With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Here I am on the western shore of Lake Michigan, thinking about a certain woman who is fifteen hundred miles away, more or less. Nothing certifiably romantic has happened between us, but I can’t stop thinking about her beautiful laugh.
I recently called to ask if she wanted to come visit me in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where I’m on sabbatical at my sister’s vacation home. She sounded interested but had a work deadline in a couple of months and other plans after that.
“Then I might have to find some excuse to visit you there,” I said.
“My cat probably misses me. He lives pretty close to you, come to think of it. The people renting my house are taking care of him while I’m away.”
“What’s his name? Sorry. I’m not trying to change the subject.”
“That’s OK. His name is Max. Some relation of Max Factor had him when he was a kitten.”
“Max is a good name for a cat. Better than Factor, anyway.”
“Maybe I left a burner on at my house.”
“Soup’s probably hot by now.”
“Oh, my God, the soup!”
By the end of the conversation we still didn’t have a date, although we clearly intended to have one at some point in the misty future. Two months? Three? Much too long, at least from my perspective, sitting here at the lake with the sea gulls. However long it takes before I can see her again, I’ll be waiting, though waiting is something I promised myself I’d never do. Why wait for something illusory when you can have what’s in front of you right now — the dead-flat lake, an inch of cold tea in a cup, this heavy solitude? Waiting is nowhere, but Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, is someplace real and specific, with many appealing aspects yet to be discovered. Last year at this time, I was waiting for my year off to begin, so I could do more or less what I’m doing right now, minus the waiting.
There wasn’t much going on when I got here in May. The summer people hadn’t arrived yet. A week passed before I saw anybody walking on the beach — a woman bundled up in foul-weather gear who obviously couldn’t wait to get back inside. I had to call the septic man to pump out the holding tank; he came and went without introducing himself. When I went for a haircut at Joe’s Barber Shop, Joe didn’t even ask what kind of haircut I wanted; he’d been giving the same one to every customer for thirty-four years, and he knew how it was done. I thought of checking out the local pub, but people don’t go out much around here on weeknights, and what would they have to say to an outsider who doesn’t even like to fish?
One sure way to avoid waiting would be to get in the truck and drive back to see her, except then it would look as if I didn’t have anything else to do and was driving back just to see her — which is to say, it would look too much like what it was. Better yet, I could fly out there tomorrow or the next day and take her to dinner. A plane would cross in a matter of hours the distance it took me four days to drive coming the other way. I traveled back roads and stopped often to eavesdrop in roadside cafes. In Oklahoma I found a recreational area next to a duck pond and put up a tent. It was early in the season, and the only other camper was an unemployed sheet-metal worker from Minnesota who was going fishing while he waited out the economy. He’d once been on a charter boat that had sunk in a storm on Lake Michigan. Thankfully, nobody had drowned. He asked to be remembered to the skipper, Vince somebody, from Sturgeon Bay, if I ran into him while I was here.
Dinner for two is a possibility. But what if it doesn’t work out? What if she’s bored to death by my rapturous descriptions of Wisconsin in the early spring, the music of love-drunk frogs pulsing in the swampy woods, those little flies that swarm over the clearings like smoke? What if she decides, as a result of our long-distance date, that I’m not potential boyfriend material, like that other woman, the anesthesiologist from Florida, who flew out to see me for a long weekend and left the next day, remarking bitterly on the way to the airport that my dog needed a bath? Then I will wish that I’d stayed here thinking about the woman in question instead of traveling all that way to be disappointed.
Taking everything into account — the distance between her and me, the newness of our friendship, her deadline, and the fact that my cat has not troubled himself over me for one second since I walked out the door nine months ago — I write her a letter saying I’ve decided to tough it out here for “a while” and do what I set out to do: write, read, ride my bikes. I don’t let on that I will be waiting all that while to see her again, nor that I have not been able to stop thinking about her since we met. She writes back saying she is happy for me but “sorry” for herself, a sentiment that causes me to reconsider: it wouldn’t do for a woman like her to be sorry on my account.
Most people my age have outgrown this kind of thing, and just a year and a half ago I started to think that it was happening to me, too — that I’d finally used up my lifetime allowance of love and was entering an era of more sensible pursuits: writing, mountain climbing (while I’m still able to climb them), making more and better friends of either sex. What a relief to be liberated from the whole tragicomic struggle of wanting and not getting, or wanting, getting, and losing, which could all easily be avoided by not wanting in the first place!
I would find better things to do, become less selfish and more productive. Love is too damn much trouble, far too demanding of time and energy. Just think what I might accomplish in the postlove era. I could dedicate myself to doing good works with the same intensity that I’d once dedicated to love. I’d shine so brightly in my liberation that women would be unable to resist me.
Then, while visiting friends in New York City, I sat next to the woman in question at dinner. We drank wine and ate sushi. She was so lovely, so warm, so rich in her attention to everyone and everything that I knew there would be consequences for me of one kind or another: soaring bliss or abysmal misery; probably both. On the way uptown in the cab to drop her off, I mentioned that I was “looking for something to do” in New York for the next few days before flying back to Wisconsin, and if she wasn’t “all booked up,” would she be interested in doing something with me? She was. Notebook and pen leapt from my shirt pocket, and I wrote down her number. At that instant, somewhere on the nighttime streets of the Upper West Side, my resolve to live a life of virtuous independence went straight to hell.
We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to study the influence of the Spanish painters on the French painters. She studied the paintings, and, from a respectful distance, I studied her — a paintable woman if there ever was one. She disappeared into the galleries, which made perfect sense: I’d dreamed her up, and now she had returned forever to the kingdom of dreams. No, there she was in front of The Annunciation, a dubious look on her face as she regarded the cherubs piled up like wood shavings around Mary, who was just then receiving the word from on high: “Guess what? You’re pregnant.”
We spent the day getting lost and unlost in the museum, which was part of the fun. Having asked a guard how to get to southern Asia (“Turn right at the Medusa,” he said), I placed a hand affectionately but paternally on her shoulder, as if to show the way. It was awkward, but everything I said or did, no matter how confused and clumsy, was a source of shared amusement. Walking back across Central Park in the warm afternoon, we saw an eight-foot-long yellow-and-white python, someone’s pet, lounging on the new green grass. I couldn’t decide if the grass was so green because the python was so yellow, or because this woman had mysteriously opened my eyes to the color of things.
Two days later we sat on the steps of the New York Public Library and talked for an hour or more before going inside to see the sonnet exhibit. Then she wanted to eat oysters in Grand Central Station, so we walked east. I was so engrossed in our conversation about the meaning of the name “Wurlitzer” that I almost walked right past the station and might have kept walking all the way to the East River had she not gently suggested that Grand Central might be that building right across the street. (I grew up in New York and drove a cab there. I know Grand Central Station when I see it.)
Later, heading downtown in the subway to visit Ground Zero, she asked for my address in Wisconsin.
“Are you going to write me a letter?” I said, like an idiot.
“Then you don’t want to give me your address,” she stated.
“No — I mean, yes!”
Her postcard, which arrived a few days after I returned to Wisconsin, was what gave me the courage to call and ask her for a date. Spending time with me in New York had been “delightful,” she wrote. But exactly how delightful? The card didn’t say. Had she been as delighted as I’d been, or was she just being polite, like when you write your aunt to say how delighted you were to get the fruitcake she sent for Christmas? And what about this “Love,” capitalized, followed by a comma, above her signature? Was it the same kind of love that people always signed letters with, or was it a hint of something yet to come?
She and I continued to write and talk on the phone at long intervals. Sometimes as many as three or four days went by without a word in either direction. When I tried to make plans to meet her later this summer, she said she wanted to take “one thing at a time.” What was the “one thing” she had in mind?
It wouldn’t do to call on weekends. She might be seeing someone, and she’d know that I wasn’t. Once or twice I thought of the dark-haired Bulgarian waitress in a neighboring town, to whom I’d said, “You don’t look like you’re from around here,” as she’d served up the breaded-whitefish special, but more as a way of diverting my attention from the woman in question than from any significant interest in the Bulgarian waitress.
There were times when I could hardly remember what the woman in question looked like, but even then I remembered too well how it had felt to be close to her. And I remembered who I had been when I was with her: a man I immediately liked and wanted to know better. Nothing seemed to take my mind off her for very long. Not the long bike rides on country roads, intended to make me so hungry and tired that I could think of nothing besides food and sleep. Not the pileated woodpecker that flew across the road during one of those rides, a giant compared to any woodpecker I’d ever seen before, and a bird that not even the natives saw often. Its dazzling red crest brought an unconscious shout of amazement out of me. Then it was gone into the trees, and in no time at all I was thinking not of the miraculous woodpecker, but of the woman fifteen hundred miles away who was working on her deadline and probably having stimulating social encounters without me.
Maybe the trick was to give in to the waiting, rather than gainsay it or call it something else: caution, maturity, strategy. Maybe the waiting was really the thing that I’d been waiting for. For two weeks, I consoled myself with the thought that if, by some impossible chance, she walked through the door and threw herself into my arms, then this delicious hunger, this feeling of longing for her, would be gone. Too bad that longing, especially when one is in the midst of it, always seems such a poor substitute for what is longed for. No question, it had been far nicer to eat oysters with her that afternoon in Grand Central Station and hear her beautiful laughter than it was to sit here and think about it.
Then came a paltry excuse. Some people I didn’t know — a Lutheran minister, his wife, and their dog — were coming to stay in this house on Lake Michigan, where I’d been so conscientiously waiting and thinking. They were wonderful people, I was told; their dog was a wonderful dog. It was a big house, three bedrooms and two baths. We could all share it happily for the two weeks they planned to stay.
I called the woman in question and told her about these rowdy Lutherans who were about to ruin my peace and quiet. “Wisconsin is starting to get to me, anyway,” I said. “I’m eating bratwurst and saying ‘you betcha’ to the checkout ladies at Econo-Foods. So, if you’re going to be around in three weeks or so, I’d like to take you to dinner.”
She agreed. Neither of us acknowledged in words what we both knew: that I was planning to cut short my retreat by six weeks, load up all my gear, and drive fifteen hundred miles just to take her to dinner.
In my next letter, I added recklessly at the end, “When can I start saying inappropriate things to you, like how beautiful you are?”
She wrote back, “Plus or minus fourteen days.”
I replied, “Sorry, can’t wait that long. You are astonishingly beautiful.”
As soon as I mailed the letter, I knew that I’d spoken too soon and said too much, even though what I had said was obviously true and, besides that, true to what I felt. The word astonishingly repeatedly slipped my memory in the days that followed. It was too painful to be reminded of my clumsy come-on. How beautiful had I said she was? Astoundingly? Devastatingly? Outrageously? For days I mentally dredged up the letter and subjected it to withering review. What an ass! Why did I have to go and say anything? There would have been plenty of time to tell her how beautiful she was when I got there, when I was actually beholding her beauty.
A few days later she replied with a postcard: Bouguereau’s painting of two young angels embracing. It was close to two in the afternoon. I stood in sunlight next to the mailbox on Lake Michigan Drive. Birds were probably singing in the woods; I can’t really recall. On the back of the postcard was a message: “I loved your letter & I want to kiss you: I want to kiss you.”
There are still a few days to go before I leave. Four, exactly. The things that I’ve been doing up to now to wait out the waiting — refinishing doors for my brother-in-law, driving into town at every opportunity to check my e-mail at the library and pick up some bananas, watching the NBA playoffs and the Italian bike races on television, obsessively cleaning and lubricating my bikes: things done to take my mind off other things and trick time into passing more quickly than it would have passed otherwise — are now performed like a dance, to music. The waiting has turned into something more like patience.
Things in the refrigerator will have to be eaten: the purple asparagus bought from an angelic blond farm girl at a roadside stand. She said some people thought the purple was a little sweeter than the green. I still haven’t done anything about the copper teakettle that suffered a meltdown and lost its spout that night I was talking on the phone with the woman in question and forgot about the water heating on the stove. The house is clean enough, but I’ll clean it anyway and water the potted flowers that won’t be watered again until the Lutherans arrive. Then, come Tuesday, I’ll get up early in the morning and drive like mad to her door.