One That Got Away
This may sound familiar. I was in my late thirties, and I had nothing. No savings, no house, no career, no husband, no kids. You can hardly blame me for wondering, “Where did I go wrong?” I called to mind every possibility I could think of, never asking, at least for the moment, “Where did I go right?” No, instead I let self-doubt overload my cognitive faculties as I ran down the list of things that could possibly have led me astray, roads I might have taken toward personal fulfillment and long-term love but didn’t. Okay, let’s face it, I was a post-feminist woman approaching middle-age who had categorically rejected everything my pre-feminist mother had taught me to value in life, and I was wondering about men I might have married but didn’t. Marriage had been the one road I’d never gone down.
Never mind that I’d never, not since I was 10 years old, ever wanted to get married and/or have children. Ever since reading a “Dear Abby” column in which a puzzled letter-writer had written to ask Abby if the couple she knew, who instead of getting married only dated till one of them died of old age, could really have been in love, my dream had always been to fall in love with someone and just live near him (or her, since at 10 I had no sexual identity yet and allowed for the possibility). I thought maybe we’d arrange to be neighbors in the same building or live in a very big house where we each had our own quarters, where we could be civil and romantic with each other, long-term, just like the old couple in the Dear Abby letter.
As for children, seeing how my parents had seemed to think shared genetics gave them some kind of proprietary license to treat us not as individuals but more like morally guidable chickens they were raising, I’d decided that the best way to begin with a sense of respect for another human entrusted to my care would be to adopt. I planned to do this when I was about fifty, probably on my own, when I was rich. I had it all figured out.
I certainly never dreamed things wouldn’t work out as I’d hoped. What with the way I’d been led to believe all men were terrified of commitment, I figured I’d be the ideal woman: a lover forever, irresistible to these hopelessly skittish men, and never lack for a partner. And yet, every man I’d met since leaving home had seemed determined to doubt my “free spirit.” Men just didn’t believe I was sincere about not wanting to get married and have children. I’m pretty sure some especially traumatized ones suspected reverse psychology. And then I began to notice that the men who did believe me treated me very shabbily, as though my lack of marriage goals went hand in hand with a lack of self-esteem and a desire to be crushed like a bug whenever I asked for a little respect and thoughtfulness.
Ironically, of those who weren’t disposed to be mean to me, some were actually offended once they were convinced, and dropped me: it was one thing to not want to marry me but another for me not to particularly want to marry them. These were the warm, fuzzy “marrying types” I dated thinking I might be able to wean them of their conventional aspirations while building a new kind of loving relationship with them. They clung to convention, predictably hinting quite early on in our relationships at what a “great mother” I’d be, hypothesizing tenderly about what our kids would look like before we’d even dated for six weeks. There was no reasoning with them, either.
Thus, I was an “unknown quantity” and consequently the “particularly sticky wicket” kind of woman. A German girlfriend informed me that I had “a marketing problem.” After a few failed dalliances, I could swear that men I didn’t even know yet were giving me the panicky “No, not me! Choose someone else” look as they passed me on the street or accidentally locked eyes with me at a party. Demoralized after 15-odd years of this nonsense, I stopped looking for the guy who’d date me till he/I died, and asked myself simpler questions like: when was the last time someone sexually compatible with me had actually shown me any tenderness?
Ah. Now I remembered. My very first boyfriend, the ex-football hero from Penn State, Brad. I met him in an elevator when I was 21 and had chosen him as my deflowerer on sight, don’t ask me why. Maybe it was just time. He was an American golden boy, looked just like Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken. He was goodlooking in that classic way, though looking at him always mystified me: how someone could look exactly like a doll and yet still be alive? His eyes disconcerted me, because their blueness constantly reminded me of a popsicle that had been popular in my childhood. He had huge pecs that twitched (involuntarily, he said) against my shoulder when he walked with his arm around me, which kind of bugged me but wasn’t exactly the worst thing a girl ever had to put up with. He’d been good to me in every sense: he’d deflowered me on my own terms at my own pace, and done it with a delicacy and enthusiasm for which I’ll forever be grateful. (I’d never wanted to lose my cherry in the back seat of someone’s parents’ car in high school, and had saved myself for something better, which I got.)
Brad had bought me clothing, dressed me up, taken me out to fancy restaurants on Columbus Avenue back in the ’80s when that was a big deal. We’d eaten swordfish steaks, and pasta seasoned with tarragon (the herb of the ’80s, I always say), dined on expensive sushi. He’d introduced me to his parents, and his parents had liked me. He was getting more and more “serious,” I remember, when suddenly I realized I was only 22 and wanted to see the world, not just the inside of another place to live with someone who provided for all my material needs.
Brad was doing all right for himself when I left him for a guy who at least looked more like the kind of guy I’d grown up with, a Japanese-American guy who cooked oyakodon for me and also wanted to marry me, and who I also left (reluctantly, but mostly because of the oyakodon — every time I tried to break up with him, he’d have dinner waiting). But this time around I didn’t leave to avoid marriage as an institution. I left him to avoid him. He was exasperatingly insecure, and his half-assed get-rich-quick ideas ended with him humping the pooch every time. If I’d been the marrying type, not-marrying him would have been a no-brainer. But Brad? He was all set to be big in his field, and inherit loads of dough from his parents, who owned several successful fast food chains back home. If I had been the marrying type, Brad was what my mother would call “a catch,” a phrase I’d scoffed at every time she slid it across the table at me.
And get this: years after I’d left him, he’d called my parents to check up on me when he heard I’d run off to Europe. I’ll never forget picking up the pay phone in the squalid London “bedsit” I lived in the night he called to see if I was all right. He’d even subtly offered to send me any money if I was in need (which I was, but I was too proud and stubborn to take any). That was nice of him, wasn’t it? He was a kind man. I could have probably gone back to him then, now that I thought about it. Why and how had I turned him down? Just because I was young and impetuous? I hadn’t met anyone as simultaneously considerate and sexually compatible in the 14 years since that last time we’d spoken. Had it been the ultimate female hubris to turn down pretty decent sex and a husband/financial asset in favor of an attempt at self-actualization? I began to wonder if my loneliness and poverty were punishment for my rashness.
Where was Brad now? Was he married? Did he have children? Did he think of me and how he might’ve have married me, and shake his head now and then? Like: “Poor Carolita. She could have had all this,” as he looked around at his (hypothetical) huge Connecticut house with fireplaces, a couple of chocolate labs dozing before them, an HDTV in every room, piles of money in the bank, designer furniture, no cockroaches, his closets full of Ermenegildo Zegna cashmere suits (he was always very conservatively fashion-conscious), his wife’s full of Brad-selected Calvin Klein and Donna Karan (the good stuff, not the “bridge” lines), a backyard full of blond, blue-eyed children, the wife on Prozac and out of his hair at some day spa, getting smooth, hot stones carefully placed on her back.
I could have had all that, I thought, even while it kind of repulsed me. Seriously, did I really want that life? What would I be doing now if I’d married him? Having a nervous breakdown? Realizing I’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in my hair? Probably, but heck, what was I doing now? I was doing nothing, nothing but trying to get into illustration or cartooning or something after 15 years of gallivanting around Europe, and I was 37. Thirty-fucking-seven! What did I have? Less than a thousand bucks in the bank, a 13-year-old dog with breast cancer, and a precarious sublet I’d sweet-talked my way into by going on a date with a Dutch slimeball. Was this what I’d sacrificed the prospect of marrying a stable man with a “future” for? Was this all that great? Had my mother been right?
“Where was Brad now?” became the subject of an intensive Google search. And quickly enough, even without Facebook’s help (it didn’t exist yet), I found him. He’d advanced in the world, was at the top of his profession in a position of power, and, interestingly, apparently not married. Huh! I found his email, and wrote him. He wrote back. We arranged a date at a superchic, very expensive sushi place downtown that I’d only ever heard of movie stars frequenting.
Now, I thought, I’d see if I’d been wrong.
We had drinks at the bar, and he began to fill me in on his life after a cursory (less than enthralling, apparently) summary of mine, whereupon he swiftly redirected our conversation into two subjects before he could ask for any specifics (out of curiosity, I mean) about what I’d been doing for the last 15 or so years. (You know, like, what subjects I’d taken when I went back to university, how I’d managed being an illegal alien, how I’d liked living in Europe, had I been happy, had the experience changed me at all… ) No, instead, after making a few statements that revealed him to be not only a staunch Bill Clinton-hating Republican but completely oblivious to the fact that I might not be, he began talking very fondly about his buds.
He went on and on about his male buddies, how funny they were, how much he loved them; to be specific, saying things like: “I love him so much, I really do. He’s so funny!” as he related quite a few adorable guy-exploits to me. “God, I love them, they’re so great!” was an oft-repeated phrase, pronounced between endearingly baby-like chortles of delight. He talked about his buddies the way most people talk about their young children or beloved dogs: overflowing with affection, nearly tearing up sometimes, or was I crazy? It was undeniably touching, but it was also steadily eroding my belief in his claim, earlier that evening (and how it came up, I couldn’t recall) that he was “not gay, even though everyone seems to think so.”
He’d said that a lot when I went out with him in my twenties, too, come to think of it. I began to remember how delighted he’d always been by all the gay male attention he got in boutiques when we went shopping together. It had always made me a little jealous. I also began to recall that he’d favored dressing me in androgynous clothing, tailored with menswear details, and that all my life whenever I wore my hair short, people would occasionally call me “mister.” When Brad and I had dated, all my friends had tried to persuade me that he was gay, too, but I always reassured them: “But we’re having so much sex!” (This was before Brokeback Mountain, Jim McGreevey, bless his heart, and life in general made me wiser.) But come on, I thought to myself, does all this mean he’s gay? It was hard not to think so, unmarried that he was at 45 and babbling on about his boyfriends to me all night. By “babbling on” I mean he talked nonstop about them for a very long time, considering we were reuniting as old lovers.
But is there anything more pathetic and unappealing than a woman assuming a guy is gay just because he doesn’t fancy her? I was not going to be that woman. After all, I was no longer a spring chicken. I might have lost “it.” You know. The bloom of my rose? Perhaps my judgment was colored by completely natural feelings of rejection.
So, “whatever,” I thought, and let it go, sat politely, gracefully assuming the mantle of the discarded woman who knew how to be a good sport, nodding and smiling away, thinking there’s no need to assert myself since I obviously had no horse in this race anymore. Might as well just be “nice” till it’s time to go home. But then he started talking about the pre-WWII Austrian memorabilia he collected.
First mentioned was a pair of “pre-war” Austrian chairs that were being offered at Christie’s for fifty-five thousand. No, fifty five thousand was way too much, he said, not minding my bulging eyes and gaping mouth. He was only willing to pay thirty-six, tops. I checked that we were talking $55K for the pair and not each, saying $55K was ridiculous for only one chair but that for two it was a bargain — as if he might clock that I was being ironic. He answered me quite earnestly that it was $55K for the pair, which was when I began to feel like that commie upstart in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, who says to Madame Colette:
-So you lost a handbag, madame?
-And it had diamonds in the back?
-And diamonds in the front?
-Diamonds all over?
-Well, have you found it?
-No! But let me tell you: any woman who spends a fortune in times like these for a handbag… Phooey, phooey, and phooey! And as Leo Trotsky said, ‘Kashdaya damitchka (…)’ [Commie upstart now slapping his hand in cadence with the quote as he cites Trotsky in Russian, which translates as: Any woman who spends a fortune for a silk purse is a sow’s ear.] And that goes for you, too!
But I didn’t say “Phooey!” as in that scene. I just sat there pretending Brad was talking in Italian lira to keep my head from exploding. Fifty-five thousand lire I could relate to, sort of. That was an amount that didn’t make me feel like yelling, “Phooey!” Only my tolerance, or maybe just my credulity, reached its limits when he began talking about a certain objet d’art that he’d acquired at one point, which, ha ha ha, contained a visual reference to a heil salut that he hadn’t noticed until several friends pointed it out to him, whereupon he’d divested himself of it and purchased something else.
Oh, I don’t know, I asked myself, but couldn’t I be forgiven for thinking, “Okay, this guy is definitely ‘ambiguously gay’ and definitely a collector of vaguely Nazi memorabilia”? (He’d probably say, “But I’m not, even though everyone seems to think so!”) Whatever he was, he certainly had a talent for making me — and plenty of other people, it seemed — think things about him that he purported not to be true. It flashed across my mind that perhaps I wasn’t the only one who had a marketing problem. And then for one brief It’s a Wonderful Life moment, I wondered if my leaving him to go live my Bohemian life in Europe had led to both of us becoming the strangely blind people that we both obviously were. Because there had to be something about myself that I wasn’t seeing, as well.
Well, whoever and whatever this man was, if all I could do now that he was in front of me was ask myself these questions, he couldn’t be the one for me. Perhaps no one was. (Yet.) (Yes, I felt there was still hope for me.) And that answered the “Had not-marrying Brad been a mistake?” question. So, now I just looked forward to going home and closing the chapter on Brad and trying not to feel embarrassed by my own pathetic self-doubt when I looked in the bathroom mirror. What a field trip this had been! I could now go to bed, relieved that I was only poor and aimless, wandering the world without a rudder, instead of married to Brad.
We wrapped it up after I declined to have dinner with him, citing all the sushi tapas we’d had, and how I thought I’d better get going. He escorted me outside, and actually got in the taxi with me to bring me to my door. Still as chivalrous as ever, I thought, musing that even an ambiguously-gay collector of disturbing memorabilia could be the kindhearted gentleman. Again I wondered — I couldn’t help it! — was he gay? He’d been so good in bed, though. Or had it all been in my post-virginal, oversexed head? Maybe any under-30 guy with a boner-on-demand would have seemed good in bed when I was 21. Could he be bisexual? Or just so unbelievably good-looking and vain that he just lapped up attention from gay men and straight women alike? Did people do that? It was a mystery. As if by telepathy, he seemed to pick up on my sex-thoughts and offered to redirect the cab to his place instead of mine, to show me his Austrian collectibles. Wow. Still on the make, that’s how blind he was to who I was and how the evening had gone. I thought: damn, but I might still be able to marry this guy if I played my cards right!
Which is exactly what my mother said, practically slapping her forehead in disbelief that I’d blown it once again.
For the record, I have ridden through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in my hair. It’s not bad at all.
Previously: The Bir’s.
At the age of 46, Carolita Johnson is finally happily unmarried to the man of her dreams (not Brad), and they now live in a large apartment with his and hers bathrooms and studios. Her cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.