At some point in those first weeks, Michael and I got into a poetry slam. He sent me a few verses from some obscure 17th-century scribe; I responded with lines from Donne and Dickinson. We upped the ante at a certain point and turned to French and Italian verse.* We were, I think, falling hard for each other’s cleverness, even if we both knew damn well we were double-checking on Google.
On a Tuesday night, after dinner in the city with a friend, he called on the spur of the moment and asked if I’d meet him for a drink. I chose a neighborhood bar and once there ordered my favorite drink, a slightly bitter concoction known as a negroni, a habit I picked up on a trip to Rome years ago.
I had begun to notice that his dress seldom varied: always black jeans, half-pint cowboy boats, and a blue shirt or jeans jacket; in cooler weather, the attire would shift to sweaters and a ratty blue sports coat or blazer. I always wondered what his financial clients, some of whom sounded quite wealthy, thought of his wardrobe. He claimed it was simply a uniform, as adaptable to circumstance as any other.
Well, that was the night we fell to kissing, and then more kissing. (“I like kissing a lot,” Michael had written, “long, varied, slowly, long, light and heavy, and more and more and more. I suspect you do too.”) Ah, there is nothing like the silliness of two people of a certain age on barstools necking in a public place, but I find in general that this type of behavior is forgiven after, say, 10 p.m., and especially if the bar is quite empty. Besides which, most people in a New York bar would rather watch what’s on the TV screen.
Yes, things between us were certainly getting warmer.
As the reader may have gleaned by now, I’ve always had a strong interest in cooking, and from somewhere got the notion that I could retrain to become a chef. In fact, I remember the exact point at which I got the idea: I was leafing through a food magazine and ran across a luscious photo of a zucchini-blossom tart. The thing seemed to me a vision of perfection and seduction: the swirls of green and yellow, as enticing as an O’Keeffe flower painting, surrounded by a flaky golden crust. I stared at it so long it seemed to me an epiphany of some sort, a guiding angel whispering in my ear. I rushed out to buy the ingredients, right down to the zucchini blossoms available at a gourmet grocery not far from my apartment. Though I followed the recipe to the letter, the result was a wan, custard-y mess. There were things I needed to know: a better cook might have spotted flaws in the recipe, known that the proportion of eggs to cream was all wrong, or guessed that the crust could have used a little more pre-baking.
I was also feeling a need for more discipline and camaraderie in my life (the writer’s lot, as so many have observed, really is a lonely one), even if it were to turn out that I was the oldest in the class and virtually the only one without a tattoo or facial piercings. And so to cooking school I would go, squandering part of a small inheritance. I chose the French Culinary Institute in SoHo for its proximity and reputation and because, frankly, the admissions guy did a damn good job selling me on the advantages of the school and assuring me that it was perfectly okay for people my age to aspire to the job of line cook at twenty-five grand a year. At the very least I thought I might get a book out of the idea of returning to school in mid-life to learn the basics of great cuisine. The curriculum was three nights a week, five to six hours a night, over a nine-month period. That one of the evenings was a Saturday didn’t bother me; I had no big plans for weekends in the country or even a vacation. I was ready for boot camp, eager to learn the fundamentals of mirepoix, ciseler, and court bouillon.
I was looking forward to classes—I’d bought my clunky black Doc Martens, had myself measured for checked pants and a chef’s coat with my name embroidered on the pocket—when Michael wafted into my life. About three weeks into the flirtation, he suddenly announced that he would be traveling that summer. A lot. First to London in July for two weeks with his daughter and one of her girlfriends; then to Portugal for a week on horseback with a group he referred to as “the riding ladies,” English equestriennes who were long-term friends; and then to Japan for two weeks in August with his son.
I said I didn’t think I wanted to get further involved at that point. He could get in touch when he returned from all his wanderings and we would see where things stood between us.
“Are you really putting me off till August?” he emailed back. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Well, no, I wasn’t at all sure. I was falling hard for this funny little man who listened to Middlemarch and the short stories of Dorothy Parker on tapes in his car and used expressions like “splendidissimo” and “capital idea!” I even liked it that I was a tad taller and in some respects stronger than he was: I could pin him to the wall for a welcoming kiss when he came to my apartment.
And here, gentle readers, I must interject. There are inquiries one so often does not think to make at the beginning of a romance, especially if the suitor in question has come your way from an Internet dating site and advertised himself as available. The obvious, of course, is, Are you married? And it seemed to me evident from his stories about his two ex-wives that he most decidedly was not. And I didn’t think to ask, Is there a girlfriend elsewhere? What about two or three? And have any of these ever accused you of giving her a sexually transmitted disease? No, even with more than a few decades behind me, I find I am still too stupid to ask questions that perhaps more sophisticated women would know how to pose in the first few days or weeks of the so-called relationship. And now I realize also that I am woefully inept at reading between the lines.
And way, way, way too fond of good kissing.
As written earlier and in many other accounts of the New York dating scene for all ages, there is a general if unspoken rule of courtship that one does not hop into the sack with a man until after the third date. It is possibly a rule more honored in the breach than in the observance, but with Michael I recall having a real third date (not just spur-of-the-moment late-night drinks and kissing) when we met for dinner at a restaurant in the Village called Philip Marie. We chose that spot because he was taking violin lessons from a teacher who lived nearby. (That was endearing—a man in his early sixties taking up the violin for the first time. Later he would tell me he did so to set a good example for his children, and that was heart-warming, too.) I waited for him at the bar, watching him approach in his lopsided way—he had a slight hitch in his gait, and at some point explained that this was caused by many years of horseback riding and many falls from horses. From his backpack he removed a slender volume of essays by Charles Baudelaire, called On Wine and Hashish, with a foreword by the English novelist Margaret Drabble, and offered it to me. I confess that I am such a lit slut that even this modest gift set my heart atremble (see note below), and I probably would have taken him home there and then. We had an excellent dinner of fried green tomatoes and spicy crab cakes with aioli mayonnaise. Around nine, he announced that he needed to head back upstate that night; he didn’t like leaving his kids alone and he had serious chauffeuring obligations the next day.
On the drive north to my apartment, he alternated between shifting gears and exploring the territory under my skirt, occasionally casting meaningful glances my way. Well, that sort of behavior, on a warm and silky summer night, is surely enough to make you go a bit mushy and forget about all the crap in the back seat.
And so the stage was set for a memorable fourth date.
But before that memorable fourth date, another digression. When I was much younger, and first living on my own in the city, I had a favorite seduction dinner I prepared for guys in whom I was especially interested. It’s a simple linguine and white clam sauce from the classic Craig Claiborne New York Times Cook Book, which my mother gave me while I was in college, and one great advantage of this recipe is that it’s amazingly cheap and you can make it with canned clams (a more savvy cook might toss a few steamed baby clams on top, to give it a more authentic look—but that didn’t occur to me back then). It’s a wonderfully slurpy sexy dish, and by the time you’re finished, neither of you cares if you reek of garlic.
For Michael, I wanted to cook a more sophisticated three-course meal, and so I turned to a menu of goat-cheese-and-tomato tart, followed by a simple mixed-green salad and a Roman veal stew with rosemary and porcini mushrooms. I had been given theater tickets from a reviewer friend for later that evening. I asked him to bring the wine and drop by for a late lunch or an early dinner.
I doubt we made it through half a glass of wine before we were stumbling up the stairs to my tiny bedroom, which was mostly filled with a king-sized bed.
In recalling past lovers, I seldom seem to remember the details of the act itself. What sticks in memory, instead, are the odd particulars. Michael shaved his chest and arms, so that the surface of him was a little prickly….not unpleasant, just prickly. His explanation, as I recall, was that a girlfriend long long ago claimed it gave her more of an erotic charge, and it did the same for him. He also used some extremely stiff goop on his hair so that it stood up in peaks during and after the act (I gave him a can of mousse, which he refused to use). He would say, “Oh, my….oh, my” a lot in a little-boy voice, and when he came, a curiously pained, rictus-like grimace crossed his face.
We barely had time to wolf down the goat-cheese tart before arriving, flushed and addled, at some Alan Bennett play in a theater on the East Side. We had terrible seats way in the back and Michael kept looking at my face and stroking the back of my neck. Later I lost my favorite red jacket in a taxi on the way back to my apartment. That seemed a bad omen, but I never have been much good at minding omens.
*Dating tip to guys: This sort of nonsense works. Look how far Bill Clinton got with a volume of Walt Whitman and a cheap dress from the Gap.
Top: Édouard Manet, Chez le Pere Lathuille, 1879