The Anal-Retentive Architect

The End of Tom

Because I’ve never truly been a travel writer, I don’t take notes on trips, but now, as I enter the period I think of as “The Beginning of Old,” I wish I had kept journals filled with astute observations, records of meals eaten, bon mots overheard everywhere from the Grant’s Kennebago fishing camps to the Bois de Boulogne. Instead I’m left with memory, and my memory tends not to dredge up the perfectly ordinary good times, but instead fetches forth from the dusty crawl spaces of the hippocampus the insanely silly occasions (the bread fight at the château, the night my ex and I upended a bed in Florence after drinking a bottle of Strega), the colossal bummers (getting rained on every 15 minutes on a beach in Kauai), or the occasional moments of sheer untrammeled ecstasy (hearing the Mozart requiem in the Église de la Madeleine in Paris).

In our week together in Provence, I’m sure that Tom and I did the usual touristy stuff, like wandering the streets of Roussillon or Gordes, visiting the hospital in Saint-Rémy where van Gogh took refuge during his bouts of madness, and eating and sleeping in some wonderful restaurants and hotels. For if there is one thing about traveling with a man who is organized in the extreme it is that he can be counted on to do thorough research of every hotel and brasserie that accommodates your weary bod and empty stomach. And Tom was always generous, so there was no haggling over the check (because he paid for everything) and there were no attempts to shave a few francs here and there.

The odd stuff I remember: The cheese carts that came trundling toward us after nearly every meal, guided by maniacally driven wait staff, who seemed intent on making sure we didn’t walk out of the place without eating at least three little slabs of incredible fromages de Provence. And having my first and probably only orgasm in a bathtub, specifically one in Aix de Provence that was big enough to contain the two of us (I will not go into details—you will have to use your imagination).

When we returned it was almost Labor Day, and with the change in the seasons came a chill in the relationship. Nothing I could identify specifically, but Tom became more withdrawn and occasionally snappish. My friend Richard, whom you may remember from the first installment of “Foot Notes,” joined us in Montauk for several weekends. Tom liked him, I liked him, and he needed a refuge because he was more and more on the outs with his full-time squeeze, the woman 20 years his senior. Long, long ago, as a college student, a close friend advised that if you often felt the need of a third party during those occasions that should have been “alone time,” you were probably headed for trouble.

After the Thanksgiving weekend, when we closed the house for the season, I noticed an even more decided downturn. I sensed Tom might have a tendency toward real depression, and I hypothesized that we got along much better as long as we could escape to Montauk. There he felt the freedom to toss a jacket over the back of the sofa or to leave the bed unmade and the dishes in the sink. Unforgivable lapses that would never happen in his apartment in New York.

Nevertheless, we made plans to visit Key West over the Christmas holidays, and then my parents on the west coast of Florida, in Naples. We drove south from Miami, again in a white convertible (and I hate convertibles) and stayed in an adorable bed and breakfast with a tiny swimming pool. We did more touristy stuff, like the sunset cruise, the glass-bottom boat tour, and the Conch Town trolley. I managed briefly to jolly Tom out of his glum moods, as when I asked him over Christmas dinner at an Italian restaurant on Duval Street “What’s the worst Christmas you’ve ever had?” But for the most part he didn’t seem to be enjoying himself at all.

“You use your sense of humor to cope with pain,” he observed at one point during the trip.

“Can you think of a better use for it?” was my response.

For my part I was getting fed up with the foul moods. I looked at him one afternoon, as he lay sprawled out in his swim trunks for a nap beside the pool and thought, “Oh, dear God. I’ve been fucking a manatee. And I still have some standards. I value myself too highly to be fucking a manatee.”

After a few days in Key West, we drove through Alligator Alley to Naples for a couple of nights with my parents, who lived in what was called, with more than a touch of grandiosity, a “villa” in a community on a golf course. This was essentially a squat two-bedroom house with a small swimming pool out back. It was headed for the same run-down condition as the Montauk residence (my father did not like to call the handyman and favored ad hoc repairs, like a strip of suction from a bathmat to fix the busted mount on a shower head). But it was reasonably tidy and, if you didn’t count the June bugs that sometimes skittered around the kitchen or the strangely medicinal smells, not at all a source of embarrassment, as I was worried my parents might be.

They were in fragile shape, and I tried to visit every few months to check in. (My brother could not be bothered—“We can’t go sailing off for every little trip to the hospital” was his take on things, especially when they could not be coaxed into assisted living). My father had suffered a stroke several years earlier and was not totally compos mentis but had recovered sufficiently to walk, tend to my mother, make limited conversation, and read the New York Times, which he did every day, right down to the shipping notices. My mother was mostly bedridden with COPD, fragile bones, and a heart condition. But she was sharp as a stiletto with a wit to match. They had both reached that stage in the relationship, which I’ve noticed happens to many long-married couples, when they frequently scrapped and sniped at each other. If my dad had not taken a shower in a few days, Mom took to calling him “Old Roquefort.” He groused at serving her in bed and did a comic shuffle, mumbling, “Yes, Missy, yazzum. I’s a comin!” And yet they slept with their arms around each other every night.

How they felt about my bringing yet a third man to meet them after my divorce eight years earlier I will never know. My mother, who was enormously fond of my ex, had been furious when we split, blaming me and lobbing the occasional spitball my way, such as “I hate to see some other babe walk off with all that money.”

But they rallied for Tom’s visit, which lasted only two nights and a day, before we had to head back to Miami. Mother put on her best cocktail attire, capri pants and a gauzy silk blouse, and my father mixed drinks. They had managed a roast turkey and trimmings from the market. The only tense moment came when Tom started to clear, and Mom announced, “Oh, no, we don’t stack dishes at this table in this house.”

I was grateful my father didn’t tell any of his stories from his farm-boy youth, which might include his favorite line for calling the pigs: “Here, piggy, piggy, piggy. Poooo-eeee!”

We spent the next morning around the pool—where Tom kindly urged, “Get in the water, your mother likes to see you swim.” That afternoon we shopped for groceries, so I could prepare a home-cooked meal, most likely risotto or spaghetti carbonara, favorites of my parents. Throughout those 24 hours, Tom was at his sweetest, so much so that my mother at one point inquired, “Maybe this is the one?”

And then it was back to New York and gearing up for the turn of the millennium on New Year’s Eve. Tom had been fretting for weeks about Y2K wiping out all his investments (he was usually up early, online at 5.30 to follow the markets or whatever the hell he did at that hour).

We went out to eat on New Year’s Eve. At Tom’s apartment, we drank a cognac and stayed up long enough to watch the ball drop in Times Square and check our computers to be sure they hadn’t been reduced to smoldering plastic. When we did not make love to celebrate, I knew the end was nigh.

A few days later, I stumbled out of bed around six a.m. to find Tom seated at the dining table, stubby fingers tapping at the keyboard. “We have to talk,” he said. “Get some coffee.”

I did, and seated myself opposite him.

“I need to break up with you,” he announced.

I had seen it coming but was nonetheless stunned. “At six o’clock in the morning? When you know I have an interview in three hours? What is wrong with you?”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“Would you care to give me some reasons?”

“You’re too bossy,” he said. “Any you’re messy. You leave dishes in the sink, you leave closet doors open.”

I gulped some coffee and burst into tears. Not, as I recall, because I felt my heart breaking but because it was such a shock. Shocking to choose that hour, shocking to call me “bossy” and “messy.” I felt like a child who had been unexpectedly slapped, without warning, seemingly without reason.

“You can take your time about clearing out your stuff,” he said. “You have keys. I’m at work every day. You can borrow the Beamer to drive back to New Jersey.” Yes, readers, I had chosen the sort of man who calls his car a “Beamer.”

Somehow I pulled it together and made it to the studio of Patrick Demarchelier, famed photographer for Vogue, who was having a show of his artier works at a SoHo gallery.

I was escorted to his office, past a row of models in front of mirrors, getting blown out and styled for a shoot.

I shook hands with the rugged bushy-browed Frenchman and promptly broke down in sobs.

He grabbed me in a bear hug. “What is wrong, ma petite?”

I told him.

“He broke up with you à six heures? Quel con!” he consoled. “You are bound to find someone better.”

I wasn’t at all sure about that, but I cleared out my clothes that afternoon and drove the Beamer back to godawful central New Jersey. And I left the closet doors open. Quite a few doors.