Let me begin by providing a fundamental nugget of information about Howard Roark Fox. He is (I am) different from just about every other person you are ever likely to meet. He doesn’t. Okay, I do not conform to the rules. I do not play the game. I have always had difficulty fitting in and have always had trouble understanding why other people think it is so important to do so. That’s just me. I do not purposely attempt to be different; that is just the way I am. That’s how my brain works. For just about as far back as I can remember I have done as I pleased, acted independently, and have not cared about what other people think or say or feel about me or, for that matter, about anything else. I have never felt the need to conform, although that behavior has caused me and others around me a great deal of grief over the years. I do not mean to hurt people. It’s just that, until very recently, I have never been the least bit hesitant when it comes to doing what I have to do to get what I want or to protect myself. Other people ask themselves, “Is this right?” or they think, “I really should do this” or “I shouldn’t do that.” I think, “This is what I have to do,” and then I do it. Actually, I don’t even have to spend any time thinking about it. I just do what comes naturally. I guess it’s a reflex, a peculiarity in my brain, a kind of animal instinct. When I was a child my mother told me that if I did not share with others I would not have friends and I would live my life alone. I did share, but I was always jumping out of my skin when it was another child’s turn. Then, something happened—I will get to that much later in the story—and, by the time I was nine years old I had completely turned away from other children and decided I would rather be alone. That way, I would not have to wait my turn or share. Besides, I had learned that sharing is not always a good thing.
Although I have changed quite a lot recently, I’ll give you an example of how I have functioned for most of my life and how I have perceived the world. There was the time I was impatiently waiting on line in a local hardware store. I don’t remember what I was buying; oh yes, it was some little plumbing part, a washer or something for the sink at the back of my place of business. In any case, the line was moving at a crawl that was raising my blood pressure to astronomical heights and, besides, I really needed to use my bathroom—not just any bathroom, but my bathroom. I knew I had to get home right away, but I also needed that plumbing part and would be too busy for the next few days to return to that store, so I moved off the line, ducked into an aisle, ripped the part out of its rigid plastic package (I have very strong hands and fingers. Faye calls them ... used to call them “bear paws”), dumped the package (because it would have set off the door alarm), and slipped the piece into a pocket. Sure, lots of people shoplift, but here’s the thing: at the time, I did not think of what I was doing as stealing. In fact, even today, I don’t ever mind when people walk out of my store with little items from time to time. There are too damned many rules and too much concern about what I own and what you own and about my rights and your rights. When I have needed something, I have always just done whatever was necessary to get it. Get it? Does that make me a terrible person? I don’t see it that way. As I said, until very recently, I have not cared about what other people think of me, or anything else.
Here’s another illustration of how I have operated for most of my life: when I first saw Faye it was as if I had been struck by lightning, but in a good way; all I could think of was that she was dazzlingly beautiful, a heavenly shaft of golden sunlight breaking through the inky-black clouds of that cold, rainy day that warmed me to my core. I longed to touch her velvety, lustrous midnight-black hair and the skin of her silky-smooth face. I stared at her large, round, dark eyes. I was not only aroused, but in love, although, at the time, I did not understand what that meant. I had never felt that or anything like it before. She was like a woman from Perfect Planet. She was also smart and easy to talk to in an amiable, tranquil way. Later, after we had gone out to dinner that first time, she made it clear that she was not interested in transitory dating or in having a casual relationship or anything sordid or tawdry. After all, she explained, she was 29 years old, ready to marry the right man, have babies, and take a few years off from work to be a stay-at-home mom. She said that with the hint of a childlike smile on her astonishingly lovely face as I stood in the hallway outside of her apartment talking to her through her doorway. In reply, I told her that I was ready for that.
Was I? I really did not understand what it meant. All I could think of at that moment—all I had been able to think about from the moment I had first seen her in that juice bar on Claremont Avenue on that wretched, depressing rainy afternoon—was how nice it would feel to wrap my arms around her, how wonderful her soft, smooth naked skin would feel as I caressed her. Before I go on, let me explain: I’m not a Lothario. In fact, at that point in my life—1991; 28 years old—I was only one frenzied evening beyond my original virginal state. Up to that moment I had not spent much time pursuing women. I always had other things on my mind. I’ll get to that later.
In any case, I knew what Faye wanted and I knew what I wanted, and to my way of thinking the two wants were about the same, so I told her that I was ready. I was not lying. At that time, the way my mind worked, I automatically, reflexively, said or did what was necessary to get what I wanted or needed and I always believed that it was absolutely true. It’s like this: if you were hungry to the point of collapse, and there was an apple or a banana or a piece of bread or a candy bar in front of you, would you look around and try to find someone from whom to ask permission or would you lunge for it? By now, you know what I would do. At that moment, I wanted Faye in every imaginable way and I was ready to promise to commit to her for the long haul. I did not even begin to ask myself whether or not I would be able to do it—the marriage thing and fatherhood and a house in the suburbs and a minivan and all that—I just said that I was ready for a serious relationship too.
That was then and there, long ago and far away. I must repeat that my unique way of viewing the world has caused me and others to suffer, and that is why, little by little, I have tried to understand how to live this thing called life and become a real person. Think of Pinocchio.
Now I’ll tell my story in the third person for a while, and then, at some point, I’ll talk directly to you again. I think you’ll get used to it.
Howard sat silently, with his eyes tightly closed, for several minutes. Then, as he (that’s me; as I said, you’ll get used to it) sat back and then reclined, falling into the comfort of the plush black sofa in Dr. LeMane’s stark sitting room, he opened his eyes and looked up at the maze of web-like spidery ceiling cracks. After a few seconds he came to realize that three things were wrong: the strands were not connected, the pattern lacked symmetry, and there was no spider. He squeezed his eyes until they were almost closed, leaving just a narrow camera-lens opening, and concentrated on one section of the web and then another, searching for the broken ends, hoping that he might be able to see how to repair the damage before it was too late. How long, he wondered, had this incomplete, wavering jumble of silvery threads been like this? Was it possible that no one else had seen it? Had Dr. LeMane not noticed it?
“It’s damaged? It shouldn’t stay like that, you know. I’m sure you’ve seen it. How could you not see it? How long has it been like this?” Howard asked as he continued to stare unhappily at the ruin. He made sure to stifle the sob that was lodged deep in his grief-stricken throat. During his sessions with Dr. Erik Heinzman, that therapist had advised Howard to “acknowledge all of your grief, but do not allow it to annihilate you.” Howard had been upset with Dr. Heinzman during the year that he had spent in his care because that therapist had not seemed to understand his overwhelming agony.
However, Howard had learned how to reveal his deepest feelings and cope, at least, most of the time.
“What do you see, Howard?” Dr. LeMane asked as he examined the ceiling of his sitting room.
“You don’t see it? Don’t you see the unspeakable damage?” Howard asked, more distressed now, but still managing to suppress the sob that was choking him.
“I know you are looking at the ceiling.”
“Of course, I’m looking at the ceiling. So are you.”
“What do you see that has been damaged? Are you referring to the ceiling cracks? Why does that bother you?”
Howard squeezed his eyes shut and opened the synapses in his brain to better understand Dr. LeMane’s question. Then he was with her again, with Faye, back then and there, as he was hundreds of times each day. Forcing his mind to turn away from her, he carefully composed an answer for Dr. LeMane. Once he had decided on what words to use and after he had heard them in his head, he opened his eyes, looked at the therapist, and said, “It’s just that I want everything to be perfect. I know, that’s not how the world is. I understand, but I can’t help but try, try, try. I know what I want and I want it so badly it hurts.”
“Isn’t that part of the human condition, Howard? Don’t we all want a perfect world for ourselves and those we love?”
“I don’t want it for anyone else—just me. Is that too much to ask?”
“No. It is most certainly not too much. Satisfying one’s needs is primal. It’s just that, at some point in our lives, we learn that we cannot always do that—satisfy our needs. You just said you know that to be true. It will make you very sad to keep trying to pursue that goal of a perfect existence.”
“I understand, doctor,” Howard forlornly replied.
“I have told you—you may call me Pierre or Peter. I abhor formality in the therapeutic setting. I call you Howard and you call me Pierre. Okay?”
“I can’t ignore the pain and the waste. Do you understand that?”
“Of course. I do not think you should ignore anything, Howard, but you cannot allow the pain or sadness or whatever else you feel to drag you down to a state of depression.”
“I am depressed. I’ve been depressed for years, doctor.”
“I understand. If I am to help you, we must discuss the specific causes of your unhappiness and you must learn how to deal with them.”
“How much time do we have?”
“Today, about 30 minutes more.”
“No. I mean how much time altogether?”
“That is up to you. Surely you know that from your previous therapist. Your treatment may take months or years. It depends on how open you are willing to be and how well the treatment works for you.”
“Isn’t there a shortcut? I need to return to that other time.”
After hesitating for a few seconds and doodling on his notepad, Dr. LeMane looked up and replied, “I know of no therapeutic shortcut, Howard, and time travel is a fantasy. You must accept the fact that we are locked in the present. Why don’t we begin with what is upsetting you right now? What do you see on the ceiling?”
Howard looked at Dr. LeMane for a moment before saying, “I guess I see a broken pattern, a metaphor for my shattered life.”
At that time, a little over a year ago, I was very despondent. I was tangled up in memories and regrets and a sense of loss so great that it defined who I was and marked the boundaries of my existence. Since then I have begun to learn how to accept my reality and deal with the unique questions, concerns, and agonies that come with it.
Dr. LeMane was ... is only the second real therapist from whom I have sought help. Since I did not believe he was helping me, I compiled a list of other psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed therapists, along with the names of shamans, time-space mediators, and others who claimed to understand the rules of human existence, so as to help me return to my correct time and place. I called it my Pacha list, after the Inca concept of the oneness of time and space. I knew I should have done that years before, and not in 2019, when I was 56 years old, closer to the end than the beginning. Oh, well, I thought, I have good genes and I’m healthy, so if I keep working at it, one of the people on my list will be able to help me before I decay and crumble into a pile of dust.
At the beginning of 2019, Howard was living alone in a third-floor walk-up in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. Some of the people who lived there referred to their neighborhood as the Upper West Side; others insisted with pride that it was part of Harlem. Howard did not see the distinction. He had lived in the building since 1992, when he had moved into it with Faye. It had been her apartment. Just about three years later, she had thrown some clothes into a suitcase and moved out. Howard stayed in the apartment. Once he understood that she was not returning, he placed the last of her belongings, the ones she had not taken, into a couple of plastic bags and dumped them down the chute with the rest of the garbage.
He had not considered moving, because the apartment building was a two-minute walk from the bookstore he owned. Thanks, at least partly to nearby Columbia University, the store did well. Besides new, used, and rare books, Howard sold magazines, newspapers, pocket calendars, notebooks, posters, specialty bookmarks, pens, stationery, and other related items. Since he did not have any hobbies, interests, or outside pursuits, he opened his store early every day, generally around 8 a.m., and closed when he felt tired, around 10 p.m.
Howard had begun loving books when he was nine years old. He generally stayed in his room in his parents’ house, reading, while other boys played in the streets and schoolyards and parks of his leafy Brooklyn neighborhood. Even on hot summer days, when those boys frolicked on the sand and recklessly dove into the crashing surf at Coney Island, Howard sat on his bed in his steamy room, too immersed in the stories he read to notice that he was covered in sweat. Besides, there was something about the ocean that upset and unnerved him.
During high school he read for four or five hours each day and far into the night after he had painstakingly completed his homework. The characters, images, and scenes from those books inhabited his brain and fed his soul. He also loved to hold books, examine them, run his fingers over their textured pages, inviting covers, and exquisite bindings and breathe in their intoxicating odors. Mostly, he enjoyed possessing them. While other boys used their money to buy balls and bats and baseball cards, Howard spent every spare dime on books. When he wasn’t in school or studying or reading, he trolled bookstores, garage sales, and flea markets throughout the five boroughs, one day, taking the subway to Lower Manhattan, where he boarded the Staten Island Ferry, after which he took two buses to attend a massive used book and antiques sale at the Staten Island Armory, where he bought dozens of volumes.
By the time he graduated from high school—with honors—the old wooden bookshelves in his small bedroom sagged with the weight of 400 books, all meticulously arranged, the non-fiction books by subject, and fiction—including poetry and drama—by the last names of the writers. Another 200 or so books which did not fit on the shelves were neatly piled in the corners of his room, also painstakingly separated and arranged. To Howard, a memorable day was one during which he was able to get his hands on a dusty old copy of The Great Gatsby or The House of the Seven Gables or an early edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. His life changed when he discovered Ayn Rand. He instantly connected to her and her philosophy of Objectivism, and understood her as he had understood no one else. Howard had long believed that the sole purpose of his life was to pursue his own sense of satisfaction. He saw that Rand referred to that as rational self-interest. At that point, he came to believe that his way of life was reasonable and realistic. That is when he started calling himself Howard Roark. His parents, bewildered and very concerned, talked about what to do, and continued to call him Martin.
At Columbia University, which Howard attended on a scholarship, he conducted independent research into the history of ink, paper, printing, and bookbinding. When he graduated, magna cum laude, with a bachelor of arts in English, he knew more about the paper, bindings, and ink used in book production than most people in the publishing business. His appreciation for and love of books had evolved from the defining aspect of his life to an obsession.
A month before he graduated, Howard told Mr. Schneider, the owner of West Side Booksellers, that once school ended he would be able to work for him full time. Mr. Schneider replied by saying, “I thought you had gotten over that silly idea. Why would you want to do that—smart young man like you? Take your degree, and get yourself a good job.”
“This is a good job. I want to continue working here.”
“I know you do, and you have been a reliable worker for the past four years, although, as I have mentioned, you could work a bit on your people skills. But this is not a job for a college-educated boy. I can’t raise your hourly pay or put you on a weekly salary, you know.”
“I don’t care. I plan on staying here.”
“The store is not doing that well. I think you know that. I don’t know whether I will be able to give you a full week of work.”
“That’s fine. I’ll work here full time; pay me what you can afford.”
“No, Howard—let’s do this: you can keep working here, and I’ll try to give you more hours, but I can’t promise. During your free time you should look for another kind of position—you know, something to pay you more than minimum wage, some kind of professional position.”
“This is all I want. Here, I can think about books and read. In fact, when I have enough money saved I’ll buy you out. That’s what I really want to do.”
“Oh? I didn’t know I was thinking about selling.”
“You will. When I have the money, you’ll sell to me. You can stay in the city or retire to Florida or somewhere else, and I’ll have my bookstore. I have dozens of ideas about how to expand the business and make it profitable when it’s mine.”
Mr. Schneider stared at Howard’s vacant eyes and shuddered. He turned his head to look at the door to see whether it was open and letting in a cold draft. It wasn’t. Outside, the busy sidewalk was bathed in shimmering waves of warm April sunlight.
Howard knew that Mr. Schneider would sell the store to him when he had the capital to purchase it; he also knew that he could make it profitable. Even though he did not have the money to buy the store yet, he was positive he would be able to raise it. All he needed was one special book, one that would be worth a pot of gold—so he kept looking. Two or three of the volumes in his collection were rare, but they were worth only hundreds; he needed thousands.
A year later, Howard heard that his across-the-street neighbor, Mr. Rosetti, had died at the age of 93. The day after the funeral, which Howard had not attended, Mr. Rosetti’s only child, a tired-looking middle-aged man named Johnny, who Howard had seen on occasion over the years, drove up to the house and parked his car. Howard watched the man sadly enter the house and close the door. Five minutes later, Howard, holding a handful of plastic trash bags, knocked on the door. When it opened, Howard, without offering a word of sympathy, told Johnny that he was there to collect his father’s books, explaining that the old man had known that Howard was a reader and had asked him, when the time came, to pack them up and dispose of them. Before Johnny could respond, Howard brushed past him and walked to Mr. Rosetti’s book-lined study.
“I don’t know what to do with all those books. I’m not a reader,” Johnny said with a weary sigh as he rubbed his face with his hands.
“Your father wanted them donated. I know who really needs them, so I’ll just bag them and take them there.”
Johnny stood in the doorway for a minute, forlornly watching Howard pull volumes from the shelves and place them in bag after bag. Then he walked away to begin packing up the rest of his father’s house.
Howard worked quickly, filling eight large lawn and leaf bags until they bulged. Then, without saying good-bye, he lugged the bags, two at a time, across the street to his parents’ house and up the long stairway to his room. He slowly and methodically created three piles: charity (he would decide on which one at another time); personal collection; pot of gold. About 200 books went into each of the first two groups. He placed nine books in the last pile. After a more careful examination, he placed two of those books on his personal collection pile. Of the seven remaining books in the pot of gold group, three seemed to be valuable and two were maybes. Two others were sure-fire winners: a 1903 first edition of The Call of the Wild in fine condition and a signed 1934 first edition of Tender is the Night in as-new condition.
After carefully dusting off those two gems and gently placing them and the other winners in the briefcase that he had used for college, Howard took the subway to Bauman Rare Books on Madison Avenue. As he sat, waiting for someone to speak to him, he excitedly breathed in the aroma of books—old books, valuable books, yellowed pages, ancient ink. A courtly, impeccably attired gentleman with a Van Dyke examined the books and then asked Howard to leave them. Howard refused, demanding a quote immediately.
“I am sorry, sir. We do not conduct business in that way. One of our experienced consultants will examine your books within a day or two. I will give you a receipt for them. Your books will be safe with us. We will call you when we have decided whether or not we wish to purchase any of them.”
“You don’t understand. They are valuable. Two of them are very valuable. You will want them. I need the money to open a business.”
“I do understand, and, assuming we are interested we will offer top dollar. We will contact you as soon as possible.”
Howard went home. He was disappointed and annoyed because he was accustomed to people bending to his whims. However, he knew they would want the books. Two days later, when the call came in, Howard heard what he had expected to hear: “We are very interested in purchasing all of your books.”
That afternoon, Howard walked out of Bauman Rare Books with a check for a bit over $60,000, which he deposited in his checking account. Then he took a taxi to West Side Booksellers, where Mr. Schneider, upon seeing Howard, said, “Oh, Howard. You have mixed up your days. You’re scheduled to work tomorrow, not today.”
Howard got right to the point: “I want to buy you out. I have the money for a down payment; I’ll borrow the rest. Name your price. I’ll pay it. I want to close on the deal as soon as possible.”
Again, Mr. Schneider felt chilled. Then he said, “You know, Howard, that is not the way to make an offer. I had not planned on selling or retiring just yet. We will have to talk about it in detail. Then I will need time to digest this information and consider whether or not I want to sell.”
“No. You have to sell. That’s what I want. It is also the best thing for you. And, if you are not willing to sell, I will open a new bookstore in a nearby location, and you may not survive.”
“Listen, Howard, you know a lot about books, but you don’t know about business. One of my reasons for hesitating to sell to you, besides the fact that I’m not ready to retire, is I’m afraid you will not be successful. You do not know how to talk to people; you don’t seem to ... to care about people. It would kill me to see this store, which I opened almost 50 years ago, fail.”
“I will learn how to talk to people.”
“I don’t know, Howard.”
“We’ll talk tomorrow, Mr. Schneider. You’ll sell to me.”
And he did.
“When I turn around the business I will send you a check for ten percent of the profit, starting this year. I will do that for each of the following four years. And, if the utterly impossible happens, and I do not turn a profit in the first year, I will return the business to you, and you may keep what I paid for it. I will keep my account books open so you can check them any day of the week.” That is what I told Mr. Schneider the next day. When he asked me whether he could have that in writing, I handed him the contract I had written the night before. He showed it to an attorney, who tweaked it a bit and rewrote it with lots of legalese. Two months later, when West Side Booksellers was mine, I hired a contractor to refurbish the place. Then I paid a trucker to bring over my book collection from my parents’ house. I placed those books on the shelves next to the ones already there, and ordered 500 new books.
Then I did what Mr. Schneider had never done: I hired two Columbia undergrads to hand out flyers with coupons; I installed a half dozen comfortable easy chairs; I made sure to have fresh-brewed specialty coffee and tea and biscotti on hand at all times; I handed out colorful Loyal Customer cards and punched them with each purchase; and, once I had increased weekly sales three-fold over what they had been for the previous ten years, I told all of the book distributors that I would no longer purchase from them unless they offered me better terms.
Within the first year, the place evolved from an old neighborhood standby that was chronically in danger of expiring to a booming business. By a few months into the next year, I had received three offers to sell the store. Of course, I turned them all down.
I opened early and stayed open late seven days a week, which meant I had no time to visit flea markets and book sales, but I was content. Besides the books I had on hand and the new ones that came in each month, I bought books from customers, some of which I had to repair or rebind before they could be sold. In that pre-Google, pre-Amazon era, customers depended on me to help them find books that were out of print.
My customer base increased from week to week and sales jumped to a point beyond what I had expected. When the store was not busy I read, mostly classic novels and biographies. I began looking around for an apartment in the area to rent or purchase because the twice-a-day commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan was exhausting me, but I had spent every dime I had. In addition, every place I saw was either uninhabitable or so expensive that, despite the store’s success, rent or mortgage payments would have left me with barely enough money for food and haircuts.
One day, three years after I had taken over the store, a woman with stringy blonde hair, dangly, green earrings, and an enormous shoulder bag of the same color walked through the door. She spent half an hour slowly moving up and down the aisles, picking up books, looking through them, glancing at me, and putting books back—but not all of them. As she reached for the doorknob, I said, “I wouldn’t care if you took one book, but two is excessive.” Before she could begin to deny it, I said, “One book is impulse. Two is theft,” at which point she began to cry and stamp her feet. As she took the books from her bag and handed them to me, I said, “Keep one.”
She returned the next evening, her long blonde hair clean and shimmering, dressed in a dangerously short black dress. She had on just the right amount of make-up and lipstick and, as she came near, I smelled lemon drops. She looked very pretty as she handed a greeting card to me. It said something about how a person never knows how one individual’s kind deeds can reach into the heart of another and something about how she had been at a very low spot the day before and my “gracious way of handling the situation” had lifted her up. She had signed her name, but I did not pay attention to it. She said she wanted to take me out for a bite to eat to thank me for my kindness. I told her that I liked only certain foods and did not want to go out to eat. Then she said she wanted to buy me a drink. I told her that I do not drink.
“You’re making this very hard for me.”
“You don’t have to do anything. I’m busy. You should go home.”
“But I want to do something. You could have been mean to me. You weren’t. You were wonderful.”
“I’m not. I did not do anything for you. I never do things for people. No one really does. I don’t have time to go out or make friends.”
“Oh. Did you read my card? People really do things for each other. You helped me. I get very depressed, and when I do, I do dumb things, like shoplift. Your kindness brought me up from the depths. I’m still feeling high because of how you treated me. I want to get to know you.”
“As I said, I am not interested in meeting people. Besides, I have a long subway ride back to Brooklyn when I close up. I don’t have time to stay out.”
“I will not take no for an answer. You created a glorious, astonishing cosmic connection between us. You touched my heart. I have to get to know—”
“There are no connections. I am alone. You are alone.”
“No. That’s not true. You connected with me. Now I want to do something for you. Come to my apartment when you close up. I’ll make coffee. We’ll talk. You can sleep on my couch so you don’t have to take the subway home tonight. Here’s my address: I’ll write it on this bookmark. Come anytime you want. I don’t get to bed until late, and I don’t sleep much anyway.”
And then she left, leaving behind the scent of lemon drops.
Two hours later, as I took my keys from the counter, I glanced at the bookmark with the woman’s address. Her apartment was a block from my regular subway station; to this day, I don’t know why I decided to go there. I was not interested in her or any other woman. I had gone out on only two dates, both while I was at Columbia. Each time, I had felt ill-at-ease and at a loss in terms of what to do and what to say. On each occasion, wondering why I had bothered, I had cut the evening short and gone home. During the freshman orientation at Columbia, one of the speakers had talked about how men have to be respectful of women and not touch them without permission or do things to make them uncomfortable. Since I never knew (and, at his point in my life, I am still unsure about) what makes people uncomfortable, I had felt like a visitor from an alien planet when I was on those dates.
That night, as I walked toward the blonde-haired woman’s apartment I thought about how I was always able to talk my way around, through, and over students, teachers, administrators, customers, book vendors, my parents, and strangers. In everyday situations, I was able to easily get what I wanted, if I wanted it badly enough, because I was ruthless in my determination to do so, but not with members of the opposite sex when I thought of them as women.
I decided to go to this woman’s apartment as a kind of experiment. I was not attracted to her and I certainly was not interested in getting to know her. I would have a cup of tea (I do not like coffee) and share a bit of conversation, but I would not think of the situation as a date. It would be a non-romantic encounter, an everyday interaction with a person who happened to be a woman. I would be in control and feel comfortable while talking with her. And, if I decided I wanted to, I would make going to bed with this woman my goal for the evening. I would work at it in the same way that I pursued all of my other goals—with persistence and strength of will. Who knows? I thought, I might even enjoy myself.
After several long minutes of silence, Dr. LeMane said, “As you can see, Howard, I have not gotten around to having those cracks in my ceiling fixed. I am sorry for that.”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re just cracks. Sometimes my ... my neuroses take control of my brain. I am not bothered by the cracks now.”
“It is good that you are willing to admit that your behavior is neurotic and even better that you are able to attempt to deal with those issues.”
During the next minute, neither Howard nor Dr. LeMane spoke. Howard sank into the soft, comfortable sofa and closed his eyes while Dr. LeMane wrote in his notepad. Then Dr. LeMane cleared his throat and asked, “So, how have you been since I saw you last week? You look less troubled. Am I right?”
“Yes. I’m feeling fine.”
“That is good. Would you care to elaborate?”
“No. That’s not true. I feel awful. The proof of that is I’m here with you. I thought I wouldn’t return, but here I am. I’m still in this place and time, New York, 2019. I am always able to fall into the past, where I was content, where I am content, but then I return to ... to this erroneous plane of existence.”
“Oh? What do you remember when you think about your past? What made you more content than you are now?”
“I’ve told you. Don’t you listen to me? Why must I go over the same ground over and over? How are we ever going to progress?”
“Of course, I listen to you, Howard, and I think I understand, but for the therapeutic process to work, you must open up to me and to yourself. I cannot attempt to guess what you are thinking. You must always be ready to reveal your thoughts and emotions to me and understand them yourself. Only then can we progress. Please tell me what you remember and how you feel. Take your time. Collect your thoughts first.”
After thinking for a few seconds, Howard said, “It’s always the same. I have thoughts; I see images. They come to me; they come out from hiding in my brain at all different times of day and night or else I purposely bring them out, and then I’m back where I should be—but they are not just thoughts or daydreams. I am really there—in those good years long ago.”
“Your time with Faye?”
“Of course, Faye, when I was too stupid to realize what I had and to attempt to understand her needs, and I utterly destroyed my life.”
“You have not destroyed your life. Things happen, Howard.”
“No. People make things happen. We all get the lives we deserve.”
Howard closed his eyes again. Dr. LeMane wrote in his notebook.
I sat on a ragged couch in the woman’s seedy apartment with its dirty carpet, colorful plastic beads hanging from the doorways, and the putrid smell of garbage that the raspberry incense she was burning was unable to mask. I ignored the glass of sour-looking red wine that the woman had poured for me and waited for her to speak first.
“Your name is Howard Roark, like in The Fountainhead, right?”
When I did not respond, she said, “Sorry. I guess all your life you’ve heard people make references to the book. I love Ayn Rand. I love all kinds of books. Here’s the one you let me keep. It’s very special because ... you know, because of how nice you were to me when I tried to walk out of your store.”
“It’s interesting you chose to keep that book—Les Miserables.”
“Oh. Yes. It didn’t hit me until later on, but it is ironic because I was so nervous and I pictured being chased by the police and going to court and ending up in a filthy jail cell.”
“That wasn’t going to happen. I don’t trust the police.”
“Oh. Well, you’re very nice, very sweet. You have helped me more than you will ever know. I was so down, so miserable and depressed, but now I feel warm and happy inside. You’re very special. It’s as if you had helped me to be reborn. Did you know you had done that for me?”
“Why were you feeling down?”
“I ... I have a lot of problems. I don’t want to bore you with them.”
“Tell me. If you bore me, I’ll let you know.”
She smiled uneasily. Then she explained that she came from a dreadful family who lived on a farm in Missouri; she had run away when she was 15 and lived in different parts of the Midwest for six years before coming to New York. In the four years she had been in the city she had held and lost a dozen low-paying drudge jobs and had been involved in more unhappy love affairs than she could remember. She was two months behind in her rent and had only a few dollars to her name. Then she asked whether I needed help in the store.
“No. I like to work alone. What do you plan on doing for money?”
“I don’t know. I’m tired of crappy jobs. Maybe I’ll meet somebody nice who’ll help me out. You’re nice.”
Even though I did not want to have a relationship with her, I was becoming aroused. She looked seductively pretty in her skimpy dress, curled up like a sleek black cat, next to me on the couch. I liked how her blue blue eyes sparkled and her blonde hair shimmered in the light of the large scented candle she had placed on a nearby table. I could almost taste the lemon drops.
“I can be very sweet and loving, especially if I’m with a guy who treats me right. You seem to be that kind of man. I know we already have a spiritual, loving connection, one that I think will last.”
I changed the subject; we talked a while longer. Then I began to feel tired—after all, I had been up for more than sixteen hours, but she had lit a small flame in me and I was becoming interested in having sex with her. I also knew I had to proceed with this part of my experiment, or else I had to leave. I was actually a bit disappointed that she had made it quite clear that she was attainable. I had assumed that if I became interested in her I would have to work for it, but, at the same time, I was excited at the thought that I would be able to get what I now wanted—at least for that night. I waited.
She slid over to me and put a hand on mine. I did not move. Then she snuggled up close and kissed me. It was only a little kiss, but it was my first. It instantly set me ablaze. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her hard. She cried out in pain and moved back, but then she returned. We kissed and writhed against each other for a while. Then she led me to her bed. I don’t remember the details, but it was intense. The next morning, after rolling on top of her for a final quick plunge, I showered and dressed. Then, when she was in the shower, I left. I stopped off to pick up something to eat and went to the store.
She came into the bookstore at around noon with Chinese take-out food. We sat in the back room. I nibbled on some rice and vegetables. The only foods I like are fruit, vegetables, yogurt, nuts, oatmeal cookies, and some types of granola bars. As we ate we talked about books. Neither of us mentioned our night together. When a customer approached the sales counter with a load of books I walked over to ring up the sale. After he left I sat at the counter reading a magazine.
She picked up the take-out food boxes and dumped them into the garbage. Then she said, “I guess ... I hope I might see you later.”
“I have to go home to Brooklyn tonight.”
“Sure. I understand. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here.”
“Have a nice day,” she said as she walked out of the store.
She returned the next morning with muffins and tea. At one point, she told a story in which she said something like, “This girl said she was my friend, but she never got my name right, always called me Marianne instead of Annemarie.” I was glad she had told that story; even though I did not plan on spending any time with her it had bothered me that I had not been able to remember her name.
I ate part of a muffin. After a few minutes, when the conversation became thin and dull, she said, “I guess I misjudged. I thought you were interested in me ... for more than one night.”
“I enjoyed the sex. I did it pretty well. You seemed to like it too.”
“I did, although ... uh … your technique could use a little improvement. I mean, you were sort of mechanical and stiff, not very warm or affectionate, but I’m not complaining. You certainly were enthusiastic and ... and energetic.”
“You were my first. I guess I have to learn,” I admitted.
“Wow! I didn’t think there were any virgins your age.”
I stared at her, for once, not knowing what to say.
“So, I guess you’re not interested in being my boyfriend or anything like that. Or, do you want time to think about it?”
“No. I don’t need time. I’m busy and I’m not interested in you.”
“Oh. Okay. That’s fine. I misunderstood. I thought we had a connection and I thought it would be nice. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
“Oh. You didn’t bother me. Thanks for the food and the sex.”
“The food? Oh. Okay. I guess I shouldn’t have bothered to do that,” she said in a choking voice, her face turning red as she walked quickly to the door. She opened it, bumping it against her foot, and then ran out to the sidewalk.
I got back to my magazine. Then the store became busy. When it finally quieted down, much later in the day, I thought about my time with Annemarie: It would be nice to have sex with her again, maybe a couple of times a week, but I do not want to commit myself and I understand that she wants more than just casual sex, so I won’t go down that path. Then I wondered why she had made it so easy for me. In fact, she had made the first move. I certainly had not indicated that I wanted to develop a relationship with her. Well, I thought, it’s every man—and woman—for himself or herself out there.
I felt good, and not only because I had enjoyed my first sexual encounter and was finally no longer a virgin, but because, in a way, my experiment had been successful. I had learned how to deal with this woman as a woman. In other words, I had been able to remain firm and achieve an objective in a situation involving sex or romance or whatever it had been.