Toward the end of the summer of Boris, my brother—who lived in Lawrence, KS, where he taught at the university—began pressuring me to put the Montauk house up for sale. I’m sure he was nervous that I might settle in permanently and somehow deprive him of his inheritance. He began signing his emails “Sternly, Willy” and in one declared, without a trace of real brotherly concern, “We want to see you back on your feet.”
That struck an odd note as I considered myself very much on my feet, when I was not swimming or driving. To the best of my recollection, I was finishing up the Forced March Through Art History, aka The Schirmer Encyclopedia of Art, still writing for ARTnews, and occasionally contributing reviews to The East Hampton Star. I was nowhere near as idle as a tenured math professor who enjoyed entire summers off, doodling obscure equations on yellow legal pads and listening to late Beethoven quartets.
Bill and his wife, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, had been invited repeatedly to visit Montauk and use the house for vacations whenever they liked. But they didn’t much care for travel and maintained a rather circumscribed view of the world. When I once suggested that the two them, both avid cyclists, might enjoy one of those bike trips to Provence or Tuscany, my brother responded: “Why would we want to do that? We have perfectly nice scenery right here in Kansas.”
Nor did he understand Hamptons real estate, which never, ever loses value, especially in Montauk, where available land is virtually nonexistent. I tried to argue that we should keep the house as a rental property, after upgrading the kitchen and bathrooms, but he wanted no part of that. And so I allowed myself to be bludgeoned into putting it on the market, reasoning that he was my only remaining immediate family and I didn’t want any further bad blood between us. I wasn’t even sure why there was bad blood in the first place, though clearly we had a strained relationship. Conversations on the phone only led to bellowing from his end, and so, against my better judgment, I caved.
The first to bid on the property was the son-in-law of my friend Tina, who, if you will recall, was briefly one of Boris’s adopted moms. He thought he might get me to lower the appraised value of $460K by disparaging the house: it needed a new furnace, new windows, the kitchen was a mess, the bathrooms a disaster—all of which I knew, of course, but he didn’t need to hammer home how negligent my parents and I had been in the upkeep of the place. They’d been old and sick for years, and I was simply too broke to manage the renovations.
Most of this was relayed to me through my lawyer, Richard, who remarked: “Why does he think you’ll be more inclined to sell to him if he keeps telling you what a wreck the place is?” I wasn’t. I turned the sale over to a realtor, who had a buyer within 48 hours at the asking price. A house my parents had bought for $17,000 in 1964 sold for 27 times that 40 years later. A couple of years after that, I read in the Times about the sale of Leisurama homes for about $850,000. And that was the last time I could bring myself to look at Montauk real estate listings ever again.
As mentioned, my brother completely cut off communications with me about six years ago, for reasons I never discovered. He died in 2019 of prostate cancer. So I lost a house that was a valuable investment along with my only remaining immediate family, whose affections would probably have dried up regardless of how hard I fought for the property.
It was a classic lose/lose situation.
By the time of the sale, in the fall of 2002, I had found a lovely one-bedroom garden apartment in the city, on West 82nd Street, only a couple of blocks from the building I’d lived in when I was in high school, around the corner from Zabar’s, a stone’s throw from Central and Riverside parks, an area that was deeply familiar and dear to me. For about four times the rent my parents paid in 1970, I could afford an apartment a quarter the size of their Upper West Side classic six.
I’m sure there is a “teaching moment” in here somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.
After settling in, I decided it was probably time to go looking for a man once again. I became intrigued by the potential of Craigslist, then about five years old and a whopping success as an internet bazaar for all manner of goods and services, including romance. For those unfamiliar with the offerings of this site, the CL personals are a great swamp of unfulfilled longing and desire, where one can post, free of charge, for a hookup with a threesome, seek out a green-card marriage, or advertise for that elusive till-death-do-us-part connection. The ads can be as long as you like, include photos, and appear online within minutes. The women, especially in my age group, tend to look for the predictable long-term relationship, for comfort and stability ("Chicken Soup and Cuddling with a Nice SJF," "RN Seeks Lifetime Soulmate"). The men are a mix of old-fashioned yearning and randy desire ("Older Guy Seeks LTR," "Let's Try Role Play," "Spanking and Romance"). Bad grammar and misspellings abound, somehow making many of the pleas seem even more touching ("Great Man Seeks Partner and Mariage," "I Like the Small Breasted Librerian Type").
One chilly October afternoon, when a regular swimming buddy canceled on me. I tentatively typed in a headline: "Dinner and a Movie Tonight?" And then detailed the situation in the text: "A friend punked out on me at the last moment. How about a date with a tall funny blonde?" I got several offers during the course of the afternoon, but the most appealing came around six p.m. from Peter, a lighting designer who lived on the Upper East Side, and was at that moment in the process of making pot au feu (upscale beef stew). He sent a photo of himself and one of the view from his apartment: a twinkling skyline nightscape looking west toward Central Park. We chatted online briefly and I suggested meeting first at a public place so that I could eyeball him and be assured he wouldn't hack me up and throw me into the crockpot.
We met at a wine bar in his neighborhood, and I think we were both pleasantly surprised to find our photos were not overly flattering: we were attractive people of a certain age. Peter was wiry and slender and balding, with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and bright blue eyes. We exchanged abridged life stories, and he told me about his previous career racing motorcycles, which sounded dangerous and sexy.
After an hour or so, we repaired to his apartment around the corner. One glance at the contents of his refrigerator and it was clear this man was a serious foodie: he had on hand about eight different types of cheese and several varieties of mustard and flavored vinegars. By nine the stew was ready to go, and we ate that and a salad and bread at the table overlooking his splendid view. And polished off a nice bottle of pinot noir. By ten-thirty we moved to the sofa and fell to smooching and by eleven it seemed to me I'd better get my tush in a taxi fast or I'd wind up falling into the sack with a near-stranger, not the worst of fates but not really what I’d had in mind for the evening. And my sixth sense about this man was not totally positive.
I emailed him the next morning, telling him how much I'd enjoyed the evening and expressing a desire to see him again. He responded: "I'd love to go to a museum with you sometime, but I don't think we'd make good romantic partners."
"Well, then why," I shot back, "were your hands all over my anatomy last night?"
I never did get an explanation.
When I talked the situation over with a friend, he suggested that perhaps Peter had a wife or other steady woman in his life who happened to be out of town that evening. I can't say I noticed much evidence of a female presence, other than photos of his daughter, but then I'm not given to snooping in other people's closets or bathroom cabinets.
Occasionally, cruising the men's ads on Craigslist, I would now and then find a come-on from Peter with a title like "Making Lasagna Verde for Dinner" or "Braising Oxtails for Stew," followed by an invitation to join a "tall mature gentleman" for an ethereal feast. I was sure it was Peter because he always posted a photo of the beautiful view of Central Park from his apartment. I suppose the gambit is as legitimate as any other way to meet women, but I wonder if he always lost interest when his dates failed to succumb to any activities below the waist.
Often, in the course of my adventures in dating, I’ve been reminded of a two-page magazine spread a former colleague posted on the wall of her office, a parody of the old Arpège ad, with the tagline: “If you want her to be more of a woman, try being less of an asshole.”