I left the stable and walked over to Amsterdam. Half an hour on Thunder, one of the feistier horses, in what is probably the smallest indoor ring in the world, had left me on my usual energy high, the surface of my skin buzzing. Horny too, if it comes to that. I saw the neon lights on Rancho Mexicano and thought a raspberry margarita would be a good plan.
Already crowded, tables filled with oversized goblets stacked high with miniature Mount Fujis. I strolled over, flicking my crop against my boot, and grabbed a seat at the bar. I ordered the drink, exchanging a grin with the bartender. The effervescent charge makes me feel sociable, ready to talk to anybody. I stirred the liquid around watching the pinky red shards of ice shift alluringly and took a swig.
How many bars have I been in in my life? How many drinks have I drunk over the decades, starting with 7 and 7, progressing through the sweet wine days, and coming full circle into the Era of the New Cocktail – cosmopolitans, blue sharks, apple martinis, kir royale, saketinis? Restaurants, clubs, bars, pubs – if you’re single most of the time, and work, and go out in cities, a lot of your life tends to be spent in places like that. It’s where you meet people, eat with your friends, do business.
Now, no avoiding the reality. I’m past 50. I’m single. Again. My kid’s out of college, I have an acceptable job, and can spend the rest of my life doing pretty much what I want. But what does that mean, now, when it comes to men? As they say in French, when does a woman stop being, comestible, edible? I’m slim, and I keep in shape, but is that enough? The truth is that for most of us, life isn’t all choosing between Manolos and Jimmy Choos, and we don’t get to decide whether we’ll date a rock star, artist or financial mogul.
In a way, relationships are easier to find than sex once you’ve moved into what they’re now calling middle age, though nobody I know plans on ever hitting the old classification.Single in New York at that age, you’ve got a lifetime’s worth of friends – from work, travel, any pastimes you go in for, not to mention the odd hangers on from high school or before.
The guy next to me caught my attention. He gave me a quick look, then down with the eyes, the way straight guys do when they’re shy, or pretending to be, or frightened of what may happen, or repressed. I checked him out while he stared into his beer. I knew he knew I was looking him over because his pupils shifted nervously under his lids, darting everywhere but at me. One of those boyish types I find hard to resist, even when I know they’re more trouble than they’re worth. In the dim light he looked late twentyish, but something worn around the eyes suggested 35 or more. Sitting on the stool, trim and compact, not very tall, with plenty of dark, curly hair – no receding hairline ther
He flicked another quick glance up, looking while trying to seem as if he weren’t. I looked back, our glances tangled, and I felt as if I’d gasped even though I hadn’t. At the same time, my inner guardian, the one you always ignore, hissed, “Watch out!” Eyes large and blue, unaware languor, danger in the gentle expression. Full lips, clearly outlined, are one of my many weaknesses, and there they were; I flashed back to the last time I fell into the nice guy trap -- the ripple of remembered pain. I went on staring at him, anyway, willing him to look up again. His eyes were fixed on the TV and the flurry and rush of an NBA game, Boston playing the Pacers, the white and green uniforms of the behemoths to the north generating nausea in any Knick fan, especially this year. I ordered another margarita.
There was Angel Face taking me in out of the corner of his eye. I swiveled my head fast and caught him. He slid into a slow smile infused with practiced sheepishness.
“The Celtics are looking pretty good,” he said. “They really pulled it together last year.”
“You must be joking,” I said. “Boston? Please.”
And added a Bronx cheer for good measure. He shrank back on his stool. “That’s very rude," he said. “Why is everybody down here so rude?” “We’re not rude,” I said. “Just direct.”
“And aggressive. On the sidewalks. In bars. Everywhere.” “So why are you in the evil metropolis, then?” “I’ve got a job interview.” “A job in New York?” “Yeah, well that shows how desperate I am, doesn’t it?” “I guess it does. Why would you do that?” “I don’t know if I will. It’s time for me to change jobs, and if you haven’t noticed, they’re not easy to find. I really need to get away…” “From what? You some kind of tech type?” “No, I’m a writer – an editor.” “Which?” “Well, both. I edit the view books and that kind of stuff Winthrop College puts out – they’re up in Boston. I write articles and promotional pieces for them. Basically, I’m editor-in-chief for all the recruiting materials.” “Boston – so that’s why you’re deluding yourself about the Celtics’. No wonder you need to get away.” “That has nothing to do with it – very funny. It’s just my life got way too complicated…” “And you thought you’d come to New York to simplify it? You spend much time here?” “Not really – now and then on my way somewhere else. Now, I just want to work somewhere else. Live somewhere else. New York sucks, but it’s somewhere else.” He was edgy, shifting in his seat and talking fast in little nervous bursts. After every swallow he took a deep, taut inhale as if trying to catch his breath. When he did my eyes caught on the muscle in his throat. “Why so anxious?” “I have to take some of the pressure off – even if it’s self-created. Especially then. You want another drink?” At least he’ll buy a drink, I thought. I played with my crop and noticed him following the flicking tip.When I bring my riding crop with me anywhere, 90% of all men are fascinated by it. And the boots and breeches. “So how did you complicate your life?” I said. “I met someone.” Self-dramatizing type, I thought. But cute. “So?“
“I was married. I got married young -- that was fine for a long time, but then we had a kid, kind of by accident, and things got stressed. She got way more demanding, thinking about money and wanting me to get with the program all the time -- make more money, get settled somewhere, buy a house, so the mortgage payment is a killer, especially since the divorce.”
“You still have the house?”
“Yes, I didn’t want to force a sale; she’s still living there.”
“No, I left. We were together for 10 years before the baby came. I met her in my last year of college, working in a movie theater. She worked behind the candy counter, came from kind of a bad family, I used to kid her about being white trash. But she was so different. She did well anything you asked her to do.”
“How useful. What did you want her to do?”
“Her folks wouldn’t pay for college, so she got a job as a flight attendant, and we got all the free travel. We’d go around Europe for months, hang out in the Greek islands. When we ran out of money, we’d come back and get jobs until next time. Now she seems like a different person.
“She used to be always ready to take off, and she was good at taking care of the practical details.”
“And the accidental baby, that practical detail?”
“Yeah, that. We were back home working, and it happened. It was a shock, but we didn’t feel right about an abortion or anything like that. May be it was kind of time to settle down anyway.”
It might have been a shock to you, I thought; I’ll bet it wasn’t to her.
“I was working at this desktop publishing house in Boston then. It was an opportunity to get into management. But after a couple of years I could tell it wasn’t going to get any bigger. So I started looking around and got this offer from the college.
“So much happened at once. My mother helped with the baby; she’d come up from South Carolina for weeks, so Janice and I could live our lives almost like we always had. Then four years ago, my mom was driving down to Rhode Island to see her sister, and had an accident on 95 – she was killed right away. And that changed everything. We got money from her life insurance, and bought a house up in Vermont. It turned my life upside down, you know? Taking care of a house, having a kid…”
He was silent without seeming to know he’d stopped talking, looking around him as if lost or like somebody groggy from a flurry of unexpected blows.
“Then, this woman came to work at the college. She was involved in fund raising, really smart, worked for the president, and she was – I mean meeting her was so intense, it was almost like too much too soon.”
I wondered if there was any cliché he wasn’t going to trot out, but in a way, that intensified his allure – never underestimate the drawing power of male ineptitude.
“I knew it could wreck everything, but it was the first time in my life that I’d ever fallen completely for anybody on sight like that. There was no way to resist it – it was meant to be, you know? It should have happened when I was 20 or something – but it didn’t. I was just too intimidated back then – some girl would really attract me, buth they were always too confident or aggressive, I couldn’t deal with it. I always liked artists, and creative girls, but...
“Now, well Catherine was different. My wife took the baby away to Georgia for a couple of weeks to visit her family, and Cathy came over the house. We watched all these old movies – Casablanca, Double Indemnity – she liked them as much as I did. We knew we had feelings for each other, but she wouldn’t let it go too far. We kissed, but she stopped it there, because I was married. She said she couldn’t, it wasn’t right.”
Great, old-fashioned technique, I thought. Get him going, then hit the brakes.
“That was three years ago. We kept seeing each other at work, having lunch or dinner, talking. She understood the problems, and she was so beautiful, and vulnerable. She told me she’d been engaged to this jerk, and he suddenly told her he didn’t love her any more and walked out.
“I really struggled, but I knew I had to be with her. I told my wife what was happening, and then finally I left, got my own place; it was the hardest thing I ever had to do.
“Then, Cathy said we should wait – you know, to have sex. After all, I still wasn’t – technically, I was still married, and she didn’t feel right about us being together. So we waited another year while the divorce went through. And she said shouldn’t we both go and get tested for AIDS or STD – we went together and after that we really were together. She even was great with the baby – except my wife hated her, for breaking up the marriage, but I said it wasn’t her fault.”
Maybe not, I thought, but what a mistress of antiquated method. I hadn’t heard of anybody nailing her man by so lengthy a delay of gratification since high school.
“Well, it sounds as if you’re just where you want to be – romantic dreams come true, and you happy with the love of your life. What’s the problem?”
“I thought that too. We each had our own place, but we started talking about moving in together…of course, I still felt guilty about my wife, didn’t want to upset her any more than I had to.
“So when we discussed looking at apartments, Catherine said I should talk to her parents first – they’re big churchgoers.”
“She said you should what?”
“Well, she’s very close to her family. She opened up the subject with them, and they weren’t pleased that I hadn’t come with her. So then we both went to see them, and it was like a job interview – ‘Hello, Mrs. Gallagher. Hello, Mr. Gallagher…’ They wanted to know how much I was paying in child support, what my prospects were. Their attitude was sort of, here she was, going to live with me and wash my socks, and suppose I decided I was tired of it and wanted to move on?”
I looked at him to see if he wasn’t making it up. It didn’t look like it. He had that inward look people get when they’ve slipped into unawareness of everything.
“But then, it all changed,” he went on. “We were still discussing what to do about an apartment, when she went for a checkup, and her gynecologist told her she was going through early menopause, so basically, she had to be married in a week, and pregnant right away…she’s only 35, but…”
He gulped the rest of his beer.
“So, I was thinking, ok, married in a week…but then, I don’t know, I started to think that was pushing it too much, that it didn’t make sense…I suggested we maybe take it a little more slowly, give it six months or so. And then she said she could never trust me again, and we should break up. I tried to get her to wait a while, give it some time, but she wouldn’t budge. She just said it was over, and stopped speaking to me; she wouldn’t even look at me when we passed on campus. She still won’t. And I just felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me emotionally.”
He sat silent, weirdly, after the flow of narrative.
“You still work in the same place?”
“Yeah, nothing’s changed, except that I feel like a shit more and more. I mean my son asked me what happened, and I said I didn’t want to get married right away, and he said, ‘Bad decision, Dad.’ Even he thinks I was wrong.”
“How old is he?”
“Well, does he really know what he thinks?”
“I guess not – he hasn’t said anything since. But the whole taste of my life is gone, changed. Driving down and back, two hours every day, working, seeing her around – I decided I should just get out of the whole situation.”
“Move to New York? Or somewhere else? Won’t that make things pretty chaotic?”
“I guess. I don’t know. I’m just starting to interview – this came up first. It would be tough, keeping in touch, seeing the baby, but sometimes I feel as if I maybe shouldn’t see him anyway, like I don’t deserve to be around him.”
“You know, destroying his home like that, leaving the family, just because I had to have her – just thinking about my own needs…For nothing. The guilt stays with me all the time, gnaws at me.”
I couldn’t think of anything cogent to say to him. I just sat looking at him, thinking, another crazy one, in brooding/remorseful mode. And planning to handle it by moving away? By his own account, he didn’t have much common sense.
“I might as well be here,” he muttered. He slumped in his chair, an emblem of the insanity of sexual attraction, and near-perfect self-involvement; it gave him a kind of Zen quality. He got down off the stool, a little unsteadily, moving gracefully, with an easy fluidity at odds with the anxiety and confusion in his face. Something in his movement focused my attention on his body. He wasn’t much taller than I, maybe 5’8”.
“Can we get out of here?” he said. “I don’t mean to be pushy, or anything, but I’d like to go on talking to you, and it’s getting loud, don’t you think?”
“Why not?” I said, demonstrating another aspect of the insanity of attraction. I wasn’t planning anything in particular. I just wanted to have him around longer.
“You seem to have made some pretty strange decisions,” I said as we stepped outside.
“Yeah,” he muttered.
He stopped short suddenly and leaned against the darkened store we were passing, pressing his forehead against the glass window.
“I deserve all this,” he muttered.
So then we walked over to the C train. The cross streets were dark and the remnants of the leaves rustled sadly. On the subway he sank into silence, eyes fixed on the floor.
He looked around suspiciously as we climbed up out of the train station, as wary as a declawed Siamese, a layer of nervousness added to an already edgy persona. The dominant language in my neighborhood isn’t English, and passersby weren’t mainstream, I suppose, by his lights. Even on week nights, Broadway is pretty lively up there, and every time somebody laughed or called out, he jumped.
We passed some guys working on a car; he swung wide of them and asked, “What are they doing?” “Fixing that car, “I said. “It’s dark out.” “Well, they still want the car to run, I guess.”
I could feel him trembling as we continued on through the shadows, and suddenly his hand slipped into mine. It was strange, not like a move, but like someone looking for protection or guidance.
We walked past my curious doorman. They all have a taste for keeping tabs on the tenants’ pecadillos. In the apartment I led him into the living room, pointed him at the couch and got him a beer. I had no apprehension at bringing home this stranger, not even a hint of danger. It seemed almost as if he were the one in danger. I went to turn on the lamp, and his arm went up. “No,” he muttered. “Leave it dark. No light.” “Um, ok.” People can talk in the dark a lot easier than they can in light, especially to strangers. He murmured in the shadowy room, slipping from what sounded like nostalgia for some idyllic past to the misery of shattered love and the guilt apparently entwined in his entrails. “You understand about this stuff,” he said. He slid off the couch and leaned against my legs, putting his head down on my lap. “You don’t think about what you’re doing when you’re crazy about somebody. Or, you know, but you push it down, push it away. I wanted her so much. Even when she was there, I couldn’t believe she was with me. Then it all came apart, she left me, and now I even think that if I’d done what she wanted, married her, you know, I would have been really, really sorry.So why did I do that, tear my life apart, my son’s life – I can’t go back there, I can’t even imagine that. All there is is the guilt and the loss. You can’t expiate something if you haven’t paid a penalty, if there’s no punishment.” “Punishment? Isn’t that a little out of date?” I said. “Nobody’s guilty any more; they just made unwise decisions.” “Oh, no, we’re guilty all right. You know you shouldn’t be screwing your family over, but you do it anyway. People need to pay. “You could make me pay,” he said. “Me? How? I’m not a corrections officer. I suppose I could give you warm beer.” “No, with this.” He’d picked up the crop that I’d dropped by the couch and was holding it in one hand while he ran the other along the shaft, then snapped a finger at the flexible leather loop at the end.
“I don’t know that I’d feel completely comfortable doing that,” I said.
“Please. You know how to use it, don’t you? I need to do something. I can’t go on with my life feeling like this.”
He held the crop out to me. I felt a sudden wave of heat rising from my neck to my face as I took it. The streetlamp outside cast a narrow streak of light on the rug. I heard a clink as he unbuckled his belt; he dropped his pants and knelt down leaning over the seat of the couch, a dark outline suddenly gleaming white in the wavering light.
I swung the crop forcefully, as I would as a corrective for serious misbehavior – kicking, or biting another horse in the ring. It was different from using the crop on a horse. The quick flick brought a sharp, smacking sound on hairless flesh, unlike the muted thunk that rises from a glossy equine coat. He let out a small, muffled moan. He writhed and quivered slightly at every stroke, but shrank not at all from the crop. I counted about thirty and stopped – thirty lashes sounded traditional in some way. He turned over and sat on the carpet, letting his head fall back on the couch.He took my hand again, then the crop, rubbing the tip against his chin. He didn’t want to fuck; he said he didn’t deserve it, but he went down on me for most of the night with real enthusiasm. I didn’t feel like giving him my number when he left in the morning, but he gave me his – home and cell, and I made sure he got on the A train back to Penn Station right. I didn’t want him to get into trouble.