeth the same question. She replied there were a hundred reasons. I said, wow, a hundred? Okay, she replied, let's say fifty."
"She came up with a great line. To her, she said, I represented the tyranny of the easily offended."
"Are you easily offended?"
"Sometimes. I'm working on being more tolerant."
I told Joan that in the first months of our marriage, Elizabeth insisted that I read two books, "The Stations of Solitude" and "An Unknown Woman" by the philosopher Alice Koller. These books, she said, would give me an insight to the anguish she felt after being betrayed. I read both carefully, and found them absolutely marvelous. I was captivated. So much so that I wrote a long letter of appreciation and sent it to Alice in care of her publisher.
"Two weeks later I picked up the phone. To my astonishment it was her. She wanted to thank me for my appreciative letter. We got into an intense discussion, which lasted all of two hours."
"Sounds interesting," Joan said.
"It was indeed. Afterward, I expected Elizabeth would be eager to hear details about that unexpected interchange. But she stood, arms crossed, staring at me, with a big crease between her eyebrows. I asked her what's wrong.
"What's wrong, she said, is that I'M the one who should have written that letter. I'm the one who should have been talking to Alice Koller for two hours on the goddamned telephone.'"
"Oh, my!" Joan said.
"I was stupefied. I didn't know what to say. Elizabeth turned and walked out of the room. "
When we finished dinner we were in the mood for an obscenely high calorie desert, so we ordered yiaourtopita, a yogurt cake soaked in a sugary syrup, and ellinikos kafes, a rich foamy caffeine-laden espresso.
"So what did you and Alice talk about, if I may ask."
I paused, gave the question some thought.
"I told Alice while I loved her work, there was one small passage in 'An Unknown Woman' that deeply troubled me. Of course after all this time, I can't quote it exactly, but it was more or less the idea that Alice suddenly realized that her being drawn to a man was the best reason of all for never seeing him again."
"Because the things about men that drew her were things she no longer needed. At the same time, she was unable to accept the end of any romantic relationship. She always went back to these guys, no matter how bad they were."
"Ah," Joan said. "I see. As Elizabeth couldn't shake her sociopath."
"Exactly. But then Alice told me to relax. She'd written that book ten years earlier, and no longer felt that way. Furthermore, she was sure Elizabeth wouldn't leave me. Nevertheless, I was deeply skeptical, and it soon turned out I was right and Alice was wrong."
December 8, 1996
Exactly eight days shy of a year since my last sex with Elizabeth, Joan and I became lovers. It occurred last night, in her bed, near a window covered by a lace curtain, beneath a huge engraving of the city of Venice, with its familiar campanile, duomo, and gondolas. Beside the bed was a night stand, holding another exquisitely detailed steel-framed photo of her father, this one showing him gesturing with both hands, caught in mid-sentence, perhaps during an intellectual disquisition in the editorial office of The New Masses.
The next morning, with sun illuminating the lace curtain, I said something to the effect that I hoped this meant we were beginning an exclusive romantic relationship. To my surprise she frowned and quickly replied THAT sounded too much like a pronouncement, and such pronouncements always trigger in her the wrong kind of attitude, which of course takes her out of the moment.
"I need to continue to explore," she said, "which is to say I really am seeking a best friend and lover, BUT at this early stage, I just can't be sure you are that person."
Uh-oh! Faint, distant echoes of Elizabeth. My grandmother. My mother. Here we go again.
"You actually might be, to be sure," she continued, "but then tomorrow I might meet a man named Tom, or Joe, or Sam. And HE might be the man truly destined to be my best friend and lover."
I remained silent as she went on. And on.
"If I were to honor your obvious need for some sort of contract or commitment, well, I'd quickly become overly critical of the relationship, I'd be testing it constantly to see if I had chosen correctly. And I don't want to do that. Even though I fully understand your fears about being hurt again."
I said nothing.
"The reality is," she said, "that no guarantees can ever be made."
I rubbed my face with both hands, trying to think of an appropriate response. Telling her that lapsing into the passive voice diluted the power of her words would, I knew, make a bad situation worse.
"Despite all that," she said quietly, "I suppose by definition we are indeed lovers. Also, you needn't worry. I'm not sexually involved with any other man. And I'd like to continue to explore. To learn more about who you are."
I rose in the bed to a sitting position, adjusted the pillow behind me. "You could have said all of that in four words."
"Go away. Come here."
Her eyes widened slightly, her lips parted.
"You're an expert at distancing," I said, "and I like to think I'm good at dealing with it. I imagine a Cary Grant movie where he gets the cold shoulder from a woman, then with his enormous grace and charm and humor he finds a way to get past it."
Joan smiled. "Yes, if you did that, it would work beautifully. Also you could gently bite my fingers, as you did before. That always has a powerful erotic effect on me."
December 10, 1996
After intense and juicy sex, we had another long talk. Which somehow came around to Todd. She felt compelled to leap out of bed, put on a robe, rummage in a drawer, and bring a stack of photos.
Todd. White hair, white beard. His big, muscular arm around her shoulder, up there in the Canadian wilderness, where he guided vision quests, and she at his side. Yes, Todd is the one who gave her his sacred pipe, which transformed her.
An absolutely brilliant, fascinating and powerful and highly educated and dynamic and intriguing man, a great friend, who is a broadly experienced maverick, a cowboy in spirit and appearance and manner, who has amazing energy and vitality and dynamism and charisma, as well as a most penetrating analytical intelligence, who organizes hundreds and hundreds of consulting workshops and brainstorming sessions, during which, as his close associate, she often feels inadequate.
"You wouldn't believe the energy that radiates from him!" Joan said.
She described how it is when Todd springs into action on one of their thrice-yearly consulting gigs in Philadelphia or Washington. At six a.m. he awakens her, summons her to his hotel room and he fixes her with his intense, blue-eyed gaze. As he speaks, he snaps his fingers.
"Here are the problems, a, b, c, d. So where is your framework, what is your structure, what are your postulated solutions, where are your specific implementation methodologies? What are the components, what are the elements?"
Snap, snap, snap, snap.
And Joan at 6:30 a.m. blinks and feels girlishly incompetent yet somehow she hangs in there and eventually produces what Todd wants, and Todd is serene in his pleasure at a job well done under his charismatic leadership.
On and on.
"All right, I get it," I said, trying hard to disguise my burning jealousy. "Your colleague Todd is brilliant. But why don't we get back to us."
"What about us?"
"If I ask you when we'll meet next, you'll get pissed."
"We've just had sex, for god's sake. Isn't that enough for you?"
"Is it a crime to want to have more, either tomorrow, the day after, or next week?"
"No. But it feels like you're putting too much responsibility on me."
"Bullshit. I want to see you again."
"I certainly hope so," she said, with just a touch of righteous indignation.
"All right, tell me, WHEN? Making plans, setting a day and time for another meeting, is an essential part of a romantic involvement. Which you seem hell-bent on avoiding. Your distancing borders on the pathological. "
She lowered her eyes. Then looked up. "My god, you are even more of a process junkie than I am."
"Don't change the subject. When?"
"OK, let me see." She got up, found her day planner. She squinted as she flipped the pages. "I'm free next Thursday."
"Fine. What time?"
"Seven. No, make it seven-thirty."
December 13, 1996
Our third sexual encounter was as intense and splendid as the previous two. She expertly brought me to a delirious orgasm, and half an hour later I managed to return the favor. I had absolutely no complaints. No question we were sexually compatible.
We awoke at six-thirty. She informed me that during the night a window-rattling and ear-shattering thunder and lightning storm had occurred, yet I remained blissfully asleep all through it. A couple times she thought of waking me up so I could experience the dramatic natural violence out there in the darkness, beyond the warmth of that room.
I asked her when she wanted me to leave, and she replied that her first patient was scheduled for nine, so eight-thirty would give her time to prepare. Meanwhile we could have a nice talk.
Joan quizzed me about Elizabeth. How did the breakup occur? Did you leave her, or did she leave you? Before I answered, I asked her if my talking about how I felt about my soon-to-be-ex-wife made her uncomfortable.
"Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't," she replied. "But at the moment I'm curious, so you may speak freely."
All right. Two and a half years into our marriage, Elizabeth was clearly still under the spell of the sociopath, and she seemed to be moving further and further away from me—her husband for Christ's sake!—and I resented it. I had been keeping my vow to love, honor, and nurture, but she sure as hell wasn't keeping hers. I suggested we go to marriage counseling. She said okay. Over the course of four or five sessions I said this, Elizabeth said that. At the end the therapist, a woman, told me not to worry. "Just look where Elizabeth's feet are pointing." By that I presumed she meant Elizabeth had agreed to marry me, after all, and weren't we still married? "So relax, John, she'll eventually get over it."
Six months later things had gotten even worse. Elizabeth said maybe we should go back to the counselor.
"For what?" I asked. "To preserve the marriage, or to ease its dissolution?"
She didn't hesitate. "The latter."
"I don't need a counselor for that," I said. "When do you want me out?"
"How about a month from now? That'll give you plenty of time to find another place, and to move your stuff."
Joan said I had handled that intensely difficult situation rather well. I said thank you. Of course I didn't mention how that whole sorry thing had ripped out my heart and I nearly bled to death. In that last month I couldn't stop thinking that she'd change her mind, and say, hey listen, let's try to make this work. But she was stone-cold determined, and was visibly relieved when I finally said my last good bye.
Turning to the subject of us and our evolving relationship, Joan said she had solemnly promised herself this time around she would do everything differently. Because the way she used to do things—either pursuing someone or being the object of pursuit—never worked.
"It's time for a major change," she said. She didn't provide specifics, and I didn't ask for any, because I'd find out soon enough.
At eight-fifteen I was about to get up, but she ran her hand softly over my flat belly. She continued gently caressing me until my cock stiffened, rose, became fully erect. I kept my eyes closed, enjoyed the sensation, thrust upward to her touch.
"I'm getting you all excited right before I ask you to leave."
"That's okay," I said.
I thought: Christ, here's still more of her crazy-making ambivalence. The big question is whether this bullshit comes from nurture, or nature. Did she inherit this manipulative, controlling behavior from dear old dad? Or did one of her ex-lovers mess up her mind? She's terrified of entanglement, commitment. She denies she wants control or power, yet here she is, using it. Or I should say, MIS-using it.
And no mistake, this was a test. She wanted to see how I handled sexual frustration. She expected I'd get angry at her ridiculous and blatant cock-teasing, but no. Absolutely not. I'd surprise her. I'd pretend nothing was amiss.
I got up, calmly put on my clothes. She remained in bed, watching me. And this time I didn't ask her when we might meet again. I smiled and said, "Bye!" and headed for the door.
"Fuck you," I whispered when I got outside.
December 16, 1996
I thought about it for a while and decided there wasn't any point holding a grudge. She likely hadn't had any evil intent and was just being playful, or merely thoughtless, so I put it out of my mind. I called and suggested we go to a movie.
"Sure," she replied. "I hear 'Ransom' is pretty good."
I said fine.
Afterward at her place we talked about it. I was surprised by her vehement reaction to what I thought was merely another run-of-the-mill crime drama with a lot gun-play, bloodshed, and over-acting by Mel Gibson.
"No, no, NO," she insisted, "it's all about the glorification of bloody violence. Which seems to be all over the place lately. In movies, on TV, in video games. And that ever increasing torrent of violence making more and more people, especially children, violent themselves."
"But media doesn't make people violent," I said. "There's no causal relationship."
"What?" she said, eyes flashing. "How on earth can you say something as absurd as that?"
I was taken aback by her anger. It was just a movie, after all. I calmly answered.
"Since Edison and the Lumiere brothers invented movies, countless academic and governmental studies have been done, and each time the conclusion is the same. Either there is no effect, or the effect can't be measured."
"That's not true," she quickly shot back. "Movie makers are in collusion with that part of society that initiates it. It's perfectly obvious."
"What you've just said SEEMS self-evidently true, but nevertheless no one has been able to demonstrate that any causality exists, therefore in the absence of proof your assertion remains unsupported."
"I don't believe it. How did you come by that information, anyway?"
I paused a few beats to maintain my composure.
"From a journalism class in mass communications, at Moravian. A private liberal arts college north of Philadelphia. Which by the way was ranked by US & World Report as being among the 100 best educational institutions in America. "
"Maybe things have changed since then."
"I got my degree only ten years ago, when I was 40. AFTER a 20-year career as a magazine editor, photographer, and journalist."
Her phone rang. She rose, hurried to the dining room. I sat stewing, as she chattered away to one of her friends. How in hell had we gotten to this point? And why was a woman with her educational background and obvious intellectual ability talking and acting like an ignorant teenager? Ridiculous.
Finally she hung up and returned.
"You know," I said, "if you were to tell me something related to psychotherapy that seemed to me unlikely, I'd nevertheless hold my tongue and defer to your expertise for the time being. But obviously you aren't willing to defer to mine. Why?"
"I think it would be a good idea if we'd change the subject," she said.
Fine, I thought. Whatever you say, dear.
The topic she picked for a continuation of our discussion on her plush white couch, positioned near a nice roaring fireplace, with Vivaldi playing in the background, was her father, and her complex, troubled relationship with that brilliant, dynamic man.
A perfect subject for two wild-eyed process junkies.
She returned to a familiar, recurring theme: Her father summoning her to his study and reading aloud to her one of his poems. He expected, demanded, that she make appropriate literary comments. And she did indeed reply with appropriate references to metaphor, simile, and rhyme scheme, as well as structure, allusion, symbol, metaphysical implication, emotional content, meter, rhythm, musicality.
She said: "Back then I thought, but never could say to him: 'Jesus Christ, Dad, why don't you talk with me about ice skating or something like that? I want to be a ten year old little girl and just talk to my daddy, I don't want to have to read your damned obtuse poetry to connect with you.'"
She paused. "Yet at the same time I adored that my father was a poet, that side of him."
Inwardly I groaned. The other day I had called her, and got her answering machine. At the beep, I recited Emily Dickinson, which I thought she'd find amusing:
My river runs to thee—
Blue sea! Wilt welcome me?
My River waits reply—
Oh Sea—look graciously—
I'll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks—
"I wish you had told me about your aversion to poetry recitation earlier," I said.
"No, don't worry," she said. "When I got that poem, I was in the middle of a day with a million things going on, and I thought, oh, how sweet of John to send me that! And how like my father! But then I'm really not sure I want to hear poems. I would much prefer that you tell me that you went running at dawn, and saw Canada geese flying over Central Park, and that you had a good day."
She went on. And on.
"I need to be clear about myself," she said, "to speak to you directly about who I really am, so as to remain in the moment, not somewhere else where I don't need to be anymore. And another really important thing you must understand and accept about me is that I'm not an intellectual. Really, I'm not."
I shook my head. "But you have a masters in history from Columbia, and a Ph.D. in Psycho-Educational Processes from Temple."
"Listen. I grew up having to always appear to have the mental capacity and interests that were expected of me. By my father, and brother, and by all those brilliant and famous people who drifted in and out of our family sphere. So of necessity I've developed the skill of simulating interest in things I don't really care about."
"Your way of distancing?" I said.
"Precisely. I employ that tactic to mask who I really am."
"And why do you do that?'
"Because I'm terrified that if anyone discovers the real truth about me, well, they won't like me at ALL."
"That's utterly fascinating, and utterly false," I said.
She laughed. "I'm so glad you feel that way. And I can't tell you how many buttons you're pushing in this conversation. Maybe we should change the subject again."
"All right," I said. "Why don't we talk about sex?"
She laughed again. "Excellent suggestion. Now, take off your clothes."
December 17, 1996
I hopped on the Seventh Avenue IRT, got out at 42nd Street, and walked east cross- town to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. I got some help from the reference librarian, and began reading about The New Masses. I skimmed through a listing of the editorial staff. The names Hugo Gellert, John Sloan, and Mike Gold were unfamiliar to me. Max Eastman and Granville Hicks rang a faint bell.
But there, among these guys, was Joan's father. A short bio blurb said that in addition to editing, he wrote political commentary, as well as poetry. Among many other contributors was an array of literary luminaries: William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O'Neill, Rex Stout and even Ernest Hemingway.
Jesus! I could imagine some of these brilliant writers at the dinner table at Joan's house, and the intense booze-fueled conversations that must have taken place. And I wondered how I—as a teenager—would have reacted being in there in Joan's place. Would I have been comfortable and talkative in that situation?
"Oh, Mr. Hemingway, I just loved 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place'!"
Those guests were charismatic and powerful personalities. No question I would have been as intimidated and tongue-tied as Joan almost certainly was. What an effort she must have exerted to live up to her father's expectations. And god damn that self-absorbed asshole of a father for failing to see the agony he was putting her through.
December 18, 1996
In another of our intense living room discussions by the fire, she used the term "strategic," which immediately resonated, inasmuch as when I was a lad in the '60s I served four years with Strategic Air Command Intelligence at Amarillo Air Force Base. She explained that my gradually coming to understand her needs and fears would be for me a strategic advantage. Which I presume meant she was giving me information that would help me finally get what I'd desperately been seeking all my adult life.
At the same time, she said, it was fascinating that I—despite my intense desire not to do so—was once again pursuing a woman who is unavailable. No question I'm locked in an endlessly repeating pattern of longing for something I can never have. Like, a woman who won't abandon me.
"You know I'm unavailable," she said.
"But then at the same time," I replied, "you keep telling me you're interested in exploring a relationship."
"True. Here we are, side by side."
Ha! That was her "come here" thing. Which she immediately followed with a riff that amounted to "go away."
She launched into an exposition about Victor, a "body therapist," who had huge hands and a weight lifter's physique. She described luxuriating in a weekly full hour of deep massage in a dark room with candles, the scent of eucalyptus oil, and New Age music on the stereo.
"Oh, it's so very relaxing," she said. "But more than that, it's metaphysical. Like being transported to a different plane of existence."
I kept myself from laughing out loud. Metaphysical? How about horny? Wouldn't that be a more precise description? Of course it would. But I didn't say that. I may be crazy, but I ain't stupid. I worked hard to tamp down my burning jealousy of Mr. Big Hands.
Then this: "Well, maybe what we're doing in this still-emerging relationship is practicing for something better to come."
I thought: You have got to be kidding!
"But then," she continued, I hope the next time we see each other I won't be distant."
"But if you are, I'll say, 'JU-dy, JU-dy, JU-dy' in the voice of Cary Grant."
She laughed. "That might work."
After poking the logs in the fireplace she walked over to the bookshelf, pulled out a slim volume. "Have you, by any chance, ever heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator?"
I paused. "Actually, yes, I have."
"Yes. When I was a suit in Corporate America, the entire DuPont Public Relations Department was obliged to fill out the questionnaire, and we all got our four-letter designation."
"Fabulous. So what's yours? Do you remember it?"
She flipped the pages. "Okay. INFJs are gentle, caring, complex and highly intuitive individuals. Artistic and creative, they live in a world of hidden meanings and possibilities. Only one percent of the population has this personality, making it the most rare of all the types."
"I think I'm more like medium rare."
"They are intelligent. Opinionated and outspoken, convinced they're right and the rest of the world is out of step."
"Usually the eldest or only child. They're aware from the beginning that they're different. Possessed of a mischievous sense of humor."
"More like sick humor."
"They love bookstores and libraries, and have a natural affinity for art. Usually self-expression comes more easily to INFJs on paper, as they tend to have strong writing skills. They're not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except in order to persuade them to his point of view. INFJs are rarely at complete peace with themselves."
"Yep, exactly. Now, let's hear yours."
"Are you sure?"
"Hearty, argumentative, and robust are three words that accurately describe ENTPs. Their unique preferences combine to give them very high need for control and unusual leadership abilities."
"I'll second that," I said.
"The entire world seems to be a chessboard to ENTJs, with pieces in need of being moved—by them—for the greater good. Life is a system of forces to be understood, mastered, harnessed, altered, or defeated, as appropriate, from day to day."
"For the ENTJ, all life unfolds through confrontation, arguing, and engaging with one another in the name of learning. The ENTJ starts with the basic assumption that she is right and must be proven wrong."
"No kidding! Really?"
"This proving process will be beneficial only to the extent that there are others who have the gumption or audacity required to mount an effective challenge. When the engagement is over, if the ENTJ was right, everyone will be better for having gone through the process. If the ENTJ is wrong, then there will be profound admiration and respect for whoever was strong enough to prevail, as well as gratitude and respect for the new lesson learned."
She closed the book, slid it back on the shelf, returned to the couch, and settled beside me. I put my arm around her shoulder. She leaned her head against mine, and her mass of dark brown hair tickled my cheek.
"Would you say that this stuff shows we're actually compatible?" I said.
She didn't answer, but nibbled my earlobe, and slowly slid her hand down into my lap.
December 19, 1996
I'm way behind in this journaling, which is quite unusual for me, because a lot has happened the past week. First I had a mind-numbing vision in Central Park. And then Joan and I visited Victor, her "body therapist." Why? Because the more she raved about this guy, the more anxious I got. It was simple but excruciating sexual jealousy. She suggested the meeting to put my paranoid suspicions to rest. I said fine, why not?
But first the vision.
I awoke before dawn, put on my shorts, shirt, and running shoes, and headed toward the park. I settled into a rhythmic stride in a light rain, and got onto West Drive. After a quarter mile I turned off the Drive and took one of the narrow walking trails in North Woods.
I stopped when I saw the hawk. His feathers were brown with white speckling, and white feathers covered his legs. He stood calmly, eating the steaming heart out of a gray squirrel. His was a relaxed, extended meal. He dipped his head, pulled up a string of bright scarlet tissue, swallowed, then in precise motions looked right, and then left. Then he thrust his head down again for another bite.
For 20 minutes in a light drizzle I stood watching, waiting, feeling coldness numb my hands and feet. For a moment the hawk stood perfectly still, and then slowly raised its tail feathers. Out spurted a short stream of white shit. Then he resumed his leisurely feast, with repeated dips of his head, and his hard gazes off to the right, the left, and then toward me.
Finally he flapped his massive brown wings and—to my astonishment— flew directly toward me, as if attacking. I put my hand out, defensively, but when he got close he veered sharply, and in a wide arc flew upward, and settled lightly on a horizontal branch of a tall pine.
Such encounters have profound meaning, or at least they did to Native Americans a few centuries ago. I spent the rest of the day trying to figure it out. I asked myself: What can I learn from that hawk's insouciance? His total lack of fear of me watching him? His choosing to fly directly toward me, as if emphasizing his fearlessness?
He was, as she'd described, a strong-looking man, in his late twenties or early thirties, much younger and innocent-looking than I expected. He wore an open white lab coat over pale blue designer jeans, and a brass-buckled belt made of woven strips of leather. Also a dark brown sweater. Hair pulled back in a pony tail. Bright white teeth, and an engaging smile.
After Joan introduced me Victor invited us into his studio, or clinic, or whatever he might have called it. A great number of white plastic bottles lined the shelves of one wall, all presumably filled with natural healing herbs or vitamins. A plastic replica of a human skeleton stood in a corner, supported by a stainless steel stand. Two large framed lithographs gave a detailed frontal and back view of a man's dark red musculature. In the middle of the room was a cushioned narrow platform covered by a wide strip of white paper fed by a big spool suspended beneath one end. At its other end was a strange looking padded square with an oval hole in it. I imagined that's where a patient put his or her face when lying belly down for Victor's deep body massages.
Victor made a big show of opening up three metal folding chairs he'd gotten from the closet. We sat down.
"So what shall we talk about?" he said brightly.
I was about to say something but Joan chimed in. "Maybe it would be useful if John were to relate to you a vision he had a few days ago in Central Park."
They both looked at me. I said sure, why not?.
Victor listened carefully. I elaborated on the cold wetness of the place, standing out there in the light rain beneath a filigree of black tree branches, feeling my hands and feet gradually getting numb, unable to move because I was wholly absorbed by that big hawk eating out the bright red steaming heart of a squirrel.
"Joan tells me you are a writer and photographer," Victor said.
"So you are, like the squirrel, a solitary worker."
Victor went on to compare my daily scribbling to a squirrel's busy gathering of nuts, accumulating a rich supply of nourishment to last him through the coming winter. Everyone knows writing is a long, tedious process. And like a squirrel I'm patient. And industrious. Determined. Tireless. All of which are such admirable qualities.
"Oh, that sounds so much like you," Joan said.
Uh-oh! I suddenly got the feeling I was in the middle of a set up. Something these two had previously cooked up together. Dr. Joan and Massage Therapist Victor, by pure happenstance, are of exactly the same mind when it comes to this chap John. This fellow with the sexual jealousy issues. This self-deluded wretch, so fond of labyrinthine rhetoric and inappropriate cause-effect sequences.
"I'm curious," I said.
"About?" replied Victor.
"Your directing so much attention to the squirrel. It was the hawk who delivered the message."
"But the squirrel, too, had something to say."
"Perhaps, but not as important as what the hawk told me. Why not examine him for just a bit?"
Victor didn't miss a beat.
"Very well. Let's see. Hmmmm. The hawk is aggressive, a hunter. He flies high in the sky, his sharp eyes taking in all he surveys. He's powerful, fearless. You might say he represents the masculine ethos."
"Yes, that's precisely what I thought."
Victor leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. I immediately recognized that body language. He needed to assert his dominance, control, and to show me his superiority.
"Perhaps the problem you're experiencing in your relationship with Joan," he said quietly, "is that she wants to see more of your hawk and less of your squirrel."
That brought a smile to my face. "I don't doubt she does."
I could have added that nevertheless Joan gets her nose bent quite out of shape when, in response to the problems she shares with me, I immediately barrage her with hawk-like "solutions" rather than just passively listening. But that would have been too much of a distraction.
After a few more turns around this particular track it finally was time for Joan to open her purse and extract some new $50 bills from her wallet. She counted out five, which Victor accepted, his white teeth flashing in a big smile.
I knew from the moment I shook Victor's hand that he and Joan were not sleeping together. So from my point of view the whole thing had been a fabulous success. And worth every penny of her hard-earned money.
December 20, 1996
When you're not having sex it's hard to get sex because women sense you're lonely and horny and desperate and they really don't like desperate men, because desperation suggests weakness, right? But then as soon as you get lucky and hook up with someone, you notice that other women are drawn to you because somehow they know you're sexually active. Does it have to do with the masculine sense of accomplishment that comes from having, finally, gotten laid?
No question my self confidence rose when Joan told me that I had—precise, accurate quote here—"a great body, and, even more important, a magnificent cock, a truly huge cock." I imagined she'd seen a few, so therefore had a legitimate frame of reference.
The other day, during a freelance photo shoot, one of my regular clients, Joanne, said, "Wow, John, you're just RADIATING energy! I can feel it across the room. What's her name?"
Was it really about energy? Or something much less abstract, like pheromones? I looked it up: From the Greek pherein, meaning to carry, and hormon, meaning to excite. Carrier of excitement. Lucky me, eh?
In that cocky, upbeat mood I accepted Joan's invitation to join her in what had become her Christmas ritual, which was singing Handel's Messiah at "amateur night," at Trinity Episcopal Church, at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street. I noted the anomaly of a New York Jew participating in a Christian celebration. I'd told her that while I love music, I have a lousy voice, and she emphatically replied it didn't matter. "Just sing softly, let the others carry the whole thing. You'll enjoy the experience."
The Bishop instructed us to assemble by voice types. Sopranos, mezzo-sopranos and contraltos over there, and countertenors, tenors, baritones, and basses over here. He handed out sheet music. He grabbed his baton, and the great organ reverberated. Gradually I—a life-long atheist—felt a nice rush.
Afterward Joan said she loved watching me during the performance. "You were so intense, so INTO the whole thing!" And I replied it was good to imagine myself as she saw me, musical score in hand, there in the tenor section, with all the others, appearing to belong. I said I wished that someone would have thought to take photos.
"Did you know we form our identities by seeing our reflection in the eyes of our mother?" she said.
December 22, 1996
At eight in the morning I awoke in her bed with an erection. She was motionless beside me, but I slowly, deliberately caressed her back and gave her bare shoulder gentle kisses. Very gradually she responded with gentle movements and little whimpering sounds. She was entirely receptive, and soon we were in the middle of a wild and crazy frenzy.
When it was over, she went to the bathroom, returned with a hot, wet washcloth and towel. She ministered to my sticky belly and cock, then patted me dry. "You know, John, I greatly admire your ability to act on what you think is right, despite your fear I won't particularly like it."
I paused one, two, three beats. "Doing so is important to me," I replied.
She asked me if I was hungry, and I said hell yes, so she suggested we take a cab to Rue 57 on Sixth Avenue near 57th Street. We were quiet as I attacked my eggs, hash browns, and ham, while she was content with a glass of orange juice and a coffee. She put her purse in her lap, and got out her little notebook and wrote a few impatient lines in it. Then put it away. Then lit a cigarette. Took a deep drag, and stared out the window at the passing traffic. I reached over, put my hand over hers. She pulled it away, rose, and said, "Excuse me, but I need to go to the bathroom."
She came back ten minutes later, sat down. Gave me a smile. But it quickly faded.
"You know," I said, "it's hard for me to believe that just half an hour ago we were in bed naked, fucking our brains out."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because right now you're acting like a stranger, and it's disturbing."
She gave me a cold stare. "Don't you dare try to pathologize this."
"Hey, I don't like it when you turn a noun into a verb."
I thought that would break the ice. But she said, "John, I'm not in love with you."
With no hesitation whatever, I said, "And I am not in love with you, either."
"At least we're being honest."
"This romance is moving right along, isn't it?"
December 25, 1996
We had coffee at a cafe right across the street from Our Lady of Pompeii Church, on Carmine Street, a few blocks east of Washington Square Park. Joan said that's where the Catholic kids used to beat up on her and her Jewish friends, and I said, well, you know what happened to the Romans at Pompeii. Remember those plaster casts of the people who were buried in the volcanic ash?
Our main topic of conversation was Joan's recent big fight on the phone with a close friend, a former fellow student at Columbia. Marge said she was having trouble with co-workers at the office, and on top of that her boyfriend most likely was cheating on her, and then she paused, and asked Joan, 'What's all that clattering? Are you doing dishes while you're talking to me?' Joan told her if it bothered her, she'd stop. But that didn't mollify Marge. She shouted she was just SICK of Joan's cavalier attitude toward her problems, which was a horrid betrayal, especially since they'd gone through so much together back in the day, and while she'd always given Joan support and encouragement, she wasn't getting much in return.
Joan was stunned by the accusation. It made her feel guilty and ashamed. Because after all, maybe Marge was absolutely right. She should have been much more attentive. This was something she had to take a hard look at.
I thought: Talk about belaboring the obvious. What had I been complaining about since day one in this relationship? I could have told Joan, come on. Don't you see that Marge and I are bitching about exactly the same thing? You've got a serious problem with intimacy and reciprocity in a relationship. But I didn't, of course. Instead, I asked her if the air had finally been cleared.
"Yes, between Marge and me. But not between ME and me."
We had to stop back at her place on the way to visit a couple psychiatrist friends of hers who were throwing a dinner party, and at the door we got into a bumping contest. She pushed me, and I pushed back. Inside, she leaped at me. I grabbed her forearms. She struggled, but I held her firmly. She grunted that she didn't have much body strength, and I smiled and said, as I held her firmly in my grip, "I like that in a woman."
"But I've got powerful legs," she said, and tried to get her knee up there, but I managed to wrestle her sideways to avoid it, and she struggled harder and harder, tried to break free, but I easily got her turned, pushed her down hard on the couch, pinned her arms securely, me lying on top. It was a total physical domination, but suddenly I thought I might have stepped over a boundary. I pulled her up, and rubbed her back. To my surprise she put on a frown of annoyance: "Why are you so worried? I'm perfectly fine."
"Because I care about you."
"Listen. I enjoyed being physically dominated, overpowered. Maybe you should do it more often."
Women. You just never know, eh?
Larry and Michael, both in residence at Lennox Hill, had been lovers for something like 12 years. Larry cheerfully, unselfconsciously, assumed the role of housewife as he cleared the table and washed dishes and glasses and silverware in the sink of an enormous kitchen with exposed ceiling timbers and brick walls. We all continued the conversation that had started at the dinner table.
"Barbara Striesand," Larry said. "An enormously talented woman, a Jew, who makes it in Hollywood. She's not only a singer, but also a shrewd businesswoman, doesn't take shit from anybody. She's aggressive, isn't ever afraid to speak her mind, and what do they call her? A bitch! If she were a man, well..."
Larry raised a wet glass in his yellow-rubber-gloved hand, inspected it carefully, and put it back into the soapy water for a more thorough scrub.
Michael, thoughtful with his pipe and crossed arms, nodded. "But nevertheless she's a total bitch. I can't stand her. What was that movie she made? Funny Girl or something? It was nothing but an unending succession of extreme close-ups of her ugly face."
"She's a delight, I don't care what you say," Larry said.
"John, have you seen the movie American Buffalo?" Michael asked.
"No, not yet," I replied.
"Don't bother. It's a horrid piece of shit, based on Mamet's play, which we both walked out on. Most of the dialog consisted of the word 'yeah.' The rest was nauseating, affected theatrical speech. Do you know what I mean? The way ACTORS often carry on?"
"Well, Dustin Hoffman wanted everyone to know he was finally doing really SERIOUS drama, and was desperately trying to wrest some legitimacy from Mamet's stilted, forced language. But Mamet did absolutely nothing to make his play into a real movie. Like Arthur Miller just did with The Crucible."
Joan excused herself, said she needed to use the bathroom.
"So how long have you known Joan?" Michael asked.
"I'd say it's been about a month."
"You make a good looking couple, I must say."
"Thanks. But I'm noticing that the down side of being hooked up with a psychoanalyst is..."
"She's not a psychoanalyst," Larry cut in. "but a psychotherapist. A big difference."
Yes, he was right. Both Larry and Michael were physicians. Joan was not.
"Well, whatever it is that she's called. The down side is that she just loves to analyze every move I make, every word I utter."
Larry rolled his eyes.
"For instance?" Michael asked.
"The other day she said I was manic and hyper-verbal. She wanted to know why. And I said to her, didn't you notice the huge piece of chocolate cake that I just consumed? And the two cups of strong Columbian coffee that I washed it down with?"
Michael smiled. "Tell me, John. Are you manic and hyper-verbal without such external stimuli?"
We all laughed. The whole thing was entirely light-hearted.
But then Michael got serious. "Be careful. You must never give Joan that kind of power over you. It's inappropriate. She's an expert—but only with her patients."
Later we four sat together on the couch in the high-ceilinged living room. A roaring fire was going, and the stereo was playing Miles Davis. I had to smile. Could I ever have imagined that one day I'd be wedged between a couple of sophisticated gay psychiatrists and that labyrinthine Joan?
Suddenly Larry reached down and pulled Joan's leg into his lap, unzipped her suede boot, pulled it off, and handed it to Michael. With comic exaggeration Michael caressed the boot, put it to his nose. Larry made a big show of massaging Joan's black-stockinged foot.
"I wish I had my camera," I said.
"Use mine, it's over there on the cabinet," Michael said grinning.
I took a shot of my Joan between Michael and Larry. The foot fetishist on her left, the leather fetishist on her right. And me, the detached objective observer. A perfect picture.
January 5, 1997
We got into a serious discussion about our vastly different social needs. Hers, she said, were very strong. By contrast as an only child I was always a loner, and thus I avoided groups.
Joan had to be around people all the time because it seemed so natural to her. She just loved all those dinner parties, afternoon teas, lunches, brunches, shopping with the girls, and—most important of all—her professional seminars, academic conferences, and workshops. And many, many private consultations with her vast number of psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic colleagues.
"Actually I have budgeted $45,000 a year on these activities," she said.
"That's a lot of money," I said.
She gave me a sharp look. "Perhaps to you it is."
I said nothing.
"Which reminds me," she said. "I may have mentioned this before, but on the 27th I leave for San Francisco."
"Oh? This is the first I've heard of it. What's in San Francisco?"
She said it's a regular once-a-year thing for her, every February. "The fee is $20,000 for four weeks. That's only $5,000 a week, you know, or about $700 a day. A good hotel room costs much more, so it's actually a bargain. It's in a remote and beautiful setting, way up in the hills, far away from the city. No telephones, no emails, no radio, no TV. Nothing.
"It's a combination luxury spa and professional development thing. A wonderful program. You pamper your body with radioactive mud baths, and saunas, long hikes, swims, weight lifting, and so on. You get on a strict vegetarian diet. No alcohol, no caffeine, no nicotine. Then you do some deep inner work in experientials and one-on-ones and guided imagery. There's a professional staff, all of them either psychiatrists or PhDs in clinical psychology, and they guide you on a long journey down deep into your own darkness, where you meet who you really are.
"It's a scary journey going down into that darkness," she said. "You are most terrified by what you might find. But you learn that not running from but fully embracing those ugly monsters makes them evaporate into a mist, because they are merely your own misguided illusions, you know?"
I looked at her. "No, dear. I don't know."
March 1, 1997
After four weeks of Joan's silence my phone rang. She was at O'Hare on a two-hour layover, so she thought she'd give me a ring. The program in San Francisco was a tremendous and fabulous success. Lots and lots and lots of important work. Really. Plenty to mull over in the months to come. And yes, of course, we should get together. Soon.
I offered to pick her up at JFK when she arrived, but she said thanks but she'd made other arrangements. "How about we meet for drinks day after tomorrow?" she said. "Or better yet, the next day? I've got a whole lot of catching up to do, and by then I ought to be free."
"That will be great," I replied.
March 4, 1997
I was on my second scotch when Dr. Joan finally showed up. She had a nice tan, and was coolly elegant in her dark pin-stripped suit jacket, over which hung a white silk scarf. Her trousers were sharply creased. Gold accents at the throat, on her earlobes. I thought it might not be a good idea to embrace her because she might interpret it as too excessive a display of emotion in a public place. But then it occurred to me if I didn't, she'd immediately demand to know why I was being so distant. But when I put my arms around her I felt her stiffen.
She wanted her usual, a martini with a pearl onion.
"So tell me about your adventures in California."
"It was absolutely fabulous," she said.
I thought I might as well cut to the chase, because I loathe small talk, so I said, "May I ask you a question?"
"Was Todd there with you?"
She gave me a hard stare, and slowly shook her head. She didn't say anything. But her eyes said, yes, of course Todd was there the whole time, as he always is on those deep journeys through the darkness of their souls. To guide her through all that enormously difficult "inner work." And Victor? Her precious Mr. Big Hands? Likely he was there as well.
I hadn't planned it at all, but at that second it just came to me. And it wasn't at all dramatic or overwhelming, as I imagined such a thing might turn out to be. No, it was more like that T. S. Eliot end-of-the-world whimper. Or perhaps like the snap of a twig.
It's over. All I need to do is say it out loud. So I did.
Dr. Joan didn't appear at all surprised. "I kind of knew this was coming, sooner or later," she said quietly.
"So how about we put a cordial, formal end to it? A sort of brief summation and farewell?"
"That's really a good idea," I said. "But excuse me, I seriously need to go to the bathroom. I'll be right back."
I stood at the urinal thinking about what she'd said earlier about excavations. Archeology. What San Francisco was presumably all about. She and Todd shoveling the multi-layered dirt of their subconscious. Four weeks of digging, side by side, in the California wilderness. These tortured jealous thoughts of mine are what? Let's see. They are merely another manifestation of... well, you know! Mother issues. Identity issues. Jealousy issues. No? Maybe?
I suddenly knew what I'd tell Dr. Joan. Yes, indeed. She expects something deep and meaningful from me, and for sure I'll deliver. Just a final outpouring of my convoluted rhetoric! Oh, she'll love it.
I'll tell her that in 1945 an Egyptian farmer was digging in his fields and unearthed a big clay urn, which he eagerly smashed open with his pick, hoping to find treasure. But he was disappointed. Inside was just a bunch of leather-bound papyrus books, written in Coptic, which turned out to be the texts of Gnosticism, an ancient religious movement within early Christianity.
I'll tell Dr. Joan that Gnostics claimed to possess what they paradoxically called "knowledge of the unknowable." They proclaimed they understood the hidden aspects of the divine, the cosmos, and—most important—the self.
And, in a famous passage, they insisted:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
She'll give me that regal, superior, detached clinical look of hers and then say: "So what's your point, John?"
And I'll tell her: "In all this, Joan, I don't think you've brought forth one damned thing."
I zipped up my fly, washed and dried my hands, and walked quickly toward the bar.
But when I got there, her stool was empty. I looked around. The bartender leaned over and said, "Your lady friend told me to tell you, sorry, but she was late for an appointment."
"Oh. Thanks," I said.
March 10, 1997
In the mail today came an envelope from... guess who? On the card's face was a reproduction of a water color of a night sky, with a crescent moon surrounded by yellow stars. Below, a trio of terra cotta pots with violets growing out of them. Inside, scribbling in bright blue felt-tipped pen:
Happy Birthday John
I wish for you the stars & the moon & all that is luminous.
Take good care & have a happy New Year,