Don Juan in Rheinbeck Part Three

The cell phone was critical to the progress of this so-called relationship. And one of Michael’s strongest suits is that he gives great phone. At that time, he spent so much time driving—chauffeuring the kids (whom he always referred to as “the children,” though they were 15 and 17 at the time I knew him), running back and forth between the city and his house in Rhinebeck—that he had ample opportunity to natter at length on a hands-free cell. And he often had a lot of down time to fill during graveyard shifts at the ER, so that it was quite possible to phone him at four in the morning and carry on a conversation.

Within short order, he was calling me up to five or six times a day, which I found immensely flattering and often entertaining. Not just for the frequency but for the content. He could do a dead-on imitation of an Indian or Pakistani cab driver that had me damn near convinced he’d been through driver’s ed in New Delhi. One night he had me rolling on the floor describing his second ex-wife’s friends—the Muffies and Binkies and Porters and Carletons in her life. (She was an heiress and came from good old Wasp stock—“people think I married her for her money,” he once wrote, “but that’s not so.” Later, I wasn’t so sure about that.) In general, and to his credit, he glossed lightly over the most recent ex , not even seizing the chance to poke fun at her activities as a channeler (Whom did she channel? I asked him. Eleanor Roosevelt, Princess Di, her ancestors from The Mayflower?). Also to his credit he took full responsibility for the adulterous liaison that led to his divorce and the break-up of his family.

In the course of so many conversations you get to know quite a lot about a person, as Michael must have about me. He spoke with a peculiar stilted accent, like the studio movie actors from the 1920s and ’30s—Ronald Colman, say, or Stewart Granger. That, he said, was the result of having been in the care of a British nanny when he was a child. He claimed his late mother never hugged or kissed him when he was growing up, as though it was an issue much thrashed out on the couch (even as he claimed to distrust psychotherapy).

Michael also had a rich fund of anecdotes from his previous careers as a “society” doctor and later an investment banker. One of his favorites, which I heard two or three times, concerned the widow of the poet e. e. cummings. She was in her sixties and a patient of his when he was a young intern. When he came into her room one night, she was standing with her back to him, wearing a long black cloak. She turned to face him and dropped the cloak, revealing herself to be completely naked underneath. Well, of course, he had to make love to her right there and then, and a most extraordinary experience it was, he claimed. (Now I wonder why he told that story to me more than once: Had he forgotten how many times and to whom he’d told it? Was it proof of his virility, his sexual adventurousness, his willingness to flout convention? Or all of the above?)  Months later, when I was really in the soup with this jerk, he told me that he had once imported a hooker into the hospital where he worked as an ER physician; I let that float right by me, simply absorbing it as all of piece with some men’s need to advertise a certain amorous derring-do.

I let too many things float right by me.

Whatever the earmarks of love in its early stages, it shares some powerful similarities with addiction, and there is a fair amount of research to show that the brain releases strong chemicals that are as intoxicating as the first hit of crack. In a little more than a month, I was hooked on Michael: hooked on the sex, hooked on all the phone calls and the rambling exchanges of information, and most of all hooked on the inordinate amount of attention he paid to me.  He seemed to want to know every detail of my life, from what I was reading to what I paid my cleaning woman. What was my favorite city to visit? (Rome.) What was my favorite Piazza? (Navona.) Had I ever read Trollope, his favorite novelist? (Not at all.) In my dating experiences of the last few years, I’d found that men seldom show much interest in what I do or have to say because they’re too busy impressing me, and so to have a man who was eager to explore every crevice of my tastes and psyche was unusual and deeply ingratiating.

But I was still skeptical about the possibilities with a guy who planned to be on the move all summer. Even when he called me from the airport and we chatted for about 20 minutes before his flight departed. What airline? I asked.

“With two young teenage girls, Virgo Intacto,” he said.

“And they’d better come back that way.”

I asked what he was reading on the plane, and he told me a Simenon mystery and the Financial Times.

I described the dinner I was cooking that day for friends: a soupe aux fines herbes, a pasta and shrimp dish, salad, and whole-wheat rolls. “Enjoy your airline meal,” I said.

“I’ll miss you,” he said.

“We’ll see.”

Then the emails started to arrive. Apparently he’d found an Internet café, or perhaps he’d taken his laptop with him and made a connection (they were not all that common in hotel rooms circa 2005). He thought about me a lot, he wrote. He’d taken the girls shopping at Harrod’s; he’d seen a dress that would look “splendid” on me in the window of Prada; he was trying to find a Catholic church for his daughter’s friend to attend on Sunday (I asked if he’d told her about Henry VIII yet). They’d visited the National Portrait Gallery and the “young ladies” were enchanted by the miniatures of Elizabeth I and her circle. He missed me.

And I missed him. Yes, I did.   

A few days before his return, I started classes at the FCI. After orientation, the first session was an introduction to kitchen basics and the preliminaries of stock making. As I had suspected would happen, I was the oldest in the group, though there was a guy named Jack, a former fireman, who seemed only a couple of years younger. The rest of the students, about evenly divided between men and women, were mostly in their twenties and thirties, and represented the cross-section of races and backgrounds that is the day-to-day complexion of New York. The chef instructors were a study in contrasts: one a beefy, no-nonsense, scowling brunette; the other a sweet-faced, sweet-tempered blonde. But both laid down the rules with brusque authority: spanking clean workstations, vegetables always peeled over a bowl, “hats” (paper toques) worn in the kitchen at all times. I went in assuming I might know some of the fundamentals—like, how to slice an onion or chop parsley—but quickly learned I’d been doing many things wrong for decades.

I was eager to tell Michael about the first couple of classes after his return, but the only time he could manage was a late lunch Saturday, before my evening session started at seven. He had a dinner party at a client’s Park Avenue apartment that evening, or so he claimed. He was no sooner in the door than we were up the steps to my bedroom for an overheated welcome-home. Lunch, an hour later, was the same recipe for soupe aux fines herbes I’d made a couple of weeks earlier. He’d polished off a second bowl when he announced, “I can’t do this anymore.”

“What do you mean—?” I was flabbergasted. “Can’t do what anymore.”     

“I mean, I need to break this off,” he said in a small voice.

I was furious. “So. You come to my apartment. Fuck me silly. Eat two bowls of my soup and then announce that you’re breaking up with me?”

He was silent.

“I don’t get it.”

“I just can’t”—he pronounced it cahn’t—“do this anymore.”

“Ohhhh-kay.” I piled the dishes in the sink, changed my clothes, and announced that the least he could do was drive me to the subway station.

I sat in stunned silence in the passenger seat of his shabby excuse for a car, wondering, If the guy can afford to take all these trips, why can’t he spend some money on better wheels? And thinking, I’ve dealt with some pretty shitty male behavior in my lifetime, but this is a new low.

After he came to a stop at the 86th Street station, he said, “You know, I admire you, I really do….”

“Save it.” I cut him off and clambered out of the car, slamming the door behind me.

We were learning to cut vegetable shapes in class that evening—cocotte, julienne, chiffonade—a finicky activity requiring patience and dexterity that can fully absorb your attention until you start asking yourself when the last time was you saw these on a plate in a high-end French restaurant. I was still working to contain my anger, but also feeling extremely sad. How many men did I meet with whom I could argue about the definition of schadenfreude? Or why Edith Wharton is so much more readable than Henry James? I didn’t want to be blown off so easily. I didn’t want to let go so easily. At intervals that evening I stepped out of the kitchen and called him from my cell phone, begging for an explanation, begging him to reconsider. Finally, Chef V, the big brunette, pulled me aside and asked me why I was making so many calls and would I please cut it out because it was distracting to the class. I mumbled something about a “family emergency” but finally turned the thing off and stuffed it in my purse.

A normal woman would have accepted the situation and worked harder to move on. I was already beyond normal.

I heard nothing from Michael for several days—no phone calls, no response to a couple of heated emails—and was ready to write him off as one of those peculiar detours on the rocky road of midlife romance. Then he called late on Wednesday, a night when I didn’t have class, and said, “I’ve just had dinner with my friend Charlie. How would you feel about entertaining a slightly tipsy man?”

I wish I could say I had the dignity to tell him to buzz off, to scold him for ignoring my emails and phone calls. I didn’t. I told him to come on over.

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And that seemed to set the pattern for the summer, in between his bouts of travel (when he landed after his riding trip to Portugal, he called and left a message: “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to be comfortable in the saddle when I have a constant erection thinking about you?”).  A couple of afternoons a week, he was in my bed. We sometimes had lunch beforehand, or an early dinner afterward, but he would have to leave by eight to be home for “the children.” Then at intervals he would try to break off. One sultry August night he called and said he wanted to meet me for a drink after his violin lesson. “We’re breaking up again, right?” I asked.

“I need to talk to you on neutral ground,” he said.

“Okay, but I’m going to make this really hard for you and wear the shortest, tightest black dress I own.”

He was an hour late in meeting me at a bar near Lincoln Center.

“I just can’t do relationships,” he explained. “I can’t deal with the expectations, the closeness. It’s not in my psychological makeup.”

We wound up in bed anyway.

At one point I called and told him, “It’s good we’re getting so much practice with break-ups. It will make the real thing so much easier.”

I can’t fully explain the irresistible attraction between us; some nagging little voice told me this was not entirely healthy, and I could sometimes hear my late mother’s judgments about men ringing in my memory. Watching him emerge from his car one day, the earpiece of his sunglasses clamped between his teeth, I could imagine her saying of him, as she had of men I brought home when I was younger: “Oh, for God’s sake, throw him back!” I did, in fact, have dates with a few other men that summer, but they just didn’t do it for me.

The phone exchanges, four and five times a day, often when I was on a break from class, helped harden the glue between us. Even if I hadn’t met them, I learned a lot about his kids: Doug’s problems passing his driver’s exams, Lisa’s intentions to apply to boarding school. He seemed unusually close to his daughter: taking her for pedicures, shopping with her at the mall, reading to her in bed (and this last I found more than a little creepy). I heard about his ailing horse, Wally; about his repairs to his house, which he planned to sell after the children both went off to school; about his colleagues and his work in the ER; and about his plans to launch a series of investment seminars with a partner. He was reluctant to invite me upstate, he said, because his children had become so attached to a woman he’d been seeing for four years before he met me. I didn’t push, mostly because it’s not in my nature to urge men to make a bigger commitment than they’re inclined toward, and also because I’ve learned it’s usually futile to do so.

When I described the situation to a friend, she said, “Ann, I think he’s married.”

He couldn’t be, I said. He’d given me his home number, though I never used it. He called me when he had one or both of his kids in the car. And, juggling his ER commitments and financial consultancy, where would he get the time?

As the fall wore on, we seemed to be trending toward a more solid sort of couplehood. Michael came to an engagement party for a friend; we had dinner with other friends. We made plans to go to an inn on the East End of Long Island for two days over Thanksgiving, a project that dissolved into one night in my apartment because of sudden difficulties with child-care arrangements. But he was starting to drop hints about having me to his house: “When you meet my children…” or “We must find a weekend to have you visit.” 

My dedication to the art of fine French cooking, in the meantime, was wavering. We had moved on to Level II, in which the same groups of four or five prepared the same dishes over and over. Jack the former fireman, who was part of our team, had proved to be an arrogant stiff, a know-it-all suck-up such as I hadn’t encountered since high school. Another of the group, a Korean guy with so many metal doodads on his face he was painful to look at, was his polar opposite: clumsy, consistently ill-prepared, but resolutely cheerful. The novelty had worn off, and the five-hour classes three nights a week were becoming sheer torture. (“If you really want to be a chef,” Michael had once sensibly suggested, “why don’t you apprentice yourself to one of the great cooks in town?”) Maybe I simply wasn’t cut out for this line of work. And the possibilities of writing a book on my experiences seemed to grow dimmer: Who wants to read about how much you hate cooking school? When I was invited on a weeklong press trip to Florence in December, to review the biennale, I took an indefinite leave of absence from the FCI, reasonably sure I would not return.     

As I half-expected he would, Michael made himself scarce over the Christmas holidays. He elected to work in the emergency room both Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and any availability between times was wiped out because we’d both come down with nasty cases of the flu (one good thing about dating a doctor: he can call in prescriptions). I was well enough by New Year’s to join friends for dinner, and during a cigarette break outside the restaurant, explained the Michael situation to Laura, a long-time hospital administrator.

She made a face. “Oh, God, ER docs. The worst.”

How so, I wanted to know.

“Unpredictable, always on the edge, constant thrill seekers.”

I thought of Michael’s story about importing the hooker into the hospital. He’d also claimed his first wife worked for the CIA; that didn’t seem entirely beyond the pale.

For his birthday, in early February, I planned a dinner of calf’s liver (this I had learned to cook superbly in school) and Black Forest cake. I bought him copies of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the essays of George Orwell, and a volume of the correspondence between Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin, a lusty long-running interchange that seemed right up his alley. I also gave him a check to have my hair stylist take his mane in hand, along with another can of mousse.

I probably should have bought him a robe as well because he was wearing one of mine, a unisex number that fit him too snugly across the shoulders, when he told me for the first time in eight months, “I love you.”

“Oh, you’re just feeling well fucked and well fed,” I shot back, but secretly I was pleased. Beyond pleased. Thrilled to my toes.

Before leaving, he officially invited me to his house later in the week. Aha, I thought, now maybe we are getting somewhere.

Two days later, two nights before I was scheduled to take a train upstate, he called to say he was in the city and wanted to stop by. His voice sounded serious. “Sure,” I said. “What’s the occasion?”

“We need to talk.”

Here it comes. The “talk” about the relationship, setting the boundaries, establishing ground rules. Or maybe we’re breaking up again.

“Okay. Come on over.”

An hour went by and no word from Michael. I called and left a message on his cell. Another half hour. I left another message. He responded finally. “Something’s come up. I have to head on home. Doug and his mother had a fight, and Doug’s run off in her car.”

“My God. Keep me posted. Call me.” I was genuinely concerned, more involved in his life than I realized.

When I heard nothing more for an hour, I called again. “What’s happened? Did you find Doug?”

“That’s not it,” he said in a very small voice. “There’s another woman.”

“What are you talking about? What do you mean, another woman….” I was nearly screaming. My ears were filled with a furious din, as though my brain had set up a blockade to hearing any further details. After I hung up, I called a friend and pressed her to join me for a drink. Or three.

“You don’t have enough information,” she said. “You need to know more.”

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Top: a still from the silent film Don Juan, with John Barrymore and Mary Astor