What Life is About
Although it upset her that Howard seemed to be unable to say with conviction, “I love you” or any comparable phrase, Faye was happy with him. Late one Saturday night, when they had passed their three-month mark as a couple, as they lay in bed spent and satisfied, Howard said, “I’d like to move in here. It would be better than having to go back to Brooklyn every night.”
“Well, isn’t that a romantic way of broaching the subject.”
“What? Oh ... I mean—”
“I know what you mean, Howard. I’m teasing you, although you could have started out by saying something like, ‘Gee, it would be nice to sleep with you every night and wake up next to you every morning.’”
“Right. I should have said that. I do like waking up next to you.”
Faye was silent for a moment. Then she said, “And I do like sleeping next to you. It’s always special when you stay over, but moving in is a big step. It requires both people to make accommodations.”
“I can understand that.”
“You have to do more than understand it; you have to be prepared to bend and to be able to stick it out for the long term.”
Because Faye was still unsure of Howard’s ability to modify his ways and because she still needed reassurance that he actually loved her, she said that they should talk about it in the morning. She kissed him good night and turned over to think about this new development.
In the morning, after they had made love, Faye said, “That was nice, but if we live together we ... I may not want to make love twice a day every day. In fact, some days, I may not want to do it at all. That would not mean I don’t love you. It’s just that women think about sex differently from men.”
Howard thought about that for a moment, and then he said he understood. As they ate breakfast at a nearby cafe they continued their discussion. “How about expenses? That’s important. How would we work that?” she asked.
“I would pay half of everything.”
“Okay. We could keep a careful accounting so we would know how much everything costs.”
“I would pay when we go out. You pay for groceries.”
Smiling, Faye said, “That could work.”
They discussed cleaning the apartment, food preparation, and the big issue of Howard’s work hours. When Faye suggested that Howard consider hiring someone to help out in the bookstore so that he would be free earlier in the evening and on weekends, he looked uncomfortable, saying, “I don’t think I would be able to work with anyone and I wouldn’t trust anyone to work in the store when I am not there.”
“Then you’re going to have to cut down on your hours and take off weekends, not just on occasion, as you’ve done during the past few months, but on a regular basis. If we’re going to live together, I want to know that we’ll be together like a couple, and not just two people who sleep together at night.”
“I’ll lose a lot of my customers.”
“Not if you analyze your sales. Figure out when you’re busiest and when you’re slow. There are days when the store is quiet. It will be fine. In fact, on some of those times, we can go to used book sales together.”
Howard agreed to close the store at 6 p.m. every night other than Wednesday and Friday, when he stayed open until 9 p.m.; he closed at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and kept the store closed on Sundays.
Faye understood that Howard was generally uncomfortable with spur-of-the-moment arrangements; if she suggested meeting her friends or visiting her parents (or his parents) or visiting a museum or enjoying any of the hundreds of attractions in the city, Howard would ask, “Why?” For that reason, she made plans ahead of time. Instead of saying, “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s head out for a bite to eat,” she said, “I made plans for us to go out for lunch on Saturday.” Howard particularly disliked going to movies and live performances. If Faye suggested seeing a movie or going to a play or ballet, Howard would say that he hated sitting in theaters and would rather read, so she simply bought the tickets ahead of time and told him when and where they were going. Over time, he learned to sit patiently through concerts, dramas, musicals, and ballet performances, but he rarely focused on what was occurring on the stage, thinking instead of scenes, sections of dialogue, and entire chapters of books he had read. As they walked out of Lincoln Center one frosty evening after a performance of “The Nutcracker,” Faye said, “Wasn’t it magnificent? The music, the beautiful costumes. I imagined I was the Snow Queen. She was so lovely and so graceful. Did you like it?”
Although Howard understood that he should not sound as irritated as he felt, he could not help but say, “I suppose it was nicely done for that kind of thing, and the music was pleasing, but—”
“I know; you would have preferred staying home reading.”
“Yes. You know I don’t like crowds or using bathrooms in other places, and I don’t understand why you want to sit in a stuffy theater watching actors and dancers or whatever on a stage. It’s not real.”
“And, are characters in a novel real?”
“They are to me.”
“Well, dramas and musicals and concerts and operas make me happy. They’re like experiencing a different life. I feel as if I’m on that stage singing that aria or speaking those lines or twirling gracefully in the air, like the Snow Queen. I’m sure you feel that way about books.”
“Yes, but with books, worthwhile books, novels or biographies or any other kind, if they’re well written, you become the character and you actually live in the context of the book. I do become the characters. The pages are alive. These stage presentations are nonsense. I calculated that in the four hours or so traveling to and from Lincoln Center and sitting there, I could have read 150 pages of a good book.”
Knowing from experience that she would not be able to reach Howard’s feelings or alter his perception of live performances, at least not yet—she believed that, with time, she would be able to—Faye simply smiled and said, “Well, we don’t have anything else planned for a while, so you’ll be able to read every night. How many pages will that be?”
“I don’t know.”
She knew that his grumpy frame of mind would what was left of the evening. She also knew what she would do later on when they would be in bed. She did not mind. In fact, in a peculiar sort of way, it thrilled her to, at times, be totally submissive and subservient to him in bed. She loved him and trusted him and knew that he would never hurt her or be unfaithful to her, so why not play the role of sexual slave or whore for him on occasion, since it made him so happy?
A year after Howard had moved in with Faye she could no longer ignore the fact that she was not completely satisfied. Yes, Howard had bent, a little, just enough for Faye to feel that they were making progress, but sometimes she grew tired of the way she had to always manipulate events in order to be able to live a semi-normal New York City lifestyle. Even though they never argued—she loved him too much to become angry at him and Howard did not know how to argue or why people did that—on rare occasions, he refused to go places or do things that she wanted to do. He simply said, “No. I won’t do that,” and she would just let the matter drop. Life is not about getting everything I want, she thought. However, at the beginning of their second year together, as she was close to marking—not celebrating—her thirty-first birthday, she began taking Howard to bridal shops and showing him photographs of wedding gowns and commenting with interest on articles in The Times about society weddings. Howard would always say, “Obviously, some people want to get married,” to which Faye would reply, “Yes, it’s a normal thing for people who love each other.” They would discuss it in a stiff, non-argumentative way for a while, and then Faye would move on to a different topic.
One Sunday, during dinner at Faye’s parents’ house, her brother Peter, who was ten years older, exchanged a knowing smile with his girlfriend Ellen, and announced, “Well, we did it. We got engaged last night.” Faye and her parents whooped, jumped out of their seats, and hugged and kissed the beaming couple. Howard, looking bewildered, stood up and stiffly did the same. Then he returned to his seat and resumed his meal. Once the congratulations and kisses and excited conversation had died down, Faye’s father, looking seriously at Howard, said, “So, when are you going to put a ring on my daughter’s finger?” Faye turned red and her mother said, “Michael, we talked about this. Say nothing!” But everyone was looking at Howard. As he lifted a forkful of salad to his mouth he realized that he was expected to say something. He put his fork down on his plate, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and said, “Faye and I have never talked about that. I guess we should.”
In bed that evening, Faye looked at Howard and said, “That was a very good answer, but we did talk about it at the very beginning.”
Putting his book down, Howard said, “Not exactly. You said, ‘You see, what I want is to have an intimate, enduring relationship with a man, but not just any man. I want a man who’s ready for marriage and children, and I want to be able to stay home from work for a while to raise them,’ to which I said, ‘I’m ready for that too.’ We’ve never actually talked about you and me getting married.”
“Wow. You do recall conversations verbatim.” Then, smiling, Faye asked, “Would you like to talk about it? Marriage, I mean.”
“I will if you want to.”
“I do. You first.”
After a moment, Howard said, “I don’t know what to say.”
“Try this: look into my eyes and try to see me for who I am, and then tell me how you would feel about being married to me.”
Howard looked. Then he said, “I know you want to get married. I would be willing to do that.”
Faye held her smile for a few seconds. Then, as her eyes began to burn and become moist, her expression transformed from one of expectation to one distorted by shock and grief. She opened her mouth, but no words found their way out. Then she slowly got out of bed and disappeared into the bathroom. She cried for a long while, hoping that Howard would come in and comfort her; she had purposely not locked the door. Twenty-five minutes later, Faye emerged from the bathroom and returned to her side of the bed. She had decided that she would not argue, would not pout; she would talk sweetly and pretend that nothing had happened and give Howard a chance to resolve the situation.
But he was asleep.
After three years together they had fallen into a comfortable routine, and no longer talked about marriage. Faye had to tell her mother that if her father brought up the topic again they would stop visiting. Her father scowled at Howard, which he did not seem to notice, and remained silent on the subject. In fact, he said very little besides “Hello” and Good-bye” to Howard. That burned a hole in Faye’s heart.
One day, when Faye called her mother from her office she almost immediately detected distress in her voice, so she said, “Mom, it doesn’t bother me that we’re not married. We don’t even talk about it. I think Howard just needs a little more time to mature. Then—”
“It’s not that.” Alarmed, Faye asked her mother what was troubling her. “It’s Peter ... Peter and Ellen. He moved out. He’s here.”
“Oh, no. When did this happen?”
“A week ago. He asked us not to tell you. He hoped they would—”
“He won’t say. He’s ... a mess. He’s drinking ... a lot.”
“He won’t go to work.” Then, after sobbing and blowing her nose, Mrs. Berenson continued: “He sleeps and eats and drinks and sleeps. He calls out in his sleep. I think he’s having nightmares about Vietnam.”
“Oh, my God! I’ll come over tonight and talk to him.”
Faye walked to the bookstore after she left work to tell Howard what had happened. He listened intently, said he was sorry to hear about Peter and Ellen’s breakup, and then he returned to his task of opening boxes of newly-arrived books. When Faye said that she was going to her parents’ house to talk with Peter, Howard said, “I thought you told me you had made plans for us to eat in some place in Chinatown tonight.” She walked out of the store without answering and headed to the subway.
When Faye arrived at her parents’ house her mother said that Peter was in his old room. Faye knocked, but Peter did not answer, so she opened the door and stared in shock at the disarray: clothing, books, dirty dishes, glasses, empty beer bottles, and food wrappers littered the floor. The noxious odor saturating the air was so potent and thick that Faye gasped. Peter lay on his bed, asleep or unconscious. When she shook him, first gently and then with force, he moaned, opened his eyes, looked up, and then turned over with a pillow against the back of his head.
“Talk to me, Peter. I want to help you.”
He did not answer, so she tried to pull the pillow from him, but he held tight. She got up and walked from the room.
“He can’t stay like this,” Faye told her parents.
Her mother sobbed. Her father said, “Well, this makes Howard look good, real good.”
Because she knew the news would upset him, Faye held off until the last possible minute before telling Howard that Peter would be staying with them for a while. Howard liked his routines and he loved his solitude. He never seemed to understand why Faye felt the need to invite friends to the apartment for dinner or to watch a movie on television or just to share an evening of conversation. He abhorred the times when people unexpectedly dropped by to visit, because, besides interrupting his reading time, it disoriented him. Despite the fact that Howard enjoyed being with Faye and loved her in his own way, there were times when he was so absorbed in reading that he ignored her for hours.
As Faye told Howard that Peter would be moving in with them, she cut him off before he could provide reasons why it was a bad idea, by saying, “I’m his sister. We’ve always been close. When I needed him, Peter always came running. My parents can’t do a thing for him; only I can. I hope you can accept that.” Howard said that he understood. Later that day, Peter arrived. He looked as if he had not shaved or combed his hair in days; his unwashed body gave off the odor of a man who was close to giving up on life and his tired, red-rimmed eyes said, “Nothing matters anymore.” Faye took his stained, bulging duffle bag from him, held it away from her, and placed it on the floor in the foyer.
“Come to the kitchen. I’m sure you’re hungry.”
Peter followed Faye as if he were a child. Howard, who clumsily put out his hand in greeting after Peter had walked past him, followed and stood in the doorway. Then he walked into the kitchen and self-consciously patted one of Peter’s shoulders. Peter did not look up; instead, he ran his hands through his thick hair and sighed. Then he looked up at Howard and smiled sadly.
“Howard, would you mind if Peter and I had a moment alone?”
“A moment? Yes, of course. I’ll go read my book.” After saying that Howard remained next to Peter for another moment. Then he turned away, stopped, looked back at Peter and then at Faye, who smiled at him encouragingly. Howard smiled back, and then he walked into the living room. Faye and Peter talked in whispers, interspersed with periods of heavy silence. Although Howard was not able to make out the words, the sighs, sobs, grief-laden choking and sniffling, and muffled crying formed a heartbreaking language of sorrow. Howard tried to understand how the end of a relationship could cause one to suffer in such a dramatic fashion. Of course, he thought, I would be upset if Faye and I were to part company, but why would that happen? We’re very compatible, we don’t argue, and we have good sex.
A while later, when Peter, at Faye’s insistence, agreed to take a shower, Howard asked her how long he would be staying.
“I don’t know, Howard; as long as he needs. Why? Do you want him to go already? He just got here.”
“Oh. I know. I just found it difficult to read when he was crying.”
Faye looked at Howard for a silent few seconds. Then she picked up her laundry basket and Peter’s duffle bag and walked to the apartment door, where she stopped and turned to look at Howard again. Then she walked out, saying she would be back after she had started a wash.
In bed that night, Faye snuggled against Howard and said, “I hope you can be patient with Peter. You said you understood that he has to be here. I would like you to do whatever you can to help him.”
“I know. I will. I just, you know I don’t like my life or my routines interrupted or altered.”
“I know, and I understand just how difficult this might be for you, but he’s my brother, and he thought his life was set, and now this happened. Remember how nice their wedding was? Ellen looked beautiful and Peter and my parents were so happy and you and I had a wonderful time. I was so thrilled, and we made love over and over that weekend. Do you remember?”
“Yes. Of course I remember. I do feel bad for him.”
“He’s my brother and he’s more or less your brother-in-law.”
“You’ve always gotten along well with him, right?”
“Yes, and he likes you.”
“I just ... I’m not used to someone else being around.”
“Just do what you normally do. Once he’s pulled himself together, I’m sure he’ll look for a new job. He’s a smart guy. He’ll find a job and move out, but it will probably take a few weeks.”
“A few weeks?”
“Yes. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll be doing a good thing.”
But Howard found it increasingly difficult to become accustomed to Peter’s presence in the apartment. Besides the issue involving another person living with them, Howard was upset that Peter did not always put things, such as newspapers and books and shampoo, in their proper places. He always followed up after Peter and put those things where they belonged, and although he often thought of complaining to Peter about this annoying habit, he held his tongue.
One night, at the end of the third week, Howard put down his book and asked Peter how much longer he expected to stay with them. Faye held her breath and turned sharply to Howard. Then, in a conciliatory voice, she said, “That’s just Howard’s awkward way of asking how your job search is going; he’s not asking you to leave, you know.”
Looking upset and embarrassed, Peter said that he did not have any real prospects yet, adding, “It’s still early. It usually takes a few weeks.”
“Of course. It’s fine. It’s great having you here,” Faye said.
Howard remained silent and returned to his book.
“I’ve got an idea,” Faye said. “Why don’t we all go out for ice cream or cappuccino or something?”
“It’s almost ten. I don’t want to go out,” Howard said.
“How about it, Peter? Just you and me.”
“No. I don’t feel like it. Another time. I think I’ll turn in.”
Once Faye heard the water running in the bathroom, she sat next to Howard and said, “That was not a good thing to do—asking him that. He’s pressured enough and very unhappy. He has no place to go. If you make him feel more uncomfortable than he already feels, he may pick himself up and go or he may start drinking again.”
“I understand. It’s just hard for me.”
“I know, but think about how hard it is for him. He might never see Ellen again. He worries that she’s involved with another man. Try to look beyond your own needs. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for him doing something that would cause him to self-destruct.”
Howard tried to imagine how he would feel if Peter were to do that—run out and start drinking or “self-destruct” in some other way, but he was unable to do it. Of course, he knew that Peter could fall apart again and resume his drinking. After all, once Ellen had made it clear that she no longer wanted to be married to him, he moved out of the apartment and embarked on an extended drinking binge. All he did was go to bars or to liquor stores and drink and sleep. He stopped bathing, ate very little, and had just about given up on life.
Howard understood that, and he did not want it to happen again, but all he was able to think about was how his very satisfying existence with Faye in their lovely apartment had been disrupted by the presence of this intruder.