Her Mother’s Rules
On Faye Berenson’s twelfth birthday, right after the party guests left, her mother presented her Three Rules For Female Survival: 1) Hold Out Until the Last Possible Minute; 2) Always Be Very Very Choosy; and 3) Learn How to Use Hand Tools. When Faye said that she did not understand and asked for an explanation, her mother said, “They’re rules for life, like Don’t Hold Your Hand Over an Open Flame. They don’t require explanation. Just remember them. One day, you’ll understand. Abide by those rules, and you’ll never be sorry.”
Even though Faye thought about the rules from time to time, she had not been able to understand any of them until she went on her first date. Faye liked Steve Meyers because, even though he was not handsome or especially bright, he was very neat, clean, and polite. In addition, he did not curse, which was a refreshing change from most of the other boys she knew. Steve picked her up in his father’s brand new Chevy Impala and took her for a bite to eat at a popular spot, after which they went to the movies. They saw an old film, “A Man and a Woman,” which Faye found deliriously romantic and sweet and touching. She replayed the enchanting theme music over and over again in her head as they exited the theater and she found herself enveloped in a warm, semi-erotic atmosphere as she sat in the car in the rear lot of the high school later that night, which is why she allowed Stanley to take certain liberties. She returned his deep kisses and enjoyed the feel of his hands brushing over breasts and buttocks through her light summer dress. However, when he reached under her skirt and started to move his hand up to more sacrosanct territory, she forcefully pushed him away.
Aroused and overwrought, with his hand still touching her thigh, Steve asked Faye why she had stopped him, to which she replied, “Because it ... because I ... I don’t want you to do that.”
An hour later, as Faye lay in her bed, she thought about the evening. She had liked eating at the burger joint and she had loved the movie, especially the romantic music. The kissing and touching had been very nice and she would not have stopped Steve—at least not at that point—except for the fact that she had finally understood Hold Out Until the Last Possible Minute and Always Be Very Very Choosy. She laughed when she thought about how it had taken her almost five years to figure out the meaning of those two important rules. However, she still wondered about Learn How to Use Hand Tools.
Years later, after she had earned a degree at Queens College, Faye landed a human resources position at Columbia University. At lunch one day, she complained to one of her closest friends, Miranda Ramirez, an assistant professor at the school, that the twice-a-day trek between her parents’ house in Forest Hills and her job in Manhattan was exhausting her. Miranda smiled and told Faye that a one-bedroom rent-controlled unit in her building, just a few blocks away, had just become available. Furthermore, Miranda explained, she had asked the super of the building, who acted as the rental agent, not to advertise the apartment because one of her colleagues at Columbia wanted it.
“I had Louisa in mind. You know, Louisa Franco. She teaches Spanish and French. Anyway, even though she had told me she wanted to move from her studio in Chelsea, she changed her mind, so, if you want it, the apartment is yours, but you’d have to go there today to sign the lease.”
Two weeks later, after the apartment had been freshly painted, Faye, with the help of her parents and Miranda, moved in. When Faye’s father offered to build bookshelves or hang pictures on her walls, she thanked him and said no. She said she wanted to live with the place for a while before she put anything on the walls and did not want to depend on anyone for help.
That first night, as Faye lay in bed in the dark confines of this strange, wonderful place, her heart raced at every little sound: voices in the hallway; doors closing; water gurgling through pipes; the rapid tap-tap-tap of someone walking across the floor in the unit above hers; car horns and sirens from the surrounding streets. Faye, who had always lived in a single-family house that was separated from adjoining homes by wide stretches of grass, remained awake most of that night. The second evening, after finishing off an entire bottle of Chablis with her peanut butter on crackers dinner, she fell asleep on her second-hand sofa, awakening at 3 a.m. Not wanting to wash up, remove her clothes, and get into her bed because she was sure she would not be able to fall asleep again, she decided to stay there. However, she had to use the bathroom. A few minutes later, as she lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to the sounds of the building, she worried that after a second night of little to no rest she would be too tired to go to work the next day. She eventually fell into such a deep sleep that she did not hear her alarm clock, and had to scramble to make it to work on time.
Once Faye became used to being on her own she began to like living in Manhattan. After work and on weekends she spent hours exploring the neighborhood: the many restaurants, stores, and unusual shops, the beautiful turn-of-the-century architecture, Morningside Park, Riverside Park with its Hudson River vista, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and the northern rim of Central Park. She thoroughly enjoyed shopping for knick-knacks, artful pieces of furniture, and unique extras for her apartment.
One Saturday, at an art fair in Central Park, Faye fell in love with a lavish, oversized abstract painting. She and the artist agreed on a price and she paid, thrilled at the thought of how wonderful the painting’s vivid colors would look in her apartment. Then, as she attempted to lift it, she realized that she was in trouble. While the painting was not especially heavy, Faye was not able to place her hands far enough apart on the huge frame to comfortably hold it and carry it home. The artist, an affable bearded man around her age, offered to return her money, but Faye told him that she would figure out a way to transport the painting to her apartment. When he said that he would be happy to bring it to where she lived once the fair had closed a few hours later, Faye agreed, but then she became frightened at the thought of this stranger in her apartment with her, so she told the artist that she would call her boyfriend and ask him to come to the park to pick it up. She asked him to hold the painting, saying that she would be back shortly.
Now, she said to herself, is when I find out just how independent and capable I really am.
It took Faye 15 frustrating minutes and a dozen tries (and the promise of a twenty dollar tip) to find a cabby who was willing to park his Checker cab at the northern end of Central Park West and follow her to the art exhibit. Together, they carried the unwieldy painting to his oversized taxi and, after a bit of a struggle, slipped it into the back. Faye sat in the passenger seat next to the driver during the short ride to her apartment building. When they arrived she asked the cabby to help her carry the painting to the sidewalk. Then she paid him, and he left; she did not want him seeing where she lived. Since it was a beautiful summer afternoon Faye did not mind waiting on the sidewalk. Several minutes later, a woman in her fifties who Faye recognized as a fellow tenant approached the building. The woman admired the painting and stopped to chat. She helped Faye to carry it to her apartment.
After the woman left Faye decided how she wanted to hang the painting. The artist had told her that since the work was an abstract it could be hung any way she liked. For that reason he had not inserted hooks or wires, so Faye went to the local hardware store, where she purchased a small apartment tool set in a black plastic case and picture-hanging hooks and wire. After a bit of thought and measuring, she punched two holes in the back of the picture frame, inserted eye screws, attached a length of wire between them, and used a pair of pliers to snip off the excess. Then, after determining where to hang the painting, she stood on a stool and used the tape measure to figure out where on the wall to insert a sturdy hook. She was able to drag the painting across the room and lean it against the wall, but each time she lifted it from the bottom and slid it up the wall and then brought it down, the wire missed the hook she had hung, and she had to repeat the process. She saw, to her horror, that the up and down sliding had scraped and scuffed some of the new paint from the wall. Faye was sure that if she kept trying she would be able to raise the painting to just the right spot so that the wire would land on the hook, but she did not want to scrape off any more paint. Her solution was to fold a small, soft towel over the top of the frame, after which she lifted and dropped and lifted and dropped the painting a few more times until, to her relief, she felt the wire catch on the hook. She stood on the stool to remove the towel, after which she stepped down, and, using a level, made sure the painting was straight. It was perfect, more beautiful on her wall than it had looked in the park. She was proud of herself. Tomorrow, she decided, she would buy a brush and ask the super for a small container of paint so that she would be able to touch up the scuff marks.
As Faye put her apartment tool set and other supplies in a closet, she smiled with gratification because she finally understood Rule Number Three.
On that bleak Friday afternoon when Faye met Howard at FancyFruit she was in a fragile, despondent state. She was not looking forward to spending the weekend with her parents in Queens, but she had already promised that she would. Normally, Faye did not mind being with her mother and father, but the next day was her birthday. She would be a depressing 29 years old—unmarried, no boyfriend, and none in sight. Besides her own deep feelings of dissatisfaction with the lack of romance in her life, she knew she would have to put up with her mother’s not so subtle hints throughout the course of the weekend. As it was, almost every phone call with her mother included the obligatory, “So, have you met Mr. Right?” to which Faye would attempt to sound bright and cheery as she replied, “Yeah, right” or “He may be out there somewhere, but he hasn’t knocked on my door yet.”
A few months before, when she got to 47, Faye had stopped keeping count. It was too frustrating and kind of demeaning too. During her first year in Manhattan, she had gone out on many dates with a number of men. After that, she accepted fewer and fewer offers. Over the next few years, when she had reached 47 dates (she did not include any she had gone on before she had moved from Queens), she decided to no longer keep track, and, little by little, she stopped going out with men altogether. She figured that all of those nights out with at least two dozen different men over the course of roughly six years was more than enough for a lifetime. Why bother? She was generally too anxious to enjoy herself and, besides, they never led to anything of enduring value.
And, she asked herself, what had been the point of her sexual experiences with five of those men? In what way am I better off for having had those hot, sweaty romps in my bed? At the time, of course, each one had seemed right— better than right. She had been swept away by a tsunami of passion or animal excitement or what she had thought was love, or maybe she had just been bored and lonely and had believed that a close, naked entanglement with a handsome man (he had to be handsome) would give her what she needed—whatever that was. Each time she had decided to fall into one of those intimate embraces she assured herself that she had remembered to Hold Out Until the Last Possible Minute and that she knew to Always Be Very Very Choosy. Each one of those lovers had been a nice guy; each one had been patient and affectionate throughout the duration of the relationship, but each of those liaisons had a limited shelf life, so why had she bothered?
Each time she looked at her reflection in her full-length mirror she attempted to objectively evaluate herself; she knew she was pretty and very nicely proportioned. More than once, when talking to Miranda and other female friends about her relationship problems they told her that she was not just pretty, but beautiful and that she was not the problem; it was the men, the vast majority of whom were not interested in committing, who were the problem.
“Give yourself time,” Miranda, who, at 32, had been married for 10 years and had two children, told her. “Most men are still boys until they hit 30.”
“That’s especially true in New York,” explained Cynthia, who was engaged. “Guys who live in the city have their pick of women who are not in a rush to get married, so they graze and graze, as if they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet.” The three women laughed self-consciously.
When Faye asked her friends how they had found men who were ready to commit, they looked at each other for a second and then Miranda said, “Well, we don’t have your looks, so we both went out with nice guys who will never make the cover of GQ.”
“And,” Cynthia added, “You have to look for that special little something in a man that says, ‘I’m not a player. I like myself and my life and I’m ready to settle down and share it with a good woman.’”
“In addition, you can’t be so choosy. There is no Mr. Right. There are lots of Mr. Nice and Mr. Not Quite Perfect,” Miranda said.
“But you two found your Mr. Right.”
“No,” Miranda said. “Take Raymondo—I love him through and through, but when I start to tick off his quirks and his bad habits and peculiarities, I wonder what the hell I’m doing with him.”
“Well, then, why get married?” Faye asked.
“That’s a good question. Here’s what I ask myself every so often: Am I happier now than I was before I met Raymondo? And, how would I feel now if I had never met him and lived alone?”
“And what’s your answer?”
“It doesn’t matter what someone else thinks,” Cynthia stated.
“Because my answer applies to me, not you,” Miranda replied. “You have to ask yourself whether you’re happy now and whether you might be happier or more unhappy with a good man who is Mr. Not Quite So Perfect.”
And that is why when Howard persisted in clumsily asking her to stay a bit longer at FancyFruit on that rainy Friday afternoon and when he awkwardly professed his admiration for her, Faye, who had not gone out on a date in months, listened and then told him to meet her at Maxwell’s at 7 p.m.
As Faye left her office at Columbia University at 5:30 that day she thought about not showing up at the restaurant. After all, who was this guy? He was weird. On the other hand, he seemed nice enough and was nice looking in an absentminded, peculiar kind of way, as if he did not care about his appearance. And, even though he said and did all of the wrong things, he seemed to be safe. Besides, she had to eat, so why not go to dinner with this Howard, a name she had always hated, at a place where everyone knew her? Then she hesitated again as she thought about the line from “Lyin’ Eyes”: “Did she get tired or did she just get lazy?” Well, she rationalized, if I was tired or lazy, then I wouldn’t be going out. I’d just pick up something to eat, maybe Chinese, open a bottle of wine, and stay home and watch TV on this miserable, cold, stormy night.
She decided she was the opposite of tired or lazy; she was ready. She was determined to get into a relationship with a nice man this year, before she hit her next birthday. After all, she did not want to still be alone at 30. Then she mused, Maybe my mother isn’t right. Maybe it’s not good to be too choosy. Anyway, it’s just dinner. That’s it; just dinner.
Faye got to Maxwell’s at 7:15. After she had shaken out her umbrella and checked it, along with her raincoat, she walked to the hostess station and looked into the restaurant. Then she panicked because, even though she could sort of picture Howard’s face, she was not sure she would actually be able to recognize him now. Then, a tall thin man sitting at a table, still wearing his black raincoat, waved at her. She was annoyed at how he waved. It was not a “Hi. Here I am” or an “Oh. I’m glad to see you made it” wave. It was more like a “Finally! Come on over here” gesture. Faye told herself, Maybe I’m imagining it, so she walked in the direction of Howard’s table.
When she got there, Howard remained seated, looking at her. Then he mumbled, “Uh oh,” and quickly pushed back his chair, bumping into the table and rattling the glasses as he clumsily stood up and came around to her side to help her take her seat. He stood next to her for a moment, looking as if he were about to take her order. She smiled up and him and gestured that he should sit.
“I thought you weren’t going to make it,” Howard said as he sat.
“Oh. Sorry. I left work late. Have you been waiting long?”
“You said, ‘Meet me at Maxwell’s at 7:00.’ That was right after you said, ‘I’ll go out with you, to dinner tonight.’ So, I was here at 7:00.”
“Oh. Yes. I’m a little late.”
“Does that bother you? Being kept waiting fifteen minutes?”
“People do that. I don’t. I’m always on time ... or early.”
“Well, I’m late sometimes. It’s one of my bad habits,” she said with a smile. When Howard neither replied nor smiled, Faye opened her menu and pretended to study it, wishing she was home eating Chinese take-out food. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Faye told Howard that each item on the menu was good, adding, “I’ve eaten here dozens of times and never been disappointed. Have you had a chance to look at the menu?”
“I don’t eat in restaurants. I haven’t been in one since I was a child. I don’t eat most of the food they serve here.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Are you a vegetarian?”
“No. They eat eggs and a lot of them eat fish. I don’t.”
“Are you a vegan?”
“No. I eat yogurt.”
“I see. If you don’t like what’s here, we can go somewhere else.”
“No. I’ll find something.”
Then, during the next few silent minutes, as Howard studied the menu, Faye decided she would order something simple that could be prepared quickly, eat a bit of her food, and then leave, saying she had a headache. She looked forward to the solitude of her apartment.
When the waiter arrived, Faye ordered French onion soup and a salad. Howard asked for the same. Once the waiter had taken the menus, Howard opened up. He told Faye that he did not eat in restaurants because he generally ate only fruit, vegetables, yogurt, nuts, oatmeal cookies, and some types of granola bars. He said, “Much of the food that most people eat is poison, and the huge amounts they consume often makes them sick.”
“Oh? I guess that’s true,” Faye replied. She decided she should be friendly and attentive to this strange man so that when it was time for her headache he would not realize it was an excuse for her to escape. She figured she would have to put up with him for about a half hour.
Just as their soup arrived, Howard began talking about books that he admired. Faye was astounded by his knowledge and depth of understanding of the dozens of books of all types to which he referred during the next few minutes. As she listened, making an occasional comment or asking questions, she suddenly felt comfortably warm for the first time all day. At first, she thought it was because of the hot soup. But later, as they ate their salads, when Howard continued describing the nuances of plots and characters of books she had never read and the themes and symbolism of those she had never fully understood, Faye remembered a time, years before, when she had been similarly warmed and very happy. During her first year at Queens College she had enrolled in the required English literature class. Professor Morris Elbaum had been masterful in his presentations and the way he made each of the books, poems, and essays that she read seem important and rich in terms of the stuff of life. Not only had she read with delight each and every required selection, but she had stayed up for hours on many nights throughout the semester reading the ones on the supplementary list. She had glowed and felt warmly satisfied during each of Professor Elbaum’s classes and, even though he had been in his sixties then, she had been madly in love with him. No other class and no other teacher during her four years at Queens College had affected her in that way. Now, as she listened to Howard she felt transported, as if she were a little girl listening to a wondrous tale during storytelling hour at the local library.
“I’m embarrassed to say this, but I never picked up the association, the symbolism of birds and flight and escape and the mythical figure Daedalus with the character Stephen Daedalus,” Faye confessed.
“Well, you probably do what most people do when they read: you don’t go past the story. Joyce and other good writers—and certainly not the popular ones who knock out one spy/mystery/romance/crime/sex novel after another, and who make a fortune doing so—pour their souls into their craft. They are not thinking about making The New York Times bestseller list. They’re writing about the human spirit and about yearnings and pain and disappointment.”
Faye believed that Howard was reprimanding her for being a shallow reader, and she was insulted, but then she realized that he was correct. When she stayed at home after work, which she had been doing more and more lately, after she had eaten and then straightened out her apartment, she either watched idiotic shows on television or read even trashier popular novels. She could not think of the last worthwhile book she had read. During her first year at college, because she had been so taken with Professor Elbaum and his freshman English literature class, Faye had wanted to major in English and become a writer, but her practical mother and father had talked her out of it, saying that she should major in something that would lead to a real career with a steady paycheck and benefits. Well, she had a good job that paid nicely and she did have benefits, but lately, she had begun to feel as trapped and dissatisfied as she sat in her little office as she was during her lonely hours after work.
After dinner she allowed Howard to walk her to her apartment, but she would not let him in. As she held her door open, she turned to allow him a fast good night kiss, but he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her deeply. She was surprised, but she liked it, and so she lingered for a few seconds. Then she pushed him away, said, “Good night,” and closed her door. A second later, he knocked. When she opened it, he said, “Do you want to go out tomorrow? We could walk in the park. It’s supposed to be nice weather.”
“I can’t, Howard. I have to be with my parents tomorrow.”
“But I want to see you again. I ... you’re. ... I mean. …”
Faye was not sure she wanted to hear how he felt about her. She knew it would come out wrong, but then she remembered what Cynthia and Miranda had said about Mr. Not Quite So Perfect.
“What, Howard? What do you want to say?”
“I know what I want to say, but when it comes to speaking with women, I almost never say or do the right thing.”
“Just say what you want. I won’t judge you.”
“I ... I think you’re beautiful and I want to ... you know.”
“I’m not that kind of girl, at least, not anymore. I’ll be 29 tomorrow, too old to waste time. I liked having dinner with you. You’re smart and you’re a nice guy, but I’m not looking for a good time.”
“No? If you don’t want a good time, what do you want?”
“I don’t mean it that way. Sure, I want to go places and have fun, but I want more, much more than that. Understand?”
“I don’t understand. Maybe it’s because I never go out on dates. I stay at my store late every night; I made an exception tonight.”
Faye smiled. Then she 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.”
“I’m ready for that too.”
Faye looked at Howard for a long moment, and then she told him to wait in the hall. When she returned she handed a small piece of paper to him, saying, “My number. Call me. We’ll talk on the phone. We’ll get to know each other. Maybe we’ll go out again, but no promises. I don’t know you well enough to decide right now. In any case, please remember: I’m not interested in fooling around or spending a lot of time sitting in restaurants or that sort of thing.”
Howard nodded to show that he understood.
She continued by saying, “I’m ready for commitment and a long-term relationship. If you and I hit it off, you’re going to have to be ready too, so think about that before you decide to call me.”
Howard repeated that he understood. He did, although he was not sure he was actually capable of being in a long-term relationship with a woman. Getting married? Who pays the bills? Would my money, my store also be hers? Would her assets also be mine? Would we have sex every day or a few times a week? Would I have to eat the foods she eats?
As he walked down the stairs, through the lobby, and onto the sidewalk to the subway, Howard tried to imagine what being married to Faye would be like. He thought of his parents, but he could not picture them being intimate. He had never thought of that. They had always been there and had always been his mother and father, as if they had applied for the job 28 years before and had been hired and had held that position ever since. They had done well as parents, but he could not imagine them as a couple, could not believe they had once been young and fresh and had hungered for each other.
He wondered why he was the way he was. It had never bothered him before—being an outlier, a person who others considered odd. At this point, now that he had met a beautiful, desirable woman, he wished he understood what everyone else seemed to know—how to be in a relationship. He decided he would have to think about what he had read in books about men and women and how they interacted. Romeo and Juliet and Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms came to mind, but those scenes and characters and the portions of dialogue that he remembered did not help.
As Howard stood at the top to the stairs that led down to the subway, trying to understand what it means to love and share, a flashing, transient image came to mind and then just as quickly slipped away. He closed his eyes and concentrated. He remembered having brought that image to mind before, but it had always been a blur. At that moment, it was a bit sharper. It had to do with sharing or not sharing. He could almost grasp it. He was young, a boy. The image involved water, ocean water. Maybe it was a bay. Yes, a bay, a dock, and a boat. There was a man. That was it. Nothing else.
Although the memory was fragmented and hazy and hidden beneath dusty layers in his memory, the images that slipped into and just as rapidly disappeared from his mind disturbed him. He felt chilled, confused, and unsettled by an indistinct ghost of decades-old guilt.
He saw a group of people coming up the stairs toward him, so he moved to the side to let them pass, and then he walked down to catch the subway to Brooklyn.