Dr. Catherine is a beautiful woman, but nevertheless I am holding her at arm’s length. In her e-mailed portrait she resembles the actress Marlene Dietrich. There is a haunting poignancy in her eyes. Her lips are strikingly sensual, more Italian than French.
If this encounter had taken place a year ago I'd be in a frenzy right now, 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 on my face.
But then wait. 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. She doesn't have a car because of her petit mal seizure disorder, which means I'll pick her up at her apartment.
* * *
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 warily watched the sky turn a horrid gray-green, and then came the lightning, thunder, wind gusts and violent rain, which literally shook my car as I drove slowly along. Three hours later I finally pulled into her apartment complex’s parking lot.
Her door on the fourth floor was open, and I tentatively entered. 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. Cathrine wore a clinging black dress. Her left eye was bruised, as if someone had punched her, and I saw more bruises on her thin leg. She said she had apparently fallen down a couple days ago but now had no memory of it.
I escorted her to my Mercedes. She said the restaurant was not very far. But then traffic was at a snail's crawl, because various 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. Over and over. 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. Oh, really? I might have said. Do you seriously believe that’s all journalism is? But I didn’t feel like arguing. I changed the subject to…I don’t remember what.
We finally got a table, and then sat for another twenty minutes in silence, until the waitress took our order. My fillet mignon was tough, and tasteless, and the chocolate cake was grainy and stale. Catherine, beaming, said her trout was moist and tasty, the new potatoes tender, and her sorbet delicious! Oh, she just LOVED this place!
I was tired, and hot, and the noise in that tightly packed crowd 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.
I felt my face flush. “No, on the contrary, 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. “I can feel your loathing.”
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-patterned 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. In their vibrating, muscular arms were steam hammers that shattered the pavement in the left lane.
Crumbling concrete, and the exposed rebar matrix, like bones on a carcass. Shattering rat-a-tat-tatting violence above the roaring generators. I saw a tall young man in a plaid shirt and a walkie-talkie suspended from his belt, a clean white hard hat on his head, arms folded. He was The Grand Poo-Bah, who sternly watched the unloading of big sacks of concrete.
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. My heart ached.
* * *
I hate having to weasel out of my involvement—such as it is—with Dr. Catherine. It was sad hearing one of the messages 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. So 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 my damnedest 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. So forget Dr. Catherine.
* * *
On my answering machine two days later was her convoluted message. Which I eventually meticulously transcribed, because I am, after all, a professional journalist and am obsessed with gathering and preserving facts.
“My favorite quote,” she said, “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.
“He warns her because she is fearless and loves taking risks and embracing new challenges. Have I told you that my doctoral thesis was entitled, 'The Role of Suasion in Les Liaisons Dangereuses?' I adored writing it.
“My original title was Negotiation in Les Liaisons Dangereueses. My mentor, however, suggested that negotiation was only one part of the novel. It was also full of manipulation, persuasion and seduction. I had never heard suasion before, so I went home to look it up in my big dictionary. It was, in effect, an umbrella term that suited ALL the concepts. So I changed the title to incorporate the word suasion.
"Most people don’t even know what it signifies. That was the best part. I was writing about something that other critics had failed to see. It was new. It was different, and it was mine.
“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.
“Besides you,” she wrote, “I have no entanglements. As I told you at the restaurant I was married almost ten years but have not seen that man since the day we were officially divorced. I don't know where he is and I don't care. Despite what you think, I enjoyed our dinner the other night. It was delicious.
“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.
“I should have really slept well after you left, but God only knows what was lurking in my subconscious. There are certain things that can help me fall asleep—and it's not necessarily a boring book or biofeedback. I think you know what I mean.
"It’s odd, but I miss you. In that sense women are different from men. I get terribly attached, very quickly. I don't fall in love instantly, yet I can strongly like someone after an initial meeting. In your case, it wasn't like it was the first time. I felt as if I already knew you. The only thing I didn't know about you was the chemistry.
"Ha! I can hear you say, What chemistry?
“I suppose you must really think I'm audacious and still trying to persuade you. Well, I guess I'll always try to persuade, but not manipulate. Why would I want to be with someone who didn't want me? I don't chase anyone's companionship—men or women. I only want someone if they want me.
“Does this sound like I'm trying to convince you of something? I don't mind writing because I enjoy it. This is something most people can't understand.
“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.
“Certainly I have been hurt much worse before. Remember what I told you at dinner about my ex-husband? What I didn't tell you was that to ease the misery of his infidelity, I started drinking to occupy my empty time.
“However, I only drank in the evenings. I would not allow it or anything else as stupid to ruin my work on my thesis. I only drank alone. Does that make me an alcoholic? I was depending on something that I believed would lessen the pain. As a matter of fact, it made me sadder. After I drank my daily one bottle of wine, I cried incessantly. No one ever knew this. Later, I told a psychiatrist and he was surprised that I had indulged in this. Are you?
“Well, I sense that I'm forgiven for my lapses, although I didn't ask for it. You will probably not make me happy but you are the first person I have been able to open up to in a very long time. That is what matters to me. So you're not my lover. I need a close friend now, and that’s what I’ll settle for. Someone I can talk to and tell secrets to. Someone who will understand even when I say the wrong things. I don't want to force anything, not even friendship.
“I've been seeking love, friendship for ten years, even in foreign countries! First in Spain, and then in Turkey, Israel, and China. Imagine how forlorn I felt! Everyone turned out to be a temporary amusement, a plaything of the moment. I was never lacking in material things. I was very spoiled as a child, I got everything I wanted. But nobody ever knew that what I really wanted was emotional support from a close-knit and loving family. I wanted to be Laura on Little House on the Prairie.
“I am physically and mentally not well. Who the hell wants that kind of person in their life? Unfortunately for me, I still value and look forward to your advice. I would appreciate it if you would comment on some of the things I've discussed—about my behavior and your own. I mean your silence.
“I really didn't want to have to drag myself down to the position of asking you for any advice. It really makes my skin crawl. However, right now my doctors don't return my calls. Most of them think when Catherine calls, she's crying wolf. But right now that is not the case.
“I'm very unhappy, and this stupid keyboard is my only way of venting, and it doesn't matter to whom! I've already taken it out on my furniture, my family and some of my friends who mostly think I hate them. Nobody understands what it feels like to be consumed by self-hatred. I have been wanting to take sleeping pills just to run away from myself.
“Tell me the truth. Is it my personality that 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.
“I'm not even going to say I'm sorry for this post. Should one be sorry for one’s true feelings? I don't really believe so. I would rather have you as a friend than nothing at all.
“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 this disturbing yet fascinating monologue, 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.
Either way, no happy ending.
I looked to the ceiling and groaned.
Why, I wondered, do I always manage to get myself in these awful goddamned messes?