“I just don’t know what to do,” Faye told her mother. “I like him. He’s nice looking and very smart. In fact, when it comes to discussing books and character analysis and deep themes, he’s a genius, an expert, a poet. He could be teaching literature or just about any humanities course at any university, Columbia, Harvard, anywhere.”
“So, what’s wrong with him? I won’t even ask about religion. I know you don’t care and, after all the men you’ve been with, I don’t care anymore either.”
“Good. I won’t even ask what you mean by ‘all the men you’ve been with.’ It’s just that he’s different. He’s odd; his clothes are always mismatched and his shirts are rumpled and he doesn’t know how to act in most social situations and he’s kind of, well, not really attached to people.” To explain, Faye told her mother about the peculiar way he acted when he met her in FancyFruit on that stormy afternoon and how odd he was when they had dinner together at Maxwell’s. She told her mother that she was also worried about how rigid he seemed to be, saying that he stayed in his bookstore from 8 a.m. until late evening seven days a week and did not seem to do anything else.
“Well, he’s ambitious. That’s good. He’ll be a good provider.”
“I guess, but he doesn’t care about money. For instance, when he sees someone shoplifting a small item, he doesn’t say anything.”
“He’s a generous boy.”
“He’s my age, mom. He’s not a boy. I don’t know what to do. I like him, but he’s so strange. I don’t think he sees people as people. It’s like he sees them as consumable items. I don’t mean he would stay with me for a while and then move on to the next woman. In fact, he’s kind of inexperienced in terms of women. It’s just that I don’t think he’s capable of love. What should I do?”
“I’ve never asked you before, so don’t tell me now. If you haven’t let things go too far with him, then you should keep it that way until you’re sure. That’s actually the advice I would give you regarding any boy ... man. Remember the rules I gave you when you young.”
Faye had not let “things” progress beyond kissing. On the night that Howard and Faye had eaten their vegan meal in the back room of the bookstore he closed early and hurried to Faye’s apartment. After a few minutes of stiff, uncomfortable small talk, they kissed and touched, but that’s as far as Faye would let it go. In fact, she had to slow him down over and over again. He did not just kiss her—he tried to devour her. She had been kissed by other men in that way before, but with Howard it was different. At one point, he was so hungrily aggressive that she became frightened, but the odd thing was, each time she stopped him he obeyed instantly. He did not persist or complain or insist or plead or swear eternal love or become angry. He just stopped, sat back, kept his eyes trained on her, and waited for the green light as if he were a little boy whose mother had told him to stop shoving Halloween candy into his face; he waited, hungrily, puppy-like, for her to tell him that he could plunge in again and resume his ravenous consumption of her. Although his ardent kissing and touching was, at first, a bit alarming, Faye began to like it and she was both stunned and gratified by the surge of warmth spreading from between her legs to the rest of her body, something she had not experienced in a long time.
Later that night, when she told Howard it was time to leave, he said, “I want to come over again tomorrow night,” to which she said, “No.” Then, softening, she said, “I don’t know. Maybe. Call me tomorrow, but this can’t be all we do: you coming over for an hour or two late at night so we can kiss and you can feel me up. I told you: I want a full, committed relationship—I’m not saying I want that with you; I might, but I don’t know yet. What I do know is, if you and I work it out, we have to go places together at night and on weekends and get to know each other. Do you understand?”
Although Howard said yes, Faye was not sure he actually did know how to behave in a relationship. She feared that he was not a suitable candidate. That was why she had gone to her parents’ house during the week to talk to her mother. She needed advice. She knew what Miranda and her other friends would say: if he’s even close to okay, then go for it. But, she wondered, is he okay? Five years ago, on a scale of one to ten, she would have rated him a four. Now, since she had kept herself on a shelf, untouched by men for so long, she thought he was better than average, a six or a seven. On the positive side, he was intelligent, literate, steady, financially secure, reliable, and not a playboy or scoundrel (in fact, during the times they had been together, he had never seemed to even notice other, more attractive women; of course, he did not seem to notice other people of either gender). In addition, he was clean—maybe obsessively clean, honest (maybe too honest), nice looking, well built in a reed-thin way, and obviously very interested in her.
However, he was inept in most social situations, ultra-focused to the point of exasperation on particular topics of conversation, unaware of and apparently not interested in his appearance, close to totally inexperienced in terms of relationships, and, while he was clearly capable of a high degree of sexual zeal, he was probably unable to offer real affection. In fact, Faye surmised, he seemed to be unaware of her as a person with her own unique needs and desires. It was as if he perceived her as a tasty, nourishing meal that he wanted to devour. Of course, that hunger was due to sexual attraction, which was good (in fact, it aroused her), but there had to be more. She wondered, Am I better off as I am now—alone? I’m not unhappy, but I’m not happy either. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a man, marriage, children, a home. But, is he the one? Why am I even thinking this? He’s far from ideal. Do I really want to give him a chance? I wish I was 12 years old again.
Just as Faye was leaning toward telling Howard that she did not want to see him again, she remembered the invitation to the wedding of one of her childhood friends that had arrived in the mail two weeks earlier. She and Anita had been inseparable all the way through high school; they had consoled each other when they had problems and had shared secrets more times than Faye could remember. Even though they had kept in touch during their college years, they had been too busy to see each other more than once or twice a year. Since Faye had moved to Manhattan she had seen Anita only twice, at weddings.
Anita had written on the invitation in her tiny, precise handwriting, “I expect to see you, and feel free to bring a date.” Faye had been relieved that Anita had not asked her to be a bridesmaid. She was sure that Anita’s four sisters and perhaps a cousin or two had been picked for those roles. Faye had placed the invitation on a counter in her kitchen and then ignored it because she could not face yet another wedding at which she would have to smile when one old biddy after another would ask, “So, when will it be your turn, my dear?” She knew she could not delay any longer because the date for the Big Event was only weeks away, so she thought she would give Howard another chance. She thought of it as an audition. If he passed, she would ask him to accompany her to the wedding.
The next morning, when Howard called Faye and asked her to go out with him again, she said that she would. After he said, “Great. That makes me happy,” she waited. When he did not say anything else, she said, “Now you’re supposed to ask me when I’m available.”
“Oh. Okay. How about tonight?”
At this point in her life, Faye was not too proud to consent, especially since Howard surely had no inkling of the rules involved in asking a woman out on a date. After she said yes she waited again. After a moment, he hurriedly asked, “What time should I pick you up?” Since it was a weeknight and Faye did not want to get to bed too late, she suggested 6 p.m. Then she asked, “Where will we be going? I need to know how to dress.” Howard was lost at sea, so Faye suggested dinner and a movie, to which he readily agreed. She told him to make all of the arrangements. His ability to do that would be part of the test.
She was pleasantly surprised by how Howard looked when he knocked on her door at precisely 6 p.m. He wore a nice blue shirt, a stylish tweed sport jacket, beautifully pressed tan pants, and shiny brown leather shoes, all of which, he explained, he had purchased that day. He also smelled very nice. Rather than asking him whether he had consulted an etiquette book, she smiled and invited him in while she finished preparing. She was also pleased when he did not comment on the fact that she was not ready on time.
They dined at a breezy sidewalk cafe just outside of Central Park, after which they saw The Crying Game. As they emerged from the theater, Faye, lost in thought, remained silent. Howard, seemingly unmoved, said that the acting was good. They walked back to Faye’s apartment holding hands and talked. Howard said that he had not seen many films, but had read and remembered each review that had appeared in The New York Times from the time he was 15 years old.
“Why haven’t you gone to the movies very much?”
“I’ve always been too busy, studying in college and reading, buying books, learning about publishing. Since then, since graduating from college, I mean, I’ve put all of my energy into the bookstore, and reading, of course.”
“Haven’t you felt the need to go out on dates or with friends?”
“I don’t have friends, never have. And dates, well I haven’t gone out on any since college, except for that girl I had sex with, the one I told you about, but I guess that wasn’t a date.”
“Why is that?”
“I just don’t usually notice women ... or men, for that matter.”
“You know, I get the impression you sort of live above or outside of people, as if they’re a different species from you.”
Howard was silent for a long while. Faye worried that she had upset or insulted him. Then he said, “That’s not it. I guess I just don’t understand people, so I keep to myself. I’m quite content as long as I’m in contact with books.”
“Then why do you want to go out with me?”
“Oh. Well, you are so easy to talk to and so very desirable. I think about you all the time and I want to kiss you and touch you and—”
“Okay, cowboy! Stop right there. If it comes to that. ... No. I didn’t mean to say that. If you and I ever get to that stage. ... One second. I want to say this right.” Faye focused on the cathedral roof of a distant building that was silhouetted against the night sky, and then she said, “If you want that to happen you’re going to have to learn how to approach it. You make it sound as if having sex is like going to a barbeque. It’s not. It has to happen as part of a committed, meaningful relationship, and you should not talk about it as if you’re planning for it to happen just to satisfy your physical needs.”
“Tell me this, Howard: How do you feel about me?”
“You’re beautiful and very desirable and intelligent and ... I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”
“You’re supposed to say what’s in your heart.”
Howard looked at her, but no words came from his lips. Then he said, “I don’t know what words to use, but I really like being with you. In fact, the times we’re together are the happiest times for me, probably the best times of my life.”
That was not what she wanted to hear, but it was close enough for now.
It happened first during the wedding ceremony in the old Episcopal church in Queens and then again during the married couple’s first dance and then, one more time, when she and Howard held each other close on the dance floor as the orchestra played a particularly romantic song. Faye had known she would cry during the ceremony, but she had not expected Howard to give her his handkerchief and put an arm around her shoulder. She felt warm and safe when he did that. The same thing happened when Anita and Todd had their first dance as a married couple. Again, Faye enjoyed Howard’s touch and felt a comforting, sweet connection to him. Later, after repeated attempts to teach Howard how to dance, he seemed to finally feel the rhythm and move in time to the music during Etta James’s soulfully romantic “At Last.” As the band’s female singer huskily intoned, “At last, my love has come along; my lonely days over and life is like a song,” Faye was overcome with a surge of joy as she realized that, surprisingly, the odd, sweet man who was holding her close and making an effort to dance, although he probably did not understand why people did it, had found his way into her heart.
In the wee hours of the morning, as they huddled close and held each other in the taxi—which had been Howard’s idea—Faye wrestled with her choices and asked herself why she suddenly felt what she felt and why she wanted Howard to make love to her. The wedding was over and there was no romantic music, but she was aware of the comforting presence of a loving bond between them. She was especially pleased that he had tried so hard to do what had to be done: closing his store early, renting a tuxedo (in which he looked very handsome), trying different foods at the reception, talking with others at their table, attempting to learn how to dance, and making her feel special.
During each of their previous dates Howard had been polite and likable, if a bit reserved. He had not complained when she stopped him after a few minutes of kissing at the end of the evening. However, now she wanted him. She knew in her heart that allowing him to make love to her would help him to understand how to be what she wanted him to be. It would not only be an exhilarating and loving merging of two lonely people that would leave them feeling elated and satisfied, but it would be transformative for Howard in that the memory of her body and her ardor and her touch would occupy a spot in his very core, where, like a seed, it would germinate and blossom, opening him up to her and to the world.
And so, when they returned to her apartment, she told Howard to wait in the living room, and then she went to her bedroom. She emerged a few minutes later and stood at the entrance to the room wearing a clingy silk dressing gown. Howard stared at her, surprised and clearly aroused. She asked whether he needed to use the bathroom. When he shook his head “No,” she said, “Come.” As if in a daze, Howard followed Faye to her bedroom. She told him to remove his jacket, tie, and vest. After he did that, she reclined on the bed, dimmed the light, and, grasping his hand, pulled him down next to her. They kissed, first gently, and then deeply. She pulled away and, tenderly stroking his face, whispered, “I want you to kiss me in a loving way and I want to taste you, but you should not hurt me. Do you understand?” He said he did. They resumed their kissing, Howard following her lead, kissing her hungrily, but not too hard. It was just right.
Then Faye said, “Now, loosen my robe and slowly take it off me.” With a thrumming heart, he did as she instructed. He admired the gentle curves and soft, honeyed skin of her naked body for a long time. Smiling and giggling, Faye said, “You’re allowed to touch the merchandise, you know.” She moved his hand over her and showed him how to use his fingers to explore and give her pleasure. Then she pushed him away and sat up. As she kissed his lips and cheeks and eyes, she unbuttoned his shirt and helped him to remove it. She stroked and kissed his firm chest over and over again. Understanding that he was allowed to do so, he pulled off the rest of his clothes. They continued to kiss and fondle and caress each other, and then she lay back and guided him into her. She was thrilled by how ardent he was and how wonderful he felt inside of her, but she had to ask him to slow down and be more gentle. They held each other and moved together and clung to each other for a long time in perfect rhythm.
Afterward, she said, “I’m so glad we made love.” Howard smiled and kissed her again and again. Finally she said, “That’s enough. We have to get some sleep. Hold me, but no more kissing. If you want to do it again in the morning, you have to stay here and keep your store closed. Your customers can go one Sunday without you. We can wake up late, make love, and go out to eat and spend the day outdoors together.”
Howard curled up next to her, enjoying the feel of their naked bodies fitting perfectly together, and falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Black storm clouds rolled in; window-rattling thunder boomed; and flashes of lightning lit up the sky as Faye sat at work, concentrating, not on anything to do with her job, but on Howard. How will I ever know? Three weeks after Anita’s wedding, she and Howard had spent days, evenings, and weekends together; they had made love dozens of times and had passed so many nights curled up in each other’s arms that she began to have trouble sleeping without him. She knew she loved him and thoroughly enjoyed being with him. She had grown accustomed to most of his little quirks, which had originally concerned her; at this point, they were as inconsequential to her as the fact that he was left-handed and wore owlish-looking professorial eyeglasses when he read. So what that he’s super fussy about food and cleanliness and looks past everybody else in the world. He’s a sweet man and I know he loves me.
That’s what she told herself, but she had no proof. She understood that his unequivocal, unremitting sexual hunger for her and his enthusiastically vigorous lovemaking, if she could call it lovemaking, and not just passionate screwing, were no indication of his feelings for her as a person, as a lover, as a romantic partner, as a soul with whom she might spend a lifetime. It began to upset and worry Faye that, at this point in their relationship, when she was feeling very secure and very much in love, Howard might just be enjoying the physical aspect of their intimacy and not really care about her, so, that evening, she confronted him by asking, “How do you feel about me?”
After looking blank for a very telling moment, Howard said, “I think you are very pretty and very smart and you make me feel happy, happier than I am at any other time, especially when we’re having sex.”
“That doesn’t answer my question, or maybe it does. I really want to know how you feel about me, what I am to you, how you think of me, not how I look or how I make you feel when we’re making love. And, that’s another thing. Why can’t you use the phrase ‘making love’? Why do you say, ‘having sex’?’ It sounds cold. It’s like saying ‘sexual intercourse’ or some other academic term.”
“It’s not accurate. You can’t make love. Love is a feeling or a human emotion. You can’t make it. Here’s an interesting fact: in the few movies I’ve seen on TV, ones before the 1960s, characters use the term ‘making love’ to mean engaging in romantic talk, not having sex. That usage comes later.”
“Interesting, but isn’t that what people in a relationship do when they have sex? Don’t they make or create a loving bond between them?”
“Metaphorically speaking, I guess they do, but it’s more correct to say having sex or coupling or one of the vulgar terms that people use.”
“Okay. Forget the terminology. I don’t care about that. Answer my other question: How do you feel about me?”
“I ... I want to be with you all of the time. I am—”
“No, Howard. Not how I make you feel and how I satisfy your needs. I’m glad I do that, but, is that it?”
“I understand what you mean.”
“You know I have a hard time identifying my feelings and then coming up with appropriate words to voice them.”
“I understand. Try.”
“I ... I can’t think of the words to say.”
“This is important to me. I need to know how you feel about me and our relationship and our future together, if there is one. You know how I feel about you. In fact, if I’ve never said it, I’ll say it now: I love you and I want to stay with you. Your turn.”
“You want me to say that I love you. I do. I really do.”
“I shouldn’t have had to say it first.”
“I know. You’re right.”
“Now I’m worried you said it just to satisfy me, to shut me up.”
“No. I do.”
“I want to hear it. Actually, I want to hear some other statement with other words about how you feel about me. Not ‘I love you.’”
“I don’t know how.”
“Then, before we get in any deeper, we’ll have to end it.”
“I have never cared about anyone before, except my parents when I was young. I wish I could say what you want.”
“No. Don’t say what I want. Say how you feel. You’re able to use the loveliest words and most inspirational expressions to explain really obscure, intricate themes involving the most complex works of literature. Think of your feelings that way, as if you were a character in a book.”
“Oh. I guess I can quote a line from The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe: ‘I have so much in me, and the feeling for you absorbs it all; I have so much, and without you it all comes to nothing.’”
Faye stared at Howard with her mouth open. Then she sobbed and ran off to the bathroom. She remained there for a long time after she had stopped crying. Then she washed her face. After looking at herself in the mirror, she sat on the rim of the bathtub. This will be a test, she thought. I’ll sit here a good long time. Give him a chance to think about how he feels and ... and how he has to tell me and show me how he feels. He must, he absolutely has to do that.
She thumbed through a copy of Cosmopolitan, slowly, deliberately reading an article entitled “Who’s Fault Is It If Your Sheets Are Cold?” After that, she skimmed through two other articles. Then she looked at herself in the mirror again, deciding not to fix her face or even comb her hair, even though she looked like a wreck. That will be part of the test ... if he’s even still there.
Faye prepared herself mentally, knowing that she had to be firm, that she had to do whatever she had to do to protect herself—be ruthless, if necessary. She told herself that, even if Howard did love her, if he was unable to say it, she would never be happy. As much as she loved him—and she knew she did—she had to protect herself. She understood that this was the moment, the one that she would think of, perhaps over and over again at some time in the future, perhaps late at night as she lay in bed unable to sleep. Would she smile and remember this point in time, this place, this scene, with warmth and joy, or would she curse herself for being so stupid as to allow a weak, dissatisfying relationship with a man who was not able to identify or express his feelings to continue and, thereby, ruin her life?
When she emerged from the bathroom she saw that Howard was on her couch, where she had left him. Enveloped in a dark, heavy cloud of despair, he looked at her anxiously. She waited. Then he stood up and walked to her and put his arms around her. In a soft, contrite voice, he said, “I feel so much that I … I think about you all the time. It hurts when we’re not together. I don’t know what I would do if you were not part of my life. I need you in my life.”
He had just barely passed the test, but Faye did not say that to him.