The Leonard Lopate Essay Contest
Philip Lopate Essay
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
(published in Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis, Little, Brown, 1981) —
We had been going out only a month when she began knitting a sweater. It was bluish-grey flecked, a pretty wool, and Sara was making for herself, she said, because she was tired of knitting things for other people
I accepted this with good grace. Whenever I go out with a woman, she tells me, “Oh, if you had only known me in the old days, I would have cooked you a huge breakfast,” In the old days they drew baths, they made seven-course meals, they typed for their men: by the time they get to me, they are always turning over a new leaf. I’m used to it.
Besides, it was good that Sara was knitting. She wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and the knitting gave her something to do with her hands while I was talking. Oh, I tried to get her to talk. She’d stop and start with preliminary apologies like “I’m not saying this right” or “Probably this will sound dumb to you, but…” so that I’d get itchy and want to push the fast-forward button.
To be frank, we were mismatched intellectually. She was ten years younger than I, which added to her shyness. But people can’t be the same or equal in every department. When you go out looking for love, the point is to find the Other. Vive la difference, right? And she had other adorable qualities. The first time I saw her I thought, This is for me. That inner glow, that open smile. And what a body! She could have been a Playboy centerfold (except she didn’t have orange skin). The odd thing was, she didn’t seem to know she was a beauty. Whenever I complimented her features she brushed it aside as if I were crazy. She would peel off her flannel checked shirt and jeans and get into bed next to me without the least self-excitement, as though any lumberjack’s wife might be expected to look like her. I didn’t know where to start. I could have spent a half hour worshiping each portion. But she lay stiff as a board, not really grasping what I was getting so worked up over. I was drooling like a man invited to a feast at a religious household who can’t remember the right words to say grace so that everyone can begin to eat. In the end she would accept the entrée, but the soup, the nuts, the fruit cup, the creamed cauliflower, the after-dinner mints, didn’t interest her.
At most, her hands feathered my back as a reluctant signal of participation. Deep down, I thought, maybe she just doesn’t like me?
A week or so after thinking this, I got an encouraging surprise. She bicycled over to my house at lunchtime (that was not the surprise, she bicycled everywhere) and, frowning, said she had something for me but it was damaged, she was very upset. She pulled out of a brown paper bag the woolen sleeveless sweater.
“For me!” I cried.
“Oh, you knew it was for you all along, you must have guessed a long time ago. I’m such a poor liar.”
“No, I didn’t. I’m totally surprised.” I kissed her gratefully, wrapping my arms around her. She was practically crying. “What’s the matter?”
“I brought it to the cleaners to be blocked, and they burnt it, see?” She showed me two scorch marks, where the bluish grey had been singed brown.
“That’s nothing,” I said, trying it on. It fit snugly and the wool felt beautiful against my bare chest (as it happened, I was naked at the time), like chain mail. “A dry cleaner’ll remove those spots.”
“No, they can’t, because it’s organic!” She said the word with a peculiar pungency. “Wool is organic. It’s just as if they had burned your skin.”
“I’m sure they can do something.”
“Will you take it to them? I don’t have the heart to ask and find out it’s ruined…”
“Silly! Don’t you understand how happy I am that you knitted this for me. That’s what’s important.”
“But it’s spoiled!”
“But I love you.” I took her into my arms. “I love you!”
“I love you too,” she whimpered. Then she left to bicycle back to work.
Of course she liked me! How could I think she didn’t. And she was an angel! She had even knitted me a sweater.
I took the sweater to the best dry cleaner’s in the neighborhood, the Hungarian’s. He only confirmed what Sara had suspected: that there was no way to remove the scorch marks. “I’d only be taking your money,” he said, with a sort of Old World knowledge of limits. So I brought the sweater back to Sara because she said she would rip out the row at the top where it was scorched and do them over again. But not right away. She said she didn’t have the heart to go back to it right away.
I didn’t want to rush her, but I hoped, after a week or so, that she would return the sweater soon, because things were not exactly going well between us. She seemed withdrawn. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, but I began to prepare myself for the romance to collapse in two months’ time. Of course once you decide two months it’s more like two minutes. I remember the time I was going out with G____. It was the last week in October and my birthday was still two weeks away; she had planned to buy me a beautiful bathrobe. We were having our problems, but I figured we would hold until after New Year’s, or at least until after my birthday. We broke up October 29. No robe. This time I was determined to get the sweater.
Friday night we were to get together late, around eleven at my house. Sara had some chores to do first, and I had been sitting around watching the late movie, waiting for her to come by. I was in a contented mood. Sara arrived at 11:45, looking wistful as she wheeled her bicycle into my living room, and announced that she was depressed. She apologized for being depressed. She had been unhappy all week.
“How come?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s stupid to talk about – mostly because I’m not accomplishing what I set out to accomplish when I moved to New York.”
“The job, my music lessons, everything. I’m sorry, I’m not much fun to be with tonight.”
“You don’t have to be jolly to spend time with me.”
“I know, but – I don’t want to talk about myself, it’s so boring, I’d rather hear what you’ve been doing and I’ll just listen.”
So we did.
After twenty minutes of review-of-the-day, with Sara asking “listener”-type questions and knitting (something else – a cap; she still did not have the heart to redo the sweater), she put away her knitting needles and said she was going home. She was really too depressed; she had to be by herself tonight.
I should have just let her go. But I was beginning to wonder of this was part of a larger pattern to avoid, in general, spending the night with me. Suddenly I sensed that her depression was not only about her job or the “little things” she said upset her so much and shouldn’t have – but that it was about us as well. Mostly about us.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
“You’re so forgiving and kind and patient with me,” she said, “and it makes me feel guilty because I’m so selfish and I’m giving you so little in return.”
Ominous words. When a woman starts the kind-and-patient business, it’s like handing you your hat and coat.
Let’s get to the point, I said to myself.
After a certain amount of tooth-pulling and high-speed drilling, it came out that she was indeed a reluctant partner in this romance. Our worlds were too dissimilar, she said; our paths didn’t seem to converge naturally. “It doesn’t feel like – me,” she kept repeating.
I will do anything for love. I will tie myself to a bicycle wheel, I will beg. I will humiliate myself. But for this shilly-shallying consolation, this nebbishly urban arrangement to dull the pain of loneliness – no. I would rather have the truth and be done with it.
I brought up her reluctance in bed. She said that had given her great pain. “When one person is more sexually attracted to the other…” Sara faltered.
“Now I’m insulted.”
“Well, I didn’t mean to insult you, that wasn’t at all why I said that. You told me to be honest.”
“You’re being honest and that’s commendable; and I’m being honest by telling you that I’m insulted.”
She thought for a minute before speaking again. “What makes me feel bad is that…when you like someone in so many ways, it should be possible to like him in all ways, including the sexual. It seems like a shallowness on my part that I make that separation…I know you think I’m shallow because of it.”
This was poppycock. You’re either turned on or you’re not. Hadn’t I learned that hard wisdom in the past, by being in her position enough times that all I wanted to do was run? And yet, the fact that she no longer wanted me to be her lover hurt me more than I expected. Suddenly it seemed as if everything I had loved was pushing me away. Why, you male chauvinist pig! I can hear the reader say. You got what you deserved! All you wanted was to hold on to a body that gave you constant erections – you didn’t care about her, any more than she cared about you. Probably not. And yet – this is no small thing, to love the physical. Besides, I did have a certain sympathy and affection for her above and beyond the carnal. Perhaps I’ve neglected to describe it. Oh well; too late.
“What should we do?” she asked, in a voice tinged with apprehensiveness.
“I guess,” I found myself saying helpfully, “I guess we should stop seeing each other.”
Now she began thrashing around in her guilt, the ramifications of her long-kept secret of not being able to love me, enjoying the power of speech more than I had ever heard her. Explanations came easily, now that the pressure was off her. It was 1:30, I was beginning to wish I had watched the rest of the late movie – Alfie, appropriately – instead of having to listen to all this. I awoke from my reverie to hear her say:
“But the bottom line is my feelings.”
What can you say to a line like that? All you can do is nod. But then, with a sincerity that demanded no less than total honesty from me, Sara paused, to ask the classic question of our times. Liebnitz had his all-consuming conundrum; we have our philosopher’s stone. “What are you feeling now?”
“I’m waiting for you to leave, so that I can go to bed.”
She got up and left without a word. I helped her with the door while she wheeled her bicycle out.
It now occurs to me that she may have wanted to go home earlier to avoid this confrontation – in order to prolong, that is, our unnatural life as a couple. It was I who probably forced things to an end. When she had gone, the first I thought of, naturally, was my sweater, which I had only gotten to wear for a minute. Just like the phantom bathrobe. These things are always happening to me. If only I would learn to lie low, I could have a whole new wardrobe by now!