Dr. Catherine is a beautiful woman, but nevertheless I am holding her at arm’s length. Her e-mailed portrait resembles the actress Marlene Dietrich. Haunting eyes. Strikingly sensual lips, more Italian than French.
If this encounter had taken place a year ago I'd be in a frenzy, my mind racing a thousand miles an hour, thinking of the romantic possibilities. But as it is I'm wary, cautious. I’m working hard to avoid lapsing into my old behavior—that of too quickly being overtaken by obsession. I’m determined to change!
The major reason for my wariness is that I am involved with someone else, and I find it impossible to lie to one, or to the other, or to both. Women can tell when I’m lying; they can see it in my eyes.
But then wait a minute. The affair with the other one isn’t likely to develop into anything serious, what with her lurking estranged husband and three young children. That is clear. So therefore I have every right in the world to explore possibilities with a woman who is...well, available.
Actually the problem is that I'm a fucking lunatic.
But nevertheless, I will drive 150 miles to White Plains and we—Dr. Catherine and I—will have a quiet dinner this evening at a restaurant on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River.
* * *
I left my house at two thirty in the afternoon. The traffic slowed, then stopped seven or eight miles before the Tappan Zee Bridge. I watched the sky turn a horrid gray-green, and then came the lightning, thunder, wind gusts and violent rain. Three hours later I finally pulled into her apartment complex’s parking lot.
Her door on the fourth floor was open. The stereo was up full blast with a song by Selena, that Hispanic woman who was assassinated last year. She was anxiously fumbling with a portable phone in one hand and a telephone directory in the other. I wanted to leave right then because I knew it would never work out, never. Knew it instantly.
Dr. Catharine’s dress was long and dark blue with a slit at the side that revealed her long, thin leg. Her left eye was bruised, as if someone had punched her. She said she had apparently fallen down a couple days ago but now had no memory of it.
I escorted her to my Mercedes. The restaurant was not very far, she assured me. But then traffic was at a snail's crawl, because most of the roads were closed due to fallen trees from the fierce storm I encountered on the way in. We spent an awkward hour and a half in the car. Starting, moving ten feet, stopping. Again, and again. I tried to be cheerful, but I was uncomfortable and irritable, and she sensed it.
Despite our telephoned reservation, we had to wait a half hour for a table. We had a desultory conversation at the crowded and noisy bar. Catherine told me she found journalism boring, because it is just an assembly of facts, rather like mathematics, which she hates. I didn’t feel like arguing. I changed the subject.
We finally got a table, and then sat for another twenty minutes in awkward silence, until the waitress took our order. My fillet mignon was tough, and tasteless, and the chocolate cake was grainy and stale. Catherine said her trout was moist and tasty, the new potatoes tender, and her sorbet delicious.
I was tired, and hot, and the noise in that crowded restaurant was acutely annoying. I made a show of looking at my watch, and I said, “I’m sorry but I think after I drop you off, I should call it an evening and head back.”
“So you find me unattractive. Is that it?” Catherine said. It was not a flippant remark, she was genuinely disappointed.
“You are extremely attractive,” I said. “But it has been a long day.”
“Surely you can come in for a drink. I won’t keep you long.”
“All right, a drink then.”
When the waitress brought the check I was surprised. Eighty-five dollars, not counting the gratuity. I said nothing, however, and put two fifties and a ten into the imitation leather folder.
* * *
Halfway through my glass of scotch, Catherine moved closer to me on the couch. “Tell me the truth,” she said. “You are repelled by me.”
“No, I am not.”
“So why haven’t you kissed me?”
“I never go where I’m not invited,” I replied.
Catherine laughed. “How absurd!”
Suddenly she put her arms around my neck, and drew me close. I put my lips on hers. Her scent was lavender. She violently thrust her tongue into my mouth, and moved her hands to my shoulders. I felt her gripping me as hard as she could.
Then she squirmed, and pushed me away. “Forget it,” she said. “You find me repulsive.”
“Let’s stop the games,” I said, yielding to my annoyance. “If you want to make love, then we’ll make love. If not, then I’ll say good night and be on my way.”
“Oh, so that’s it. It’s got to be sex, or nothing.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Why can’t we just talk?”
I rubbed my eyes with both hands. “Look,” I said. “I’m very tired and I’m not good company now. Perhaps we can talk later.”
“Very well,” she said. “Suit yourself.”
* * *
The Tappan Zee Bridge, at one thirty in the morning. A string of gleaming white lights on the suspension cables, an endless line of immobile red tail lights up ahead, a massive ruby snake. Bright incoming headlights in the opposite lanes. It took twenty minutes to get onto the bridge’s entrance. A slow crawl, then stop. Another crawl.
Bright halogens illuminated a gang of construction workers in yellow hard hats, reflecting vests, and dust masks covering their mouths. Steam hammers vibrated their muscular arms and shattered the pavement in the left lane.
I rolled up the window, turned on the radio and found WQXR. Hauntingly clear piano music, in a minor key, an unfamiliar piece. And then finally the sound of a woman's voice. She had an accent that might have been Hungarian. I imagined she was a beautiful woman. Her voice was unpretentiously cultured, resonant, intriguing. No trace at all of affectation, or of a striving too hard for a sophisticated effect. Here was a woman comfortable in her knowledge of music. I could truly love a woman like that.
* * *
I hate having to weasel out of my involvement—such as it is—with Dr. Catherine. It was sad, the message on my answering machine the other day. From her mother!
"I'm calling for Catherine," the French-accented voice said. "My daughter is having trouble with her computer and she would like you to call her as soon as you can. Thank you very much. Good bye."
Buzz, buzz, buzz. A flurry of activity between mother and daughter, discussing men. They're all alike, believe me, I imagine mom tells her. You're better off living alone.
I have to remember that this isn't as earth shattering as I'm making it out to be. Catherine will soon construct a suitable story about this, acceptable to her sense of dignity, similar to the one she told me about her disturbing encounter with a man from Philadelphia.
She said they had exchanged a lot of passionate e-mails, and he finally came for a visit. He stayed with her at her apartment until three in the morning, then checked into a motel nearby. But then the next morning the tactless bastard wrote an e-mail to her saying that she wasn't the sort of woman he wanted to be around. Can you imagine?
My own emotional imbalance is to blame for this mess. I cringe when I think of how Catherine will react to my telling her our relationship has no chance of going anywhere. I can see her face in distress and pain. She's crazy as a loon, and my heart goes out to her, but it’s clear to me she and I are not even remotely compatible. Therefore I must cut it off, cleanly. I must NOT lead her on in any way. Therefore I’ll tell her something like: "Well, I am already involved with someone else. We can be friends, right?"
What would be wrong with that?
So after a long walk I called.
“I’m sorry, Catherine, but I think it best we break it off.”
“Why are you saying this to me? What have I done?”
“You have done nothing. It’s me. We are too far apart in temperament, that’s all. I wish you the best.”
Then a long silence.
In a soft voice she said she was dismayed that she's having such bad luck with men. I tried to be kind, and to somehow ease her through this latest rejection. But no question I hurt her feelings, there’s no way around it. Finally I said good-bye, and hung up.
I thought immediately afterward, as I stood in the shower, that she'll get over it soon enough. What I need to do is keep in touch with the discomfort that existed in our last aborted encounter. I should remember how truly awful the date turned out to be—that violent storm on the way in, the maddening traffic on the way to the restaurant, the ridiculously expensive menu. Not to mention the awkwardness on her couch, and then the depressing middle-of-the-night traffic on the Tappan Zee. Don't forget how that felt. And ask yourself, do you want to go through the same thing again? No, absolutely not. So forget Dr. Catherine.
* * *
On my answering machine two days later was her message:
"My favorite quote is, ‘The best swimmers drown.’ I took it from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In one scene Valmont tells the Marquise: Attention, ma chere. Ce sont les meilleuers noyeurs qui se noient.
"You are probably falling asleep with this rambling nonsense. Forgive me. I wanted to vent and I do it best when I get worked up about some literary topic. I can't help it. I don't speak this way to everyone but I have the impression that despite your reserve, you are a kind man who is willing to listen to a woman like me. But when you become bored, I imagine that you haughtily turn off your answering machine. So I shall write you an e-mail. Bonjour!"
* * *
I did not return Catherine’s call, I did not send her an e-mail. To do so would be foolish. I was determined to not get entangled with a woman who was so obviously not right for me. How did I know she was not right for me? Because in a perverse way I was drawn to her. That was it, beyond doubt. Invariably I pick the wrong kind of woman.
* * *
In response to my silence she sent me a long e-mail:
"I have given much thought to our brief engagement on my couch. I was wishing I hadn’t been such a prude, because just possibly you might have really liked me, and now things would be different. But I think that evening I screwed myself—symbolically and almost literally. But on the other hand if I had given in too easily, I would not have been myself. I really wish we can be friends—but more than e-mail friends. I would like very much to see you again.
"Obviously I should not feel hurt—but I do anyhow. That is why I said I should not have been a prude when you were here. If I had said, yes, let’s make love I don't think you would have turned me away. As a matter of fact, I'm sure of it. Keep in mind, I haven't been with a man for over a year. I must have a fierce appetite, even though I try to control it.
"Please, please, please tell me the truth. Has my personality turned you off so completely? Well, I've met women a whole lot bitchier and crazier than I am who have husbands who worship the ground they walk on. Explain it to me, please. Did my epilepsy scare you away? I probably should have kept my mouth shut. No one can be trusted. No one.
"Well, I have been on and offline since 18:30 this evening, so I haven't got the energy to tell you more now. I would like to go to bed and get just one decent night's rest. How long can one stare at the ceiling in the dark?
"Take care, maybe we'll meet up someday, if it's not a problem for you. You can be a friend, can't you? I guess it's safe to say now (I end all my postcards and letters to friends like this): Love, Catherine."
* * *
In response to her post I said absolutely nothing.
I thought once she understood that I did not intend to reply, she would stop calling, stop sending me e-mails. But her calls and messages kept coming in. I tried very hard to erase the answering machine messages without listening to them, or deleting the e-mails without reading. But naturally I could not do that. No, I just had to find out what that lunatic would say next.
The next day, in the middle of still another e-mail from her, a most chilling thought crept into my head. If I did what she wanted and yielded to her, I would surely drown. And if I remained silent, SHE would drown. Neither option was acceptable.
I looked to the ceiling and groaned. How, I wondered, do I always manage to get myself into these messes?
* * *