I must see some sun or fall in love or both--nothing else will do. I used to love the rain. Love! At the moment I can't imagine what love is. It has been a long time now. And I tell Johnny I don't have a penis to think with, which may explain why.
And what draws me?
I reply that I like men who lean into life. Who laugh with their mouths open wide. Men who make me think of my father, and all the other glorious men I've known and loved. I want a man who ruffles my feathers, who makes me want to howl at the moon. I want a man with big brains, I want a man with a hard body, I want a man who knows what to do with a long slow night. And a little sunshine wouldn't hurt.
Johnny tells me that I easily win first prize for bringing about the most intriguing and compelling dinner date he has been on for years. I reply that I enjoy his enthusiasm. He tells me that if I like to get telephone calls, he is capable of a barrage of verbiage. Just like what Cosima Wagner once said of her husband, which is that such a man expounds at length on all subjects, including those of which he is completely ignorant.
He also tells me he is impatient.
I quite like impatience in a man.
He smiles. What is my passion?
I tell him that at university I work in computational biology. The study of the mathematical structure of various problems that arise in molecular biology and genetics programs. He replies that all he knows of this is The Genome Project, which of course is not at all related. I tell him that while my name is Elizabeth, I have nicknamed myself Z. Zed. Actually Zether, as in “Feather, Leather, and Zether Do The Big Apple,” a story I read in a literary journal.
He tells me about his experience last week at the Bravo Bistro, in Radnor, just off the King of Prussia Road, near Villanova.
A cute young waitress brings the cart. “Today we have chocolate ganache tartlets with sweet cherries,” she says sweetly. “And this is our frozen raspberry zabaglione on meringues with chocolate sauce. This is especially good--a toblerone mousse fondue with meringues and fruit. Or you might like the Capri chocolate torte, or the Viennese linzertorte cake, or perhaps the pecan pie with Kahula and chocolate chips..."
I ask him if indeed the girl said all of that and he says, yes certainly, these things you can not make up. If you can not be in love, he says, a rich desert is the next best thing. No, Johnny is not a fat man. Rather, he is medium-sized and muscular.
Where were we? Yes. There are several significant advantages to mathematics as a profession over most others, especially writing, painting, photography. And that is, no one assumes they can do it when they have never tried, and no one ever expresses their opinions on its value.
As for family, my sister is the keeper of our history, which means the Irish side. My grandmother and her sisters were born here and my great aunt Florence always said she would go back to Dublin when she won the Irish Sweepstakes, which she never did. This is all left for me to do. Some unwritten legacy. It feels like wine coming to life in the cellar. I have these feelings. Do you? A foreign currency to be spent.
My father was the most glorious man in existence who died too early for me to demystify. You've heard of the strong, silent type? Actually, it is not at all clear that I've sought lovers to emulate him. Yes, that is a clue.
Now your turn, I tell him. And by the way, my father’s name was John.
He replies: For some reason I'm tongue-tied, self-conscious, blushing. If you'd like, I'll try to explain why.
I would love for you to tell me why. Perhaps love is too tame! I am immensely curious. Tongue-tied and blushing? Of course I want to know.
He tells me his reaction is similar to what he’s experienced only once before in his life, which is that he does not want to appear to be too interested, too impatient, or to be too quick to disclose the acutely romantic aspect of his personality, because it might scare one off. Scare YOU off. On the other hand, he says, what will be, will be. P.S., he says. I find a charming symmetry in the fact that I bear your father's name, and you bear my mother's...a balance almost mathematical!
More! More! More!
All right, Zed, Zether. By any objective measure you are the most beautiful woman in Philadelphia. The continent. The northern hemisphere. And even if you were less beautiful I would still be drawn to the vitality and the intelligence that shines in your eyes, to the sweet personality that is in your laugh, your gestures. I’m utterly captivated in every sense of the word. That’s exactly what he says.
Then he quotes Dickinson. My river runs to thee—Blue sea! Wilt welcome me?
Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table…
And I continue all the way to the last line. Johnny sits, agape and transfixed, as I knew he would be. No one has ever recited the entire Prufrock to him before, from memory. Ever. It is among his favorites. I knew it was. I have a feel for these things.
Well, let’s eat then, shall we?
Have you seen the latest New York Review of Books? he says. A particularly interesting issue. A discussion of the Analects of Confucius. The ancient philosopher believed that no moral precision was conceivable without absolute concentration on language. Don’t you agree? After all, choosing the right word is paramount. If words are not correct, language is without an object. If language is without an object, no affair can be effected. I say again, no AFFAIR can be effected.
I laugh. Go on, please.
When no affair can be effected, rituals and rites and music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments and penalties miss their target. When punishments and penalties miss their target, the people do not know where they stand. Therefore, whatever a gentleman conceives of, he must be able to say. And whatever he says, he must be able to do.
Ah! Thought always precedes action, I say. And there is no thought without language.
Precisely, he says. Therefore in the matter of language, a gentleman leaves nothing to chance!
More! More! More!
Confucius tells me that what I conceive of, I must say. So all right. Let me start with this moment, here at Xando with you. It is not so much a meeting as it is an astonishing recognition. And the only words that seem appropriate are the stock banalities of romantic novels. I don't want to be banal, I want to be clear. I have the sudden, odd feeling that the only way to bring about harmony in the universe is to move toward you, Zed. To move away would bring disharmony.
He takes my hand.
So enfolding your soft, lovely hand in mine feels profoundly natural. Shall I tell you more?
Yes! More. Go on.
D. H. Lawrence in "Women in Love" suggests that instinctual feeling, the opposite of sterile intellect, is the governing principle of romantic love. But your appeal is all-encompassing. It’s intellectual, esthetic, emotional, spiritual, sensual, sexual.
When we met only an hour ago I felt not just recognition, but an almost overwhelming astonishment as well. Because my vision of a soul mate is largely an ideal. It has an abstract, fictional quality. It resides only in my imagination. But suddenly here you are at my side, breathtakingly perfect in every respect. Such things can not be! But, here you are. Smiling.
You haven't told me to stop. Dare I presume you wish me to continue?
I say nothing.
So how should I presume? He says.
I know precisely what will happen very soon, but I do not tell him. I decide I will instead allow this to unfold for him as he thinks it will. Who said love is the sea where the intellect drowns? This man Johnny is drowning. It’s perfectly clear.
* * *
He looks around the living room of the townhouse, a restored 19th century structure in the area around Independence Hall. White sofa, white chairs, a deep pile white rug. Books, records, CDs, everywhere. I tell him it is the house of a university colleague who currently is in Italy on sabbatical. I am, in addition to being a mathematician, a house-sitter! I don’t mind. I tell him I am thinking about my upcoming trip to Bali, Indonesia. I might, however, change it to Ireland. It doesn’t matter, really, because I can do mathematics anywhere.
He embraces me, kisses me. He is cautious. He does not wish to press, for fear I will object. The sign of an adolescent. Not exactly sure of himself, or of me. I feel this emanating from his pores. He believes his caution and reserve is an effective strategy. He is wrong.
I tell him, oh! I must return these videos! Will you come with me? He agrees too quickly. He thinks he’s fully aware of the moment and all its implications, but he does not truly understand. He suspects nothing. When we return, I kiss him as I stand at my doorstep. He smiles. Good night.
* * *
Two days pass. I do not answer the phone. Johnny leaves a dozen urgent messages on my machine. He sends me a barrage of e-mails, which confirm what I have already concluded. Finally, I tap on the keyboard:
Thank you for your calls and emails, Johnny. But unfortunately I am enormously distracted at the moment. My sister called to say that my mother has been diagnosed with colon cancer, but that a second doctor has disagreed with the diagnosis. I am getting everything third hand, and there is a lot of confusion, but she is going for more tests and a biopsy tomorrow. I may fly down to Florida today. Or not. I’m still in a bit of shock. Zed.
I know this message has put him into a tailspin. The intervention of fate, he is thinking. Inexplicable. Numbing. He is the sort of man who finds it extremely difficult to deal with ambiguity. For him it must either be or not be. For him the in-between is a horrible black abyss!
Perhaps I should remind him that a willingness to live with the tension between certainty and doubt leads to an opening of consciousness. And Epictetus: Life is a banquet. Good manners demand you graciously accept the plate that is put before you.
Johnny believes he has a great capacity for love, it flows through him, out of him, and he wants so much to direct it toward ME! He thinks I am the one. Pondering my message, he does not understand why such a powerful movement toward the consummation of love has suddenly stopped dead. He thinks perhaps it is more of the karma that has kept him in solitude for so long.
Jung says we all must face "holy insecurities" if we wish to take steps toward personal peace. Our suffering is incredible. We toss and turn in the night and drag ourselves through the day. Yet, pain is our only passageway to spiritual growth. Because human thought can't conceive a way to get what we need to live: faith, hope, love, and insight. These are gifts of grace that only come through hard experience.
In one of those lengthy e-mails Johnny tells me about the Ojibwa. When it comes time, he says, a father leads his son into the woods, then leaves him in solitude to fast and to ponder the meaning of life. Since this is to be a time of self discovery, the boy is not told what he might expect to encounter. No socially approved image is offered to him. Rather, he is told by his father that he will have a vision, his own vision of who he is to be and what he is to do with his life.
The boy going through this initiation rite is told by his father that whatever this vision will be, whatever he will learn about himself and the world, must be trusted and accepted. When he returns, his vision will be honored by his father and by the entire tribe, simply because it is his, and because he discovered it for himself and has claimed it as his own.
Well, Johnny says, he has just had a vision. And it is Zed.
Don’t we all struggle to know who we shall become? And beyond that, what is my obligation here? To give Johnny what he thinks he wants?
I know what Johnny does not know. That he has failed to properly mourn the disappointments and losses of his childhood. That much I can clearly see in his eyes, in his hesitancy. Since he has not yet buried his pain, he is condemned to live in its shadow.
Johnny does not know that genuine grief is the sobbing and wailing of our utter helplessness. If we fail to accept our pain, or demand to be paid reparations for our suffering, we do not grow. But instead are stuck forever with trying to bring back what can’t ever be brought back.
Now I know what I’ll write to him after my shower. I will tell him this: I can’t do this right now, Johnny. So much is happening in my life, so many different things, so much introspection. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the intensity and urgency and neediness of your posts. I’m just going through some major changes. You are a genuinely nice man, and I wish you the very best.
And so on.
Yes, I will leave sweet innocent little Johnny with his misperceptions. He'll never be ready for the real me.