Annemarie insisted on driving Roger home. He hugged her and said he loved her, but would rather take the PATH. She smiled, gently touched his face, and said that driving him to Hoboken would give her an additional 45 minutes with him, at which point he agreed. As they walked, arm in arm along the busy, brightly lit sidewalk to the garage where she had parked her car, Roger said, “Even though I miss dad so much I’m glad we’re both here, on the East Coast. I felt like I was dying a thousand deaths every day there. I know you’re happy to be here.”
Annemarie smiled brightly at her son and said, “Of course, I’m happy. I wanted to move back to New York almost from the beginning, from the time your father and I settled in Arizona.”
“I know. You’re a real city girl, aren’t you?”
“I’m too old to be referred to as a ‘girl,’ but I’ve always loved living in New York. It’s the only place where I can breathe.”
“You’re not old, and you’re just as pretty as you looked when you were young, like in those pictures from when you and dad got married.”
“Thanks for saying that, sweetie.”
“I’ve never understood why you’ve never gone back to where you lived as a child, that farm in Missouri. I’d go with you, if you want.”
“Oh, God, no! I wouldn’t know a soul there, and it’s a desolate, horrible place. That’s why I moved out when I did.”
“It must’ve been tough living on your own, and you were only … what? Eighteen? At 18, I was in college, on my own, but not really.”
Annemarie held Roger’s arm a little more tightly as they approached the entrance to the parking garage. Although she knew it was silly, this moment always alarmed her. Even as she told herself that there was no reason to think someone was waiting to attack them right inside the entrance, her heart fluttered and her skin became sweaty. As they approached the pay window she pulled out her charge card, shushing Roger and insisting that she should pay. During the few minutes they waited for her car she thought about telling Roger her true story. But, she asked herself, why would I do that? What’s the point? From the time he had been old enough to understand, she had told her son that she had lived an idyllic life on a beautiful farm on the Ozark Plateau, surrounded by adoring parents and four loving sisters, all of whom had perished in a horrendous fire caused by faulty wiring that spread rapidly through the old house while they slept. She had told him that she had moved out right after high school, wandered across the country working odd jobs, and ended up in New York. She had not learned of the fate of her family until she had not been able to reach them by telephone for a week, at which point she called a neighbor, who gave her the dreadful news. “I guess my parents never gave my New York number to any of their neighbors.”
“Fire. Such a gruesome way to die,” he said.
“Purifying fire; fire and brimstone,” she murmured as a valet stopped her car in front of them.
“Oh, nothing. I was thinking of something I heard in a song.”
As they sat in traffic, awaiting their turn to enter the Lincoln Tunnel, Annemarie decided the time was right to ask what Mark had never wanted her to ask, to find out what she already thought she knew, so she said, “I guess nothing’s happening in your love life.”
“I go out now and then, but no. I’m much too busy at work.”
“Well, you’re 26, and then, before you know it, you’ll be 30, and—not that you have to settle down at any particular age—then you’ll be settled in your ways. You don’t want to live your life alone.”
“I know, mom,” Roger answered stiffly.
“Okay. We’ve done this dance for years. Now that your father’s gone, I’m going to say it: if you’re gay, it’s fine with me. Just tell me.”
Roger sat quietly. He tugged on his seatbelt. Then he said, “I really don’t know what I am. I find women attractive, some of them very attractive, and I go out on dates and I ... you know, but ... Oh well.”
“I’m your mother. We talked about sex when you were a teenager. You can talk about it with me now. Nothing you say will shock or upset me because I’ve probably done it too.”
“Well, that’s quite a statement. I would like to hear about that.”
“And maybe, at some point, I’ll tell you some of the stories of my wild youth. Now, however, I want to know about you.”
“I just told you.”
“No, you didn’t. You said you find women attractive. That’s good, Roger. Do you also find men attractive?”
“This is too much for me.”
“It’s 2019. Why is it too much?”
“Not a good enough answer. We’re adults. Tell me.”
“I’m not like other guys. I’m not gay and I’m not straight.” Then, after thinking for a few seconds, he continued by saying, “I like sex.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that! You’re normal. I don’t care who you screw or whatever else you do. I mean, I care, but, let me think for a minute.” Once they were in the tunnel, Annemarie said, “It’s two things: one, I want you to be happy and loved and content, whether it’s with a woman or a man; and, two, I want to be part of your life. That means meeting whoever it is you care about. I would absolutely love spending time with you and your special someone. I hate to think you’re alone.”
The traffic through the tunnel was heavy at that after-theater hour. Roger took his time composing his words. As they exited the tunnel he said, “I just enjoy sex with women and with men, but I don’t love anyone. I just never feel whatever it is other people feel.”
Annemarie remained silent for the rest of the trip. She double-parked in front of the building on Hudson Street in Hoboken in which Roger lived. He removed his seatbelt but he did not reach over to say good night. He waited. Finally, she said, “That sounds like me. It’s too late to get into it now, and I know you have to get up early for work, but I’ll say this: I had sex with loads of men before I met your father and, except for two, they meant nothing to me.” When Roger did not react to her comment, Annemarie said, “I’ll bet you never expected to hear that.”
Hesitantly, Roger said, “For a few years, when dad was first sick, I know you went out and came home late. Eventually, I realized you were probably seeing other men.”
“Mom, don’t. It’s okay. At the time, I was upset, but then, at some point, dad didn’t seem to be there anymore. I’m sure you were lonely and angry; after all, you were still a young woman. I understand. It’s okay.”
Looking at her son, Annemarie said, “No. It wasn’t okay. Running out to sleep with men I didn’t know or care about was not okay. Even if I hadn’t been married or in a committed relationship, it would not have been okay. It always left me feeling empty and worthless and ... and shitty inside.”
“Is that why you asked me about my love life?”
“Actually, no. I ... your father and I wondered whether you were gay. He did not want to know, so I never asked. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I wish I had asked you years ago. Then you moved to Boston and then New Jersey. As I said, it’s okay with me, but promise me this: at some point soon, maybe the next time you see a woman or a man to whom you’re attracted, try developing a relationship first. Don’t just jump in the sack and satisfy your sexual urges and then never see that person again. Please. Think about how you feel first.”
Roger leaned over, put his hands on his mother’s shoulders, and gently kissed her cheek, saying, “I don’t know how I feel. I’m still working on that, and I’m just not comfortable talking about it with you or with anybody else.”
“I won’t say another word. Think about what I said. I know a thing or two about relationships.”
“Okay. You know, you’re still beautiful. Why don’t you find a man to whom you’re attracted, and get to know him? I won’t mind.”
Driving back to Manhattan, Annemarie thought about the many men with whom she had been intimate, bringing to mind a few of them. Even though she had always gone to bed only with men she found attractive and polite and even though she had liked most of them and enjoyed being with them, most had not meant anything to her. When she was young she had sex with men because they had money, which she needed. She had enjoyed each of her sexual romps, even if it was only because of the power the act allowed her to wield over her partners. Her reasons for sleeping with men during the time when Mark was sick were more complicated; they certainly did not involve money.
In her entire life, only three men had ever touched her heart: Dan Morgan, the man with whom she lost her virginity, only to find out that he was married; Mark, although her feelings for him gradually dried up and all but died during the years they lived in the dry heat and isolation of his Arizona ranch; and that strange man, Howard, who had been nice to her when she had been down and out and with whom she thought she had experienced what she had, at the time, referred to as a “cosmic connection.” Pretty embarrassing at this age to think about my sexual history involving dozens of men. Thank God, Father never touched me. I won’t count that man who raped me after I passed out or that disgusting Reverend Something or Other who wanted me to do whatever weird sexual-spiritual thing he had in his dirty, twisted mind.
She drove into the garage of her building, parked, and rode up in the sleek, artfully decorated elevator. In her apartment, she undressed, throwing her clothes on her bed, and sighed as she slowly melted into the warm water of an herbal bath. Then she muttered, “Damn it. A glass of Champagne would be lovely. Oh, well. Next time.”
The next morning, Annemarie put on a tasteful top and stylish jeans, sneakers, and a pair of diamond stud earrings. She slipped into a sleek leather jacket and drove uptown, parking in front of West Side Booksellers. She wished she had that horrible green shoulder bag and those cheap earrings she had worn the time, so many years before, when she had shoplifted the books, thinking, That would be a scream. She walked in and surveyed the place. There he was—Howard. A few months earlier, when she had popped in during one of her first days back in New York, she had been surprised at how little he had changed over the years. His hair was still dark and thick, with only a trace of gray, and his face had not aged much. During the minute or so that they had spoken at the sales counter Howard had been cold and businesslike. Then, when she told him who she was, he was almost pleasant, but still very distant. When she had known him back then he had been hard, unapproachable, uninvolved in the affairs of the people around him, almost robotic, and stonily cold, except for those times during that one tumultuous night when they had sex. Now, as Annemarie observed him, she saw that he seemed to engage in conversations with customers and even show a degree of interest in what they were saying to him. Once more, she asked herself, Why do I feel I have to do this? Why this man? Why any man?
She grabbed an anthology of recent poetry and a history of Ancient Rome. Then, when Howard was alone at the sales counter, thumbing through a magazine, she approached. Howard closed and pushed the magazine aside, looked at Annemarie, and said, “Oh. It’s you. Hello.”
“So, you remember me this time.”
“Yes. I was kind of distracted that day, and, of course ... I mean it was so very long ago that we ... I mean when we knew each other.”
Smiling, Annemarie said, “It’s okay to say ‘when we screwed.’”
A bit startled, Howard said, “Right.”
“So, how are you these days, Howard?”
“I’m fine, Annemarie.”
“Oh. Now I’m impressed. You remember my name.”
“Yes, of course, although I don’t remember the rest of it.”
“When we met, it had been Herndon. Now it’s Morris.”
“Oh, you’re married.”
“Are you disappointed?”
“Why would I be?” Howard asked.
“No reason. Are you married or involved with someone?”
He scanned her books, bagged them, and said, “That will be $58.93.” She handed a charge card to him. He completed the transaction, asked her to sign, and handed the receipt to her, saying, “Do you live in the area? I mean have you been here all of these years?”
“No. My husband and I lived in Arizona for years.”
“Oh. And you live in New York now? You and your husband?”
“I do.” She waited. Then she said, “He died a few months ago. We buried him there, in Arizona. I live in New York, East 87th Street.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Again, she waited. Finally, she said, “You know, even though this is a lovely store and I do like books and I read every day, there’s a Barnes and Noble just a few blocks from where I live.”
“They can’t provide the service that West Side Booksellers can. I can get any book you want, including vintage, collector’s items, out of print, and we have author talks and. ...” Then, as a light bulb went off, Howard said, “You were leading up to something, weren’t you?”
Blushing slightly, Annemarie said, “Look, we’re both too old to fool around and waste time. I liked you back then and I will always remember how nice you were to me when I was so low. I’m not interested in a romp in bed. I don’t do that anymore, but I wouldn’t mind going out for a cup of coffee with you. I’d pay. I’m well off. I am. I don’t usually say that, but my husband left me a bundle.”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
Annemarie waited. Howard struggled to figure out what to say next. Finally, Annemarie said, “It doesn’t have to be coffee, you know.”
“I know. Why do you want to do this?”
“Are you asking because you have a low opinion of yourself?”
“No. I don’t. I just wonder. I mean, after all these years.”
“Maybe that’s why. All these years gone by, like water running downstream. Let me say this: I still believe there’s a link between us. I needed a helping hand then, and you offered it, even if you didn’t realize it and even though it did not lead to anything, and it mattered. If you want to go out with me, I think we’d have a good time. And, there’s something I want to say, but I don’t want to talk about it now.”
“When would you like to do this?”
“If that’s not a cold way of putting it, I don’t know what is.”
“I’m sorry. I mean when would you like to go out?”
“Here’s my phone number. Call me, if you want.”
As she walked out the door of the shop, Annemarie mumbled to herself, “Why do I want to do this?”
Later, Roger called. At first, he was tentative, sighing more than speaking. Then, he opened up. He talked for a full uninterrupted five minutes, at the end of which he said, “So, I guess that’s about it.”
“I’m so glad you told me. I feel like an idiot for having waited all these years to ask you, but I explained about—”
“I know, mom. It’s okay.” When she remained silent, Roger asked, “So, what’s your reaction?”
“I guess it’s what I said last night: I hope you’re happy and I hope you can find someone to love, but I understand your feelings. I also hope you’re being careful about sex, safe sex.”
“I am. I always am.”
“Okay. Good. Well, I don’t know what else to say.”
“You don’t think I’m weird, do you?”
“No. I don’t. Of course not. I think everything you do is wonderful. You know, love and relationships and commitment and marriage are not always all they’re cracked up to be. Although some people, maybe lots of people, fall in love with one person, others fall in love over and over again, and are happy. It’s just that people are so damned dreamy-eyed about it, and the truth is often very different. They expect all of their relationships to be stardust and Champagne.”
Roger was silent for a few seconds, and then he said, “I think part of the reason is books and movies and songs. They glorify love. I guess not a lot of people want to dance to a song called ‘I Sleep Around Because I Don’t Believe In Love.’”
Annemarie laughed, and then she said, “That’s actually a very catchy title. Why don’t you write that song?”
“Ha. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“Always a first time. I like that title. I’ll have to remember it.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe in it. It’s more that I just don’t get it.”
“I understand. It’s all very complex. Some people fall in love and get married, and they’re happy or at least content. Others are miserable in their relationships. Some move from person to person. Sometimes, it’s all about sex and nothing else. That—sex—is a really complicated subject by itself. For others, it’s all about caring for another person as much as you care about yourself. And it goes on and on.”
“I know. For me, sex and friendship are all I want, other than work and money and all the other normal parts of life.”
“I think part of the complication is that people are taught by their parents and others that sex should be only within marriage—and I’m not saying that’s wrong. It’s just that sex and marriage are two entirely different things.”
“This is such a strange discussion to be having with my mother.”
“That’s another part of the problem. Parents and children can talk with each other about everything, except for sex. That shouldn’t be.”
“I guess, but getting back to what you said, one of the guys I work with—he’s divorced—he says that now that he’s single again he can’t imagine having sex with one woman night after night, year after year. He says sex complicates relationships and relationships kill sex.”
“That shouldn’t be the case. If you love someone, you can feel passion for him or her and you can want to please that person for years and years. No matter what, that feeling shouldn’t disappear.”
“Is that how it was with you and dad? You don’t have to tell me.”
“I’ll tell you.” After thinking for a few seconds, Annemarie said, “I loved your father with all my heart. He was my lover, my savior, and my husband, and he made me happy. The age difference was a problem. He got old when I was still a young woman. We both should’ve realized that would happen, but he was strong and virile and full of life. I thought he’d stay that way forever.”
“I always wondered about that—the age difference.”
“Actually, more than that was the fact that I didn’t want to be there. That ranch wasn’t my home. He should’ve understood that I had—still have—a longing for a real home. That’s because I never had one.” As Annemarie said that she knew what Roger’s next words would be.
“What? What about the farm in Missouri and your family?”
“Yes. Of course. I mean, since they died when I was so young I’ve always felt I don’t have a home.”
“I’m sure dad tried to help you feel at home on the ranch.”
“Well, he told me over and over again to give it one more year and then one more year, but he was never willing to compromise with me. He was forceful and powerful and just had to have his way. He loved that ranch and he didn’t want to move. I always resented that because he made me feel like I was a little girl with no say in our life together, as if he was my father and I had to do whatever he wanted. It brought back bad memories.”
“Of … of a long-standing disagreement I had with my parents. It happens in the best of families.”
“You, know, by the time I was 13, I couldn’t stand living there.”
“I told your father, but he was sure you loved it there. I should have taken you away to New York years ago, when you were young.”
“That would have been terrible for dad. I’m glad you didn’t and I’m glad you stayed with him to the end.”
“To the end.”
After a moment of silence, Roger asked, “So, we’re good, ma?”
“We’re more than good. I love you. Don’t ever feel reluctant to talk to me about anything.”
“The same goes for me, mom.”
“I mean it. Why are you sitting at home alone every night?”
“Oh. Well, I might. ...”
“You might what?”
After hesitating for a few seconds, Annemarie told Roger about her trip to the bookstore and her offer to Howard.
“So, you knew him years ago, before you were married.”
“I feel like such an old fool, but there’s something there. He’s a good looking man—doesn’t look his age, but he’s kind of ... different.”
“Different is good, mom.”
“Yes, sweetheart. Different is very good.”
When Howard called Annemarie, after a quick hello, he got right to the point: “I would like to take you out to dinner on Saturday night.”
“Wow. You didn’t waste any time with small talk.”
“I have never liked or understood the need for small talk.”
“Okay, then. Saturday night it is. What time Saturday night?”
“Uh. I don’t know. What is the usual time for this sort of thing?”
“You mean for a date?”
“I suppose so,” he replied.
“How about seven? I don’t like to eat late. Bad for my digestion.”
She gave her address to Howard and told him she was looking forward to seeing him. After the phone call ended Annemarie stood by one of her large windows looking at the sky and wondering, once again, why she was doing this, thinking, Why him?
Howard rang Annemarie’s doorbell at precisely seven on Saturday night. She ushered him into her apartment and asked him to wait in the living room while she finished putting on her make-up. He smiled as he thought, Yes, lemon drops. He sat and thumbed through a copy of Vogue.
A few minutes later, as Annemarie reentered the room, she asked, “So, what do you think of my cozy little home?”
“It’s large, and filled with furniture and paintings.”
“Was that a compliment?”
“Yes. You have beautiful furniture and the windows and the view are wonderful and the pictures are lovely. It is all quite nice.”
Annemarie smiled, picked up her key, gestured for Howard to open the door, and they walked out. As they descended in the elevator she assessed his appearance. He was wearing an inexpensive but tasteful suit, a sparkling white shirt, and a tie, but his shoes were in need of a shine. However, he looked nice: slim, sturdy looking, with a full head of thick black hair with delicate streaks of gray. She put her arm through his as they walked through the lobby and onto the early evening sidewalk.
“So, where are we going for dinner, Howard?”
“I was about to ask you. I don’t know this part of the city at all.”
“Well, there are dozens and dozens of mid-range and better and some very pricey restaurants. What would you like to eat?”
“Maybe I told you. I don’t remember. I’m very picky about food.”
“Does that mean no meat?”
“I never eat meat, but I do eat fish now. That’s something new.”
“Lovely. I know just the place. Where’s your car?”
“My car? I don’t have one.”
“Oh. How did you get here tonight?”
“Subway. I always take the subway.”
“I haven’t traveled by subway in I don’t know how long.”
They decided that since it was a balmy evening they would walk to a popular seafood restaurant only a few blocks away. Although Howard strained mightily, he could not think of anything to say. Annemarie began talking about her life in Arizona on the ranch, her marriage, how Mark had been ill for years, and about her son Roger. As they strolled along the busy, tree-lined sidewalk, Annemarie’s heart swelled with joy and satisfaction as she thought again how happy she was to be back in the city. Perhaps because the only people with whom she had been in regular contact since her return to New York were her long-time friend Gina and Roger, Annemarie maintained a steady flow of chatter. As she explained why she had hated the desert and the ranch for almost the entire time she lived there she began hinting about her loss of feelings for Mark. She felt disloyal, but then she reminded herself that life is for the living and the dead cannot hear what is said about them. Right outside of the restaurant, Annemarie turned to Howard and said, “I don’t imagine you’ve ever had that feeling—the suffocating feeling that your life is wrong, that it’s not the way it should be, that you’re where you don’t belong and you can’t do a damned thing about it.”
Howard felt a tingle run up and down his spine. He looked at Annemarie, studied her face, and said, “I ... I feel that every day of my life.” As they ate, Howard studied the cozy restaurant and said that he liked it. Annemarie smiled. Then he said, “You’re the first person I’ve spoken to, outside of my store, in ... I don’t know how long.”
When she asked why that was he said that he had lived in solitude for so long that he did not know anyone, to which she replied, “You must know people, maybe not as friends, but you must know people.”
“I don’t. My parents died long ago. I haven’t kept up with anyone in my family and I have never had friendships. I know. I’m peculiar.”
“You’re not, just different, and that’s fine. But, in terms of friends, I have only one in the city and I have my son, who, as I said, lives in New Jersey.”
“No other family?”
“Well, there’s Mark and Elaine, my deceased husband’s children from his first marriage, but I’ve never been close to them.”
“Did you raise them?”
“No. They’re both around my age, so they were adults when I married Mark. They’re both nice.” After a moment, she said, “Have you had any relationships over the years?”
Howard put down his fork and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. He stared at Annemarie, trying to decide whether or not to talk about the central issue, the great disappointment and enduring agony of his life with this woman who was, after all, a stranger. He thought he remembered from so many years in the past that she was a sympathetic listener. He knew that she felt adrift and displaced, as he did. He wanted to tell her, to unburden himself, but, strangely, during the weeks since he had ended his cold, dark, self-imposed exile and reentered the world he had been so consumed with reading his old mail, paying overdue bills, mending fences with suppliers, and attempting to return his business to where it had been that he found himself thinking less often than usual about Faye. He kept telling himself that, perhaps, he needed a lighter touch and that his full-bore attempt to reach Faye and that place and time by hiding away in his apartment had resulted only in the waste of three months of his life, during which time he had stopped eating and shaving and bathing, which led to that unnerving situation involving the police. Besides, he told himself, as he did each day now, Faye is dead ... if not really dead, then just not alive for me.
He told Annemarie that he had been in one long-term relationship, but it was over. He had never said that out loud. He understood that he had continue to do what he had been attempting: go about his daily life as other people did and not think about other planes of existence or attempt to be with someone who was gone. He realized that abandoning his search for Faye was necessary for his sanity and for him to have a chance to be happy.
Annemarie sipped Sauvignon Blanc. Howard slowly chewed a mouthful of salmon. When she brought up the subject of books that she had read, Howard rose to the occasion. After just a few minutes of book talk she was spellbound, speechless, and glowing. Then she said, “You know, that’s one of the things I missed out there, in Arizona: being able to talk about books. Sure, there were book clubs, but the last thing I wanted was to sit with a bunch of chatty ladies who got together to discuss the latest trashy romance novel, but who really wanted to gossip and talk about their children and which nail salon is the best.”
Howard, energized and confident, provided Annemarie with an inspired summary of the history of the romance novel, concluding with, “Ultimately, the most cherished romance novels, as with most operas, end in tragedy.” As he said those words, his demeanor transformed from sparkling and enthusiastic to gloomy and drained. Annemarie looked at him, attempting to decide whether to offer consolation or allow the moment to pass.
Finally, she whispered, “Look at me, Howard. No one goes through life unscathed.”
Outside the restaurant, she took his arm and said that they should sit in Central Park for a while before he brought her home. He declined, saying it was late and he had to be up early for work. She stamped her foot in a child-like way and pretended to be angry, which made him smile. He agreed, but said they could not stay there for long.
Once they had seated themselves on a bench Annemarie said, “You didn’t have to pay for dinner. My husband left me quite wealthy.”
“I think it was the appropriate thing to do.”
“It was very nice. How come you don’t drink?”
“I have never wanted to. I want to be in control of my emotions.”
“Oh? I like the buzz, especially from Champagne.”
“But you didn’t drink any tonight.”
“I don’t usually drink Champagne with dinner.”
Howard felt comfortably enveloped in the silky-warm atmosphere of the leafy park. Annemarie chatted about something having to do with investment funds and tax consequences. He knew he should be listening, but suddenly his brain was home to a dizzying array of familiar, intensely disturbing thoughts. He tried to smother them, but was unable to do so. Those electrical signals migrated from his brain to his vocal cords, where muscles transformed them into vibrations which traveled up to his closed mouth, where they became words. They were like molten rocks and fiery ash trapped and trembling below the vent of a long-dormant, sealed volcano; even as he tried to hold those sizzling sounds in place he knew that a powerful burst of long-suppressed energy would soon send them shooting out and into the air. Against his will, his lips moved and he moaned. At the very moment when Annemarie turned to him to ask a question, Howard exploded with, “I have to tell you ... the story of ... of my grief,” and then he lapsed into dark silence.
Annemarie waited. She was surprised but not alarmed by Howard’s interruption (She also thought of it as an eruption). When he remained silent, she said, “I want to hear, if you want to tell me.”
“I don’t know why I want to tell you.”
“You don’t need a reason. In an odd way, we have a connection, a history. We knew each other for three days many years ago. I thought there was something special between us. You didn’t. We had sex. For a few minutes we were intimate. We saw each other naked. Now, if you want to bare your soul to me, that’s fine. I consider myself your friend.”
“That would make you my only friend.” She smiled sadly and touched him gently on one of his cheeks.
“No. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, maybe another time.”
A block before her building, the skies opened up, instantly soaking them. They shivered as they walked through the air conditioned lobby to the elevator. “I knew I should have taken a jacket,” Annemarie said, shaking her head and shivering. When they reached her floor she said, “You must come in for a minute to dry off. I insist. I will not take no for an answer.”
In the apartment, Annemarie handed a large fluffy bath towel to Howard, which he used to wipe his hands and face and dry his hair. Then she draped a blanket over his shoulders and led him to the kitchen. When she offered to make tea, Howard said that he had to get home, but she insisted that he have a cup and wait until the storm abated. As she put a kettle of water on the range she said she wanted to change her clothes. A minute later, she emerged from her bedroom wearing a sweater and a pair of jeans. Her hair was still wet. She brought a tray with tea things and cake to an enormous glass-topped table in a large window nook in the gleaming kitchen.
They sipped hot cinnamon plum tea. Annemarie held up a small bottle of brandy. Howard declined. After she had poured a dollop into her cup and sipped, she said, “Delicious. Please try it.” Making a face like a child who knows he must take his medicine, Howard took a very small sip of hers. After a moment, he said, “You know, that was very tasty,” so she poured some brandy into his cup, and he drained it. The strong liquor shot up to his brain in an instant. He immediately felt lightheaded and serene. He was floating. He smiled as Annemarie talked about the musicals and concerts to which she had purchased tickets, saying, “Of course, for most of them, I’ll be going alone, poor little rich girl that I am, if you can call a broad my age a girl.”
After consuming a second cup of spiked tea, Howard said, “I think I want to tell you about Faye now, if you want to hear.” She put a hand on his arm and said that she wanted him to tell her.
Although his head was spinning he had no trouble speaking clearly. He did not pull any punches, explaining that he had never understood what it meant to love someone or be a loving partner in a relationship, finally saying, “My peculiar way of relating to people—by not relating to them—defined who I was, maybe who I still am. That’s why I was harsh and impatient with Peter. That’s why he left. That’s why Faye left. I don’t know where she is. Even if I found her she wouldn’t want to see me. I hope she found Peter. I hope he’s okay.” And then, choked up, he stopped talking. He sobbed. He had not wept in the presence of another person since he had been a child. He was not merely shedding tears, but reaching out to Annemarie. He did not understand why, but he was grateful for the fact that she was there and because she looked concerned and seemed to understand his pain. During this wrenching emotional outburst, which had been triggered by the brandy, Howard divulged a lifetime of unhappiness and disappointment. A seemingly boundless stream of hitherto suppressed feelings poured forth like matter from a long-festering wound. He sobbed and wiped his eyes and blew his nose over and over again, eventually filling with tissues the small waste basket that Annemarie brought to him. Reaching the end, he felt tired, oh so tired, but strangely relieved. Then he realized that he was not weeping because he would never see Faye again, although he still wanted to be with her; his misery had to do with his arid, empty existence, in which books were his only companions.
Howard understood that he had been able to have a relationship with Faye only because she had accepted him for who he was: a detached, emotionless, cold-blooded organism that functioned on the basis of primitive impulses and rigidly unchanging routines. When it was time to eat, he ate. When it was time for bed, he slept. When he saw Faye and became aroused, he moved close and kissed her. He had been pleased that she had always been warm and willing and loving. He accepted the fact that, as Faye had said, his need for her was based on what she did for him. She was accepting of me and she always satisfied my desires. That was it. Plain and simple. That line of hard, clinical reasoning allowed Howard a measure of gloomy serenity.
As those harsh insights percolated through his mind he decided that he was doing a good thing: by cold-heartedly dissecting his relationship with Faye and finally understanding his motives, needs, and shortcomings he was consigning that chapter of his life to the dead past, which might allow him to open a new one. Sad, but necessary. Then he recalled something written by Jean de la Fontaine: “Sadness flies away on the wings of time.” Is that true? he wondered. Does one become less sad over time? I haven’t. Then he considered the fact that, once Faye had left he had managed to go on with his life. He had not actually missed her as a person. Yes, he had enjoyed having sex with her and sleeping next to her; he had liked the fact that for the first time in his life, other than during his childhood years with his parents, he was eating meals with someone else. He also had looked forward to simply talking to her.
And then she left, and he adjusted to the change in his life. It was not until after 9/11, when he saw people consoling others, that he became aware of the fact that he was alone in the world. As he witnessed the displays of shared grief and universal concern he was perplexed, and then he became overwhelmed by loneliness and despair. That was when he began to reminisce about his years with Faye. As time passed, he repeatedly thought about attempting to move back in time so as to be with her, and that eventually became an obsession.
“Howard,” Annemarie whispered.
“I’m okay now. I needed to say all that. For the first time in years, I think I may be able to handle my life. I still feel empty and raw inside, but maybe I’ll be able to work on that.”
“Good. I’m glad you opened up to me. I can say a lot, but you look so tired. Why don’t you sleep here tonight? It’s still pouring outside.”
“No. I don’t think that’s a good idea. That was the plan so many years ago, and look how that turned out.”
“Well, things are different now. For one thing, I’m an old lady and I’m not interested in fooling around in bed with you or anyone else. Besides, I know we should be friends, just friends, at least for a while.”
“I think I still better go home.”
“No. I don’t want you to be alone, not tonight. Stay. We’ll talk some more. In fact, I want to tell you something. When I was in your store the other day, there was something I wanted to say to you. I want to tell you now.” She told about the last time they had been together, that day in the bookstore years before, when Howard made it clear that he was not at all interested in her. She told him how she had stumbled out to the sidewalk, embarrassed, distressed, and dizzy; how, suddenly, she felt too weak to walk; how a man had helped her to get home. “He was my knight in shining armor. I know—it’s a hackneyed metaphor—but that was how I felt at the time. He took care of me. We went out a few times before he even tried to kiss me. I found that refreshing and I understood that he really valued me as a person, and not an easy lay. There was a big age difference. I’m sure that was at least part of the appeal for him, but he was respectful and handsome and kind. I was happy that he was rich.” She stopped talking and poured a good-sized splash of brandy into her empty teacup and sipped it. Then, after wiping her mouth with a napkin she sat a little lower on her chair.
“I guess what you’re saying is because of the callous manner in which I treated you, Mark came into your life.”
“Yes, but I understand why you did what you did. I tried to push myself on you. I shouldn’t have. And—”
“I guess a more normal man would have acted differently.”
“Maybe. In any case, that is how Mark came into my life.”
“That was a good thing.”
“Not so much after.”
“What I’ll say is I was deliriously happy when we got married. I loved being with him and, for the first time in my life, I had enough money—in fact, too much money—and I felt secure. We had a lovely apartment. I was bored sometimes, but I loved him. And then we had Roger. He was a perfect baby and he’s been a wonderful son. Even though Mark was so much older than me, I think we would have ... I mean our marriage would have lasted, if we had remained in the city. But that was not to be. I thought my home, my place in life, was with Mark. Turns out, he wasn’t enough and he did not understand me, my need to come back to New York. I’m happier now, much happier than I’ve been for the past ... I don’t know … a lot of years.”
“So, in a way, I caused your years of unhappiness.”
“No! Don’t think of it that way. You weren’t ready for me. I liked you, but what I really wanted was a man to take care of me. I didn’t take your feelings or those of anybody else into account.”
“That’s how I was with Faye.”
“That was then. This is now.”
“It’s a mystery, this whole subject of how people act with each other and what makes them happy and whether that happiness lasts.”
“I know you’ve been hurt and you feel your life hasn’t turned out as you expected it would. In that way we’re very much alike. I want to remain friends with you.” She looked down at her hands and then back to Howard. “We should talk on the phone, go out to eat on occasion, maybe go to the theater. I’ll pay. The way Mark set it up, I’ll never be able to make even a small dent in the money he left me.”
“I don’t know. Even though I’m trying not to, I’m still grieving and I’m not sure I know how to be with someone, you know, how to have a friendship relationship.”
“But you do. We’re doing it now. We had a lovely dinner and we sat in the park and we talked. You opened up to me and I did to you.”
“And I cried. I’ve never cried in front of anyone before.”
“Surely you have.”
“No. Of course, my parents, but only when I was very young. I remember I felt estranged, distant from them from an early age.”
“That may just be the way you remember it now.”
“I don’t think so.”
Annemarie knew she should leave Howard alone, let him walk out of her apartment and decide whether or not to call her again, but she was afraid that if she did that their connection would be broken. She understood him well enough to believe that he needed encouragement or at least a reason to think that they could be friends with a future together, so she said, “Howard, I can’t explain it, but I don’t want you to walk out and never talk to me again. I think we were meant to be friends.”
His lips quivered and his eyes became moist again, and then he said, “I think I’d like that. I will call you.”
Annemarie smiled and nodded and then Howard walked out of the apartment, trying not to think of Faye.