It was July, and I hadn’t had sex in more than two years. The last time I’d loved and lost, I had ended up walking the streets in a snowstorm, melting the drifts with my hot, salty tears. While in this unfortunate condition, I ran into an acquaintance and blurted out my tragedy. It’s hard to say who was more embarrassed.
It took me about nine months to climb out of the abyss. When I did, I began to turn a very big corner: Love was messy and soul-destroying. Abstinence was peaceful and restorative. I felt like the Wise Old Celibate on a mountaintop, surveying the romantically deluded masses below.
My friend Joyce, who is fifteen years older than I and a grandmother, was hung up on a man who’d run away to Australia for a life of booze, sun, and surf. She read me the love letters he sent her almost daily, each one with no return address.
I’d heard enough. “You are a goddess of the universe,” I counseled. “Dump him.”
We drafted a personal ad for a new, better man.
“Put down that I’m a smoker,” Joyce insisted, “and over six feet tall.” She was lying on the grass, her blond hair threaded by gray, the tip of her nose peeling. She looked like a giant, deeply tanned water sprite.
I knew all about Joyce’s lovers because she’d described them to me in lurid detail. Some, like Peralta, the drug-dealing, girlfriend-beating, guerrilla terrorist — light skinned except for his huge black penis — would remain forever burned into my imagination.
Her latest, Jim the Abandoner, had sat with his arms folded in stolid silence on the few occasions I’d been around him. Once, he’d flung my dog Barney off him with cruel force. (Barney sometimes forgets that, at forty pounds, he isn’t exactly a lap dog.) After that incident, I was of the opinion that the continent of Australia, originally a penal colony, was just the right place for Jim.
“Now let’s write your ad,” Joyce said to me.
An icy dread spread across my chest, as though, having climbed up the big bungee-jumping tower to lend moral support to a friend, I’d been tricked into taking the plunge myself.
“I’ll pass,” I said.
She looked at me carefully. “You need to date someone. You need man-cheerfulness in your life.”
You’re wrong, I thought. I need a bigger apartment. I need to fix the slow leak in my bike tire.
“My dog is my source of unconditional love,” I said. He’s also replaced my therapist. And he’ll replace my best friend, too, if you don’t stop harassing me.
It wasn’t that I didn’t desire romance. It’s just that, based on past experience, it made more sense to keep it in the abstract realm of fantasy. Witness Joyce, who was, at this moment, looking at me with pity in her eyes. Who’s better off, Joyce? Remember when Jim ignored your birthday, then got drunk and peed in your apartment stairwell? Remember when he left you alone to cope with pneumonia in that one-room cabin with no heat? And what do you do now? Gaze fondly at his photo, framed in gold, on your kitchen table. I rest my excellent case.
Joyce smiled at me in the stubborn, helpless way that women do when they’ve eaten buckets full of broken glass and know that they’ll probably continue to do so; that they have no choice but to suffer the agony of love and write soulful odes to ecstatic pain.
“Never give up,” she said mildly, taking a fat drag on her cigarette and blowing the smoke away from my militant, reformed smoker’s face.
Maybe she had a point. Maybe it was too soon for me to throw in the towel. I thought I might try again, only this time with certain precautions. After a lifetime of skepticism toward people who wrote checklists of qualities they wanted in a lover, I decided to toughen up and make one of my own. My soul mate would have integrity, compassion, loyalty, left-wing politics, and a sense of humor, and he would genuinely like my dog. Creativity was a plus. Financial solvency was also a plus; the last three guys I’d dated had constantly relied on me to pay for dinner and a video. Remembering this, I added to my list: No freeloaders.
True love, if it really existed, was something I could wait for. I was fully prepared to live like a nun in the interim. Or so I thought.
I’ve read that it’s common to be repelled by someone you later find attractive. My attraction to Reptile Man was like that. He hung out at Red Emma’s Deli, arriving at ten every morning like clockwork. He always read a newspaper someone else had left behind and spaced out three coffees over a period of about two hours.
I decided he was beautiful, in a seedy, weather-beaten sort of way — about fifty years old, with fabulous cheekbones and a ratty, sun-bleached ponytail. He looked like a cross between Richard Burton and Klaus Kinski: half lion and half snake. I was physically drawn to him, but the way his pale blue eyes lighted excitedly on people gave me the creeps.
I started going to the deli when I knew he’d be there. I ate my prop muffin, drank my coffee, and pretended to write, looking up every now and then to check him out with feigned disinterest. He had the fading good looks of a male model and the dirty, moth-eaten attire of a homeless person — or an incompetent bachelor.
One day, a sexy blonde came into the deli. I watched Reptile Man position himself sideways on his chair and start at the blonde’s ankles, slowly moving his gaze up her long, buttery legs to her cut-off jeans, then to her full breasts, hugged by a barely there tank top. Disgusted, I packed up my props and went home.
On another occasion, Joyce and I were sitting in the deli when Reptile Man walked in. At the sight of him, Joyce made a low animal sound of revulsion.
“You know that guy?” I asked, interested.
“I see him in the fitness club at the Holiday Inn. Last week, he cornered me in the sauna and asked if I’d ‘done any traveling recently.’ He’d noticed my tan. He had a lot of nerve, particularly since he’s seen me there with Jim plenty of times over the last two years.”
I studied the ceiling a moment. “Heard from Jim recently?” I asked.
“No, not recently,” she said, bowing her head.
One Friday night, Barney and I made our usual pilgrimage to the video store. I sought to live vicariously through a Hollywood romance, and watching Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck for the fifteenth time seemed like the best bet. Stick with the tried-and-true.
Bill, the video clerk, came over to give Barney a dog biscuit.
“Moonstruck is out,” Bill said, “in case you were wondering.”
“Thanks.” I reddened. “My old, sick mother will be very disappointed.”
“Your mother may like Notting Hill, if she can stomach Hugh Grant after that unsavory piece of business.”
“My mother forgives all,” I said, holding my hand out for the tape. While I stood reading the back of the box, Bill went to attend to another customer.
Then he walked in: Reptile Man. He went right over and started talking to Bill as if they were old friends. His voice was deeper and richer than I could possibly have imagined, like molasses being poured into maple syrup. I froze, my hand fused to the video, and then shifted for several days from one leg to the other.
Eventually, Bill looked over at me. “What do you think? It gets a better-than-shitty rating.”
“OK,” I replied, moving slowly toward the counter. Reptile Man stood very still at my side. Barney sniffed his dirty running shoe, then moved sociably toward his crotch. I yanked the leash quick enough to give my dog whiplash, then propelled us out the door, my nerve endings unfurling behind me like streamers.
One thing I have always been a sucker for is a lonely man. As a child I was entranced by the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. As a teenager I fell in love with Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and, later on, the Phantom of the Opera. Now it was Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, with his brooding sensuality locked behind a wall of pained isolation. To be perfectly truthful, I am an innate rescuer, always imagining myself as an impersonal goddess standing on the shore, holding out a hand to a drowning man. It’s not my responsibility, I try to tell myself, but, like any addict, I have relapses. Simply put, my fantasy is this: in exchange for my breathing life into his soul, a man will be grateful to me to the point of steadfast, lifelong adoration. For it is ultimately my own rescue that concerns me. This is what I’ve been praying for on the sly all this time.
Watching Reptile Man at his regular table by the window in Red Emma’s, I realized that he was a man with a lot of time on his hands, and that this time weighed heavily. I saw it in the resigned set of his shoulders and the angle of his head; in the way his eyes wandered emptily over his newspaper or gazed out the window at passersby. There was a whiff of desperation about this sitting alone, day after day. It seemed a futile attempt to connect to the world, while still remaining quietly separate.
It was obvious to me that this man had failed at something important in life. I wondered if possibly he had failed at love.
I went back to the video store and asked Bill, “Who was that guy I saw you talking to the other day?”
I described Reptile Man.
“Oh, Victor.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. I waited, my body flooded with heat.
“He’s a landlord, owns three houses, completely gutted and renovated them himself. He lives in one. A while back, he traveled for a year to places like Israel and Egypt, and it was a big thing for him. He’ll tell you every little detail about the trip, ad nauseam. But he’s OK. Helps people out. Shovels the sidewalk for the little old lady across the street.” Pause. “He’s a bit eccentric.”
“Well, I once saw him vacuum his front lawn. Only the one time, though.”
“Oh.” I thought for a minute. “I always see him alone.”
“Yeah. He’s a loner. I think he had a girlfriend briefly about six years ago. Why? Are you interested?”
“He’d be thrilled to know you were asking about him. He’d be thrilled that anyone was interested in him.”
I hesitated. “You could mention that I’d be open to going out with him for a drink sometime. I think he’d know who you meant, if you described me.”
“He’ll be here tonight at ten o’clock. He always stops by after his workout at the Holiday Inn. I’ll tell him you’d like to meet him.”
“OK. Call me afterward and let me know what he says.”
I went home and kept a vigil by the phone.
Bill didn’t call.
That night, I dreamt about Reptile Man. In my dream, he approached me and told me his name was Xavier.
“The X is soft,” he said beguilingly. “It sounds like an S. S-S-Savior. You can follow me if you want to,” he added, walking rapidly away. I couldn’t keep up with him and got lost.
I went back to the video store to collar Bill. The girl working there told me he was away for the next four days on a camping trip.
I couldn’t believe it. Horrifying limbo. I would have to avoid Red Emma’s every morning until Bill got back, just in case.
Later that afternoon, when I thought the coast was clear, I ventured cautiously up the street. Victor was sitting outside the deli on a bench, his eyes scanning both sides of the street like a reconnaissance satellite. I ducked into an alley and hastily doubled back to my apartment.
“Chickenshit,” I said to my four walls. “Chickenshit, chickenshit.”
The walls did not contradict me.
That night, I lay awake for hours, piecing together my impressions. Victor was a compelling-looking person, in a perversely repellent sort of way. He was somewhat lecherous toward women, but saintly toward old people. He always sat alone, and no one ever hailed him. I decided he definitely belonged to that category of males who are hazardous to my health. Which meant that I had to talk to him. I knew where he lived because I’d looked him up in the phone book. Going to his house was completely out of the question, though. I was borderline stalking him as it was.
What if I approached him and started talking, just like that? Would he think I was insane? What if he’d told Bill he wasn’t interested, and my approaching him embarrassed us both? I would kill Bill when he came back. He would regret the timing of his wilderness trip. This was giving me an ulcer.
I would have to run the gauntlet and get it over with.
The next morning, after three hours’ sleep, I walked to Red Emma’s with the majestic slowness of Mary, Queen of Scots, en route to her beheading. I bought a coffee, sat outside on the bench, and waited, monitoring my roiling stomach and trying to push my thoughts ahead to when it would all be over. Very soon now. Only about ten more minutes. I noted the air that morning was very pleasant — not yet poisoned by car exhaust. I hoped to enjoy other mornings just like it, if I succeeded in surviving this one. I gazed up the street in the direction from which he would come. If this backfired, I’d simply have to walk a few blocks out of my way to avoid Red Emma’s. Every single day for the rest of my life.
His rumpled form wheeled around the corner and lurched purposefully toward the deli. He barely glanced at me before reaching the door.
“Victor,” I said quietly.
He jerked his head, confused, startled. “Excuse me? Do I know you?”
“Will you sit down and talk to me for a second?” I actually patted the bench with my hand. Alarmed, he obediently came and sat, as though expecting to be briefed about a bomb scare inside.
I explained who I was. “Did Bill mention me to you?”
Victor’s expression changed to one of glad understanding. “Ah, I wondered who Bill was referring to.”
“Didn’t you recognize me from his description?” I asked, more than a little deflated.
“Oh, sure. . . . Well, I — I mean, I’d seen you before, but I never thought you were interested.”
I gazed at him skeptically. Then it hit me with absolute certainty: although I’d sat a few feet away from him every morning for months, he hadn’t noticed me at all.
“I’d love to go out with you for a drink sometime,” he was saying now, “except I don’t drink anymore. I used to drink to the point of blacking out — to mask my shyness. I didn’t go to AA because standing up and spilling my guts to a bunch of strangers isn’t my style. I just quit one day, and that was it. Same with smoking. Now I just drink coffee.
“I like this place —” he gestured to Red Emma’s — “with the hippy-dippy, Rastafarian, artsy-fartsy thing they’ve got going here. But the staff have been pretty cold toward me ever since they found out I’m a landlord. They’re all socialists, and last Christmas I made the mistake of giving them a Christmas card with a picture of my three row houses — for which I won a restoration award from the Historical Society. But the people here obviously take a dim view of anyone they think has money. Not that I have any. Money. I’m as poor as anyone.”
He went on to say that the “socialist malcontents” in the kitchen should “grow up and get a life,” that giving homeless people free soup and bread was “bullshit — bad for business,” and that the panhandlers downtown should be “hosed into the lake.”
“I wish I had their physical strength,” he said. “I wish I had a twenty-year-old body. They should be mandatorily drug tested and forced to work at any shit job around.”
There was a thudding inside my brain, and I had the bizarre thought How can someone so good-looking say such terrible things?
“I have to go,” I said. “I have an appointment. It was nice meeting you.”
“Yeah, let’s get together soon.” He grinned hugely at me. “I admire your initiative.”
For the next two days, I avoided leaving my apartment until after dark. Then, on the third day, when I thought it was safe, I went and had dinner in the open-air courtyard of another restaurant on a quiet side street. As I contemplated my future in this city, I realized there’s a very good reason why certain people always seem to be alone, sealed inside their own plastic bubble.
And then, like in a nightmare, Reptile Man walked right up to my table and sat down.
“Hey, how’ve you been? Can I join you? I want to apologize for that diatribe the other day. It’s been a long time since someone expressed an interest in me. I don’t know how to ‘be,’ you know? I’m just hurt about the staff at Red Emma’s giving me the cold shoulder, when all I’ve ever been is nice to them. I wish people here could be as warm and friendly as the people I met when I was in Egypt.”
I looked frantically around for the waitress and my bill.
“What’s the rush?” he said gently, and laid his hand on mine. The touch of his hand on my skin had the effect of a year’s worth of massages at a swank Palm Springs resort. Although I knew better, I signaled the waitress for another beer.
A cheap drunk, I proceeded to get blasted on two pints and tell Victor what I thought of his politics. I talked about broken homes and incest survivors and spousal abuse and the need for compassion and understanding. By my third beer, I was sailing on a wave of Buddha consciousness, inspiring even myself with my humanitarianism.
“I try to move beyond my judgments and fears,” I said blithely, “toward a place of deeper connection with people.” My face, I imagined, radiated the inner glow of spiritual awakening.
He fell for me. I could see it in his expression as I spoke. He was totally unconvinced by my arguments, but smitten with my benevolent, nurturing, goddess self. He asked the waitress to bring him another coffee.
“Can you lend me money to cover this one?” he said to me. “I’ll pay you back for sure.”
“Oh,” I joked, “so the capitalist wants the socialist to pay for his drink.”
Victor looked hurt. “You’re just like the staff at Red Emma’s. You’ll probably even report back to them about me.”
“You must be kidding,” I said. “I don’t even know those people.”
He stared hard at me for a second, then softened. “You have a nice smile,” he ventured. “Like the Madonna. I’d like to walk with you on the waterfront. Will you do that with me?”
The suffering of a lonely man. I got up, a trifle unsteadily, and floated along beside him, He put his arm around my shoulders as if he knew it was too soon but couldn’t help himself, I fastened my arm around his waist, which was lean and hard through his T-shirt. I meant this to be a gesture of drunken camaraderie, but the wild beast had been set free in me and was now howling at the moon.
We sat on a park bench at the water’s edge, and for some strange reason I told him a story about a couple I knew who’d been driving to a folk festival in another town when their car had suddenly been besieged by moths. Hundreds of thousands of moths, coating their windshield, hood, roof, lights, everything. They drove slowly with their wipers on until they could pull into a truck stop. It, too, was covered by the fluttering mass of a million mating moths.
“Isn’t that incredible?” I said, eyes wide, seeking confirmation.
With his arm still around me, he smiled as if I was the most touching and adorable thing he’d ever seen. I wondered how I could possibly have thought that he was reptilian in nature.
We kissed passionately for a long time, like two starving souls who’d fallen on an abandoned cache of hot-fudge sundaes. The power and intensity of our need was both comical and frightening. When he attempted to bury his face in my lap and bite through my shorts, I snapped to attention and hauled him up by the armpits. “Whoa, sailor.” I craned my head around, looking for someone lurking in the bushes with a pair of infrared binoculars.
I brought Victor home, and we sat on my bed. I was trying to remember something important about first dates, but the answer lay at the outer edge of my drunkenness. Oh, right. Don’t screw. I turned and looked at him lying on the bed beside me, like an airbrushed European porn star.
“Maybe we should hold off,” I told him. “I think it’s too soon.”
“Whatever you say,” he replied. “It’s your call.” And he sat up and kissed me again and again until I got over that mental block about first dates and climbed into the birchbark canoe with him for a pulse-pounding ride down the most dangerous set of rapids in the world.
In the harsh light of day, I accompanied Victor to Red Emma’s for breakfast. He didn’t have any money on him, so I paid. He talked about himself for two solid hours. In his fifty-two years, he’d been involved with five women, each for less than six months. He referred to them by hair color and place of origin. There was the Blonde from Germany, whom he’d met in a sauna; the Redhead from Belleville, who’d told him he was the best lay she’d ever had; the Brunette from Wales, who’d broken his heart and nearly destroyed him when she got engaged to someone else.
“It takes me a long time to get over things,” he told me earnestly. “I keep going over what could have been done differently.”
I drummed my fingers on the table. “What were their names?”
“What’s the difference?” he said impatiently. “That’s not the point.”
He took me to the pool at the Holiday Inn, and I watched him schmooze with some tourist kids while we sat in the Jacuzzi. He hogged a water jet for about an hour and told them to be sure to get their parents to take them to the expensive handmade-ice-cream parlor in town.
Then we dove into the swimming pool, and he came up beside me with his hair all askew, clowning around like a surfer dude. I smirked at him, my disgust thinly veiled. We’d been together for twenty-four hours, and he still hadn’t asked me one single, solitary thing about myself. Sitting poolside in the sun, he held me hostage for forty-five minutes with some convoluted story about a friend he didn’t talk to anymore. When I tried to interject a comment now and then, he talked louder, as if speaking over the din of a jackhammer.
In the middle of his soliloquy, I got up and jumped in the pool. He came in after me, pulled me into a corner, and kissed me, feeling me up through my swimsuit.
This is insane, I thought to myself. I have got to get myself out of this. But my body was like a double agent, selling secrets to the enemy while I stood stupidly, idly by.
In exchange for my lending him money on the last two occasions, he offered to take me out to dinner that night. I put on a short black dress and applied some makeup. He arrived at my door wearing a sweat shirt he’d worn earlier in the day to pour concrete. He had coupons, he said, for a meatball sub at the sandwich shop on the corner — I could get the foot-long instead of the six-inch, if I wanted. I stared at him in disbelief. On the way, he told me about a free concert that he usually attended every Friday night at a bookstore. He’d been in the habit of ordering a vanilla Swiss latte, but lately he was trying to figure out how to make one at home first, to avoid paying three bucks for it at the bookstore.
I looked down at the ground and noticed his toes sticking out of his sandals. The nails were long and yellow, curling under like talons. Sullenly, I told him they needed to be cut.
“Done!” he announced gaily. “I’ll have my foremen get right on it!” He threw his hip against me and planted a big kiss on my cheek. We ascended the steps into the fluorescent-lit sandwich shop for a sub filled with something masquerading as meat.
It was about two in the morning when we returned to my place.
“I’m only comfortable having sex if you wear a condom,” I told him tiredly.
“We didn’t use one last time,” he said.
“That was a mistake.”
“Well, that doesn’t make sense.”
“It makes perfect sense. I don’t want to get pregnant, and I don’t want to get a sexually transmitted disease.”
“But I haven’t had sex in six years!”
“Have you had a vasectomy?”
“No. Couldn’t you get an IUD? Or go on the pill?”
“At two o’clock in the morning? Listen, I don’t know you well enough to do either of those things yet. I need to see where this is going first.”
“Well, that blows. I wish you’d make up your fucking mind. I’m allowed to bare all one night, and I have to wear rubber the next.” He shrugged disdainfully. “But I guess beggars can’t be choosers.”
Furious, I picked up his shirt and threw it at him. “Get out of my sight, you selfish pig.”
He minced toward the door in a grotesque parody of femininity. “Oh, m’lady doth have a stick up her ass,” he sang in a sarcastic falsetto.
After he’d gone, I burned some sage to purify the energy in my apartment — and exorcise the pervasive odor of Reptile Man.
A couple of days later, I was sitting by the lake with Barney, the feathery branches of a weeping willow fluttering against my face and hair, caressing me like a lover. I sang my and Barney’s favorite song: “All the Diamonds,” by Bruce Cockburn. Barney sighed luxuriously and rolled over on his back, furry chest exposed, soaking up the rays. I lay down with my head next to his. Two tranquil souls in a capricious universe.
Then a shadow spread over us, blocking the light. There stood Victor, smiling down.
“How’re you doing?” he asked.
I glared at him.
“That’s good, that’s good. Hey, about the other night — I think we were just like a couple of kids who ate too much candy and stayed up too late. You were right about the condoms. This is the age of safe sex. I was just acting spoiled, because, well — y’know, condoms suck. But I’ll wear them.”
Because beggars can’t be choosers.
I got up and started walking. Victor fell in alongside me, reaching out and smoothing my hair with his fingers.
I stopped suddenly and turned on him. He really was a piece of work: a handsome, hollow husk, personality and soul distorted by total self-interest. But I saw more, too: abject loneliness, fear. I saw his crushing refusal to reach out genuinely to another human being. He wasn’t Reptile Man. He was a man whom love had eluded and may well continue to, for the rest of his life.
“I’m sorry, Victor,” I said, not unkindly. “This isn’t going to work. I need to feel that someone is really interested in getting to know me as a person.”
“I did that!” he exclaimed, offended. “You’re the one who doesn’t know anything about me! You don’t even know what I’m like!”
I picked up Barney’s leash and continued walking.
“You’re just like the Redhead from Belleville!” he screamed after me. “You’re just like them all!”
I walked on and, looking up, caught sight of a heron gliding effortlessly over the sun-dappled lake.