The Thinking Man
Let me tell you a story.
I read the post card. It began benignly enough. Almost touristy, as if she were writing to her mother. Then suddenly, it swerved off the road, through my guard rail, and straight into my heart.
“I left you a kiss in front of ‘The Thinker’.”
And she’d signed it simply, or maybe not so simply,
Just like that. With no comma between the two words.
That was mine, and she stole it. She’d noticed once when I signed off an email to a loved one, that I used no comma there.
One day she asked me about it.
”I do it on purpose. It turns it from a salutation into a request, just by removing the comma. It suddenly packs power, and maybe coercion.”
She had nodded and kissed me.
Now she was throwing it back in my face.
Ah, Le Penseur. I remember how the famous sculpture by French sculptor Auguste Rodin was defined in Wikipedia: It depicts a man in sober meditation, battling with a powerful internal struggle.
No shit, I thought.
So she’d hit her knees and left me one, huh? She had promised to do something in Paris to mark our time together. All one and half months of a relationship so constricted by such passionate love, it simply choked us to death. You can want someone too much.
I loved her beyond words, and words are how I make a living. She represented so many things that I used to be, and wanted to recoup: innocence, freshness, enthusiasm for life. One could not conjure up such a heartfelt and heartbreaking gesture as that kiss without a strong streak of idealism running through their soul. She still had her idealism. Or what was left of it. I’d apparently done my best to destroy it.
A year later, when I would return her gesture in front of Le Penseur, I remember rising slowly, brushing the gravel from my knees and palms, and thinking: Of all of the millions of kisses that have been exchanged on French soil, and more specifically Paris soil, Rebecca and I were quite likely the only two people to do it literally.
But we’ll get to that. First, how we came to be together.
I was rebounding, and not very well, from my second failed union, my second wife of one year having left me and returned home to New Jersey, back to mom and dad. Where she belonged, it turned out.
Toiling at a little small town newspaper, I had a light weight enough position which did not require much emotional investment and that worked out well for guy who wanted nothing more than to feel sorry for himself.
It was in the throes of this self pity when I noticed the shapely rear end that wobbled by five or six times a day. A tall, thin girl, maybe mid twenties, a reporter in the editorial department. Name of Rebecca. That was about all I knew of her. That and the fact my neck had quickly grown conditioned to snapping and watching her stride by. Didn’t matter if I was on the phone, dealing with a live customer, or talking with the publisher. It was an uncontrollable impulse.
It wasn’t long before I took the time to notice the front of her, and it held up admirably to the traffic stopping backside. She was too thin, but still appeared athletic, and she was the type who wore little makeup and spent even less time on her hair, an unconscious message any astute male could read as “stay away”.
I did. For a while. But that ass was so alluring, and I was looking for any port in a storm, and how’s THAT for an ass metaphor?
We began to exchange little nothings, maybe a word or two at the copy machine, a joke by me at the ubiquitous water cooler, and once in while bumping into one another in the parking lot where, if I was lucky, I got to watch her walk away for a lot longer than in the office. I’m telling you, this bottom was the TOP!
It was going to take one of us to force the issue and, indirectly, it turned out to be her. I was lunching alone in the conference room, obvious to anyone who strolled by as the door was made of glass. She burst through the door as if thrown.
“Don’t worry, I won’t say a word. I brought the paper to read.”
It came out in a whoosh, like a sentence with no punctuation or spaces, all in one breath.
I looked up calmly from a copy of the same paper, which I was reading, laid my palm out toward an empty chair invitingly, and said, “No need for silence. Just make sure you have something to say, is all.”
She looked at me oddly, as if I was setting rules in a classroom and I wasn’t even the teacher. She nodded and sat, unwrapping her deli sandwich. Tuna, I noted. Wheat bread. Sizeable pickle. Even a bag of chips. How’s this girl stay so thin?
She was unpretentious; I found it to be cute. She probably had no idea she was sitting on a million bucks. And her chest, though not large, stood defiantly straight out. In fact, from my sideways perch, there appeared to be a slight tilt skyward, even.
My wife, soon to be ex-wife Laura, had a body that adequately filled my dreams, but she was probably ten years older than this morsel. Which meant I was at least fifteen years older. There was tautness to Rebecca’s body that I had not seen, or enjoyed the splendors of, since high school.
Though feeling like a two time loser in the marriage game, which is exactly what I was, Rebecca was nonetheless rekindling in me the urge to flirt, even if she wasn’t aware of her effect on me.
I watched her diligently unfold her paper and begin to read, making sure her eyes did not waver. Of course, I could see the strain in her left eye as she pressed into service her peripheral vision to try and gauge my response. I couldn’t help but grin. She was cute, on about five different levels.
“So, where did you go to high school, Rebecca?”
She lowered the top half of her broadsheet, eyeing me speculatively.
She folded the paper closed, took a sip from her can of Ginger Ale and said pointedly, “I went to college at U.C. Davis. Four years. Poly Sci major.”
I grinned. “Of course. So, right from 8th grade to Davis?”
It was her turn to grin. “No, of course not. I went to M-A.”
The local high school. So she was a local girl. Made sense. She seemed very comfortable in any environment I’d seen her in. She’d taken the safe route. U.C. Davis was not an academic institution that anyone would remember. It was known for its Ag courses and was even nationally known for its Veterinary school.
Political Science had about as much purchase in the American work place as an English degree or a Communications degree. It was what kids took to keep mom and dad at bey. Once out of school, the degree itself could be handy as a coaster, or a paper airplane, or even a telescope, if rolled properly.
She’d obviously chosen journalism to jump start her career. I knew for a fact she made about $11 bucks an hour as a reporter. Not a cub reporter, but not exactly a grizzly bear, either. So much for four years of Poly Sci. And what do politics and science have to do with each other, anyway? Four years to learn what an oxymoron was?
I almost asked her that question, but felt it had a snarky flavor to it, and as opening gambits go, it might be a cold shower.
“What brought you here to the Times?”
She removed her glasses, thick-lensed and black-framed, a dorky look before that look became cool. She appeared to be clueless about things like fashion, makeup and clothes.
“I answered an ad. Interviewed, and they hired me on the spot.”
”Really?” She had the typical antennae bred into most women and had sensed my incredulous tone.
“Yes, really. I’m quite good in interviews. Very poised.” I thought I saw her nose match her breasts with a sudden tilt north.
“So I see.”
“Why do you seem to be laughing at me on the inside?”
“That’s a good call. I kind of am chuckling at you, but more because of your obvious innocence balanced by an almost ferocious defensiveness. The contrast intrigues me.”
”Well, I’m glad you’re intrigued by me.”
I didn’t think she was glad at all, but I didn’t say anything. And I was intrigued. I hadn’t thought about her ass for over two minutes.
“Do you do any writing on your own? Any in college?”
”I wrote for the school paper at both M-A and Davis. Nothing real serious on my own…yet.”
“I write a little.”
“Really?” Her turn to inject incredulity into her voice. I smiled.
“Yeah, just some stories. I like fiction, and short stories seem so much less daunting than starting a novel.” She nodded, blinking. “That means overwhelming or intimidating,” I added.
She stared at me. For a full four count. Then, “I know what ‘daunting’ means.”
“Excellent. I thought maybe if it didn’t involve a surgical procedure on a cow, you wouldn’t know what it was.”
She stared again, and then burst into laughter, blowing her sandwich wrapper half way across the table.
I sat back, grinning like the fatuous asshole I was.
“So you know about Davis, huh?”
“I take a lot of shit about that. Still, four years after graduation.”
“Well, it’s good that you can laugh. College is like a big four year pause button. Unless you go to Stanford or Yale, it really doesn’t prepare you for a whole lot, except maybe alcoholism.”
Again she laughed. “I did my share of that.”
I watched her compose herself, stealthily reaching and grabbing the wrapper and bringing it back toward her.
“Drinking, I mean, not alcoholism.”
”Not yet, anyway.”
”Not ever. My dad was an alcoholic. I hope I’ve learned my lesson.”
”I’m sorry. That was ham-handed of me.”
”No way for you to know. No problem.”
“So your mom must be a drug addict then?”
Again she burst into such a loud peel of laughter that people were stopping on the way by the door and peering in to see what was going on. She gave an impressive snort, mid laugh.
She blew her nose on her only napkin. I slid a couple of mine over to her.
She watched me over the tissue as she blew again.
“You’re on a roll, Taylor.”
“You’re the one with addictive parents.”
“Stop!” she yelled, laughing again. “My stomach’s starting to hurt.”
“I didn’t really like the looks of that tuna.”
“No reason. So, how old are you Rebecca?”
“I’ve got t-shirts older than you.”
“Yeah, right. How old are you, 30?”
It was my turn to laugh. “How could I have a t-shirt that’s older than I am?”
She simply couldn’t stop laughing. I reached over and patted her on the back. It didn’t help, but it felt good to touch her.
“You look a lot younger.”
“Thanks, I think. The blonde hair and tan help. Good genes from the old man. Some luck. Let me see, what else. Oh yeah, though both of my parents have been dead for a while, neither of them ingested controlled substances. So you’re basically fucked. You’re gonna look like Bea Arthur by the time you’re 30.”
Her laugh this time was loud enough and long enough to have her editor come to the door and open it. It had been obvious from early on that Rebecca was quite fond of Randall. He was a 60ish man with silver hair, similar glasses to the style Rebecca wore, and he looked almost exactly like Dennis the Menace would’ve looked like at 60. He was impish, and played it to the hilt.
He was grinning as he leaned in. “We are trying to put a newspaper out today, Rebecca. Do you mind?”
She put a hand over mouth and burped silently. “Sorry Randall. I’ll be quiet.”
After he closed the door, I said, “Yeah, that’s what you said when you first came in here.” Again the snort, though muffled by her fist.
‘Taylor, you better stop making me laugh.”
“I’ve never heard that sentence before. Maybe nobody has. Reminds me of when I saw George Carlin. He was trying to come up with a sentence that had NEVER been spoken, in the history of mankind. He finally said ‘Please saw my legs off’. Brought the whole house down.”
She started to laugh again and stifled it. “That’s it. I gotta go. I’ve got two stories to write before 4pm. And, I’m gonna pee my pants.”
She hurriedly arranged her remaining food and empty can back into her white sack, picked up her paper, looked at me for a second, reached down and touched the back of my hand. “Thanks Taylor. That was a lot of fun.”
We fucked two nights later.
It was Valentine’s Day.
And her ass? It took my breath away. I kept coming up with reasons for her to get out of bed and walk away from it.
What I remember most about that night though, is not the sex, which was mind blowing. It was the pillow talk afterward, which resonates to this day.
As she lay there with the sheet pulled up, but not covering her breasts, I laid the total Zeldoff novella on her. From the unloving father, to the isolation felt with each progressive school year, through high school. To my iceberg father and former German POW survivor taking his own life on my 19th birthday, three weeks after my mom signed their divorce papers; to my mother following suit, more slowly, less directly, but just as effectively while drinking and smoking herself to death; to my regular nightmare of watching my old man reaching from his grave and lighting mom’s final cigarettes and pouring her fatal last rounds. To my idealistic yet insipid first marriage to a wonderful woman who had no business loving me; to my painful divorce, spawned by my one infidelity; and on to my oldest brother taking his own life, while also blaming his wife who’d left him, on my 30th birthday. Then from my perch in New Jersey, my marriage and subsequent failed union to Laura, whose presence hovered above this bed for the first ten minutes Rebecca lay naked on it. Then she vanished.
Yes, I laid all of this on this preppy, peppy little soon-to-be-oversexed 26 year old girl with the odd glasses and the even odder lenses, through which she could see one view of life as jaundiced, while through the other lens she viewed a pastel colored, fawn-dotted French countryside where ice cream was free and children did not cry. Rose colored glass.
Maybe seeing both sides of the coin at the same time was good. Maybe it stopped you from focusing on one or the other for too long, from lingering in either the shithouse or the funhouse till one of them kicked you out.
She remained silent that night, pensively listening to my lengthy retelling of my life. Her concentration was palpable. She listened. She cared. Her eye contact was steady. No silly, frilly “oh my god” or sucking in of breath at some of the atrocities I was recounting. She became a woman, in my eyes, only after I’d let her inside of me, not after she had let me inside of her.
I think we both grew up a little bit that night.
Oh, she reciprocated with her story, but even she would acknowledge her meager 26 years as “not much of anything yet”, as she put it, and would pale next to my personal sojourn. Indeed, I’d realized some time ago that my life story was a tough act to follow.
She harbored some simmering mother issues that I chose to let slide. They would fester, probably with both of them, and inevitably get worse. Don’t they always?
She was ardently insistent that we make love again, and I was very eager to please. She had the type of body that, when clothed, women admired and men wondered; and when naked, men adored and women hated.
And she had no idea that her body was the stuff dreams were made of. It might have been the most attractive aspect of her, this seeming blindness to her effect on men. It made every gesture, every head turn, hair flip, wink, and spontaneous grin seem obscenely genuine, especially when compared to my more thoughtful, sometimes affected approach.
We made love a third time in the morning, showered and dressed for work, waited ten minutes between departures, and she made a point twice that morning to walk by my desk and whisper into my ear how I was leaking out of her, and how she found it incredibly erotic.
Man, was I in love.
Out of the tree of life I’d just picked me a plumb. It became our song, that one did. Sinatra’s “The Best Is Yet To Come” would linger for 45 days back stage in our hearts. It became almost redundant when I would slip the actual CD into the stereo.
She would grin when she’d hear those opening piano chords, her head beginning to bob involuntarily, and we’d always sing together that opening line. She even nicknamed my balls ‘plums’, her homage to the song. We had more little personal asides, jokes and unspoken alliances than anybody had a right to establish in six weeks.
We fit almost too well, considering the age difference. I’m sure she had red flags surfacing, though maybe not the same ones that I did. But I think we both spent a large amount of mental energy banging those flags back down through the sand, like that crazy arcade game where something pops up through a hole and needs to be smacked back down.
I appeared to be at the top of my game, but my interior needed paint, the old floorboards were warping and cracking and much of the electrical circuitry needed to be completely replaced.
And I was not going to get any of that refurbishing done with a 26 year old Pollyanna from Davis pulling me into bed ten times a week.
She was not a virgin, technically, before me. But she liked to tell me she was “a virgin in all the important ways”, and I began to see she was right.
She saw it as a virtue, while I saw her appalling lack of scars, visible and otherwise, as a major character flaw. She’d not yet taken that all important first punch to the nose that life gives everybody. She was awed at the tales of tragedy in my family, but for her, hearing about from me was akin to seeing it on the big screen. She would munch her popcorn, her eyes would widen, and she might even cry at a particularly haunting retelling I might give, but it wasn’t real, and in her mind we’d soon be walking through the velvet-roped lobby and out into the huge parking lot where the cars were winking in the fading sunset, people streaming past each other. Coming and going.
I broke it off. Four days before her 27th birthday.
It wasn’t easy, but I was propelled in part by a nightmare I had where Rebecca was pulling away from me as I stood on the shore, sitting uneasily in a rickety old dinghy, rowing furiously while facing me. She stopped her furiously pumping arms suddenly and screamed at me: “You stole my innocence!”
I’d snapped awake to a sitting position, enduring a full body shiver, crown to soles, sweating on the upper back and forehead, unable to go back to sleep for hours.
I woke up feeling like a serial rapist.
That night we said goodbye.
Or so we thought.
We then endured the typical awkward, tense office scenario for almost four months until Rebecca gave two weeks notice and informed everybody she was moving to Europe. To Budapest, Hungary of all places.
I guess Calcutta was booked up.
She proved insufferable in those final two weeks. Flitting about the office, ending conversations referring to herself in the third person; “Rebecca is moving to Europe. Not many people can do that.”
Few in the office knew her true motivations for moving thousands of miles away. She of course could have simply quit and got another job locally, but the possibility of us running into each other accidentally on purpose frightened her into applying for and getting her passport. To her, abroad meant both anonymity and safety.
She was using a childhood dream to cover up a building, growing, gnawing pain that was coursing through her heart and soul.
But she was moving to Europe! Not many people can do that!
I flailed feebly at my job, fortunate that it was mostly administrative in nature and required little focus. Yet I was almost embarrassed at how empty I felt, how impotent, how left behind.
Her sojourn involved an initial one month stay in Paris with a friend. It was during this period she sent me the postcard.
One Year Later
I got to Musee Rodin an hour before it opened to the public. There were a handful of tourists milling in front of the iron gate.
I sat across the street on a bench, facing the front entrance. Off to the right, over the stone wall, I could glimpse the top of the head of the man I was going to visit.
I was on a mission.
After Rebecca had left America for Hungary, I began planning my own soul searching mission, and quickly decided on Paris. I had many ready-made excuses and explanations for my choice, but really, who needed a damn excuse to go to Paris for month?
I rented a flat on Rive Gauche, overpaid for some quick but helpful private French lessons, took a 10 hour non-stop flight from SFO to De Gaulle, trusted a cabbie not to fuck me on the ride into Paris, and by 2pm was ensconced in the coolest flat you can imagine, in a very old building, on a narrow cobblestone street.
I was IN.
Suddenly, Rebecca seemed very far away. She had, it appeared, during that lengthy flight slipped from the front of my mind to the rear.
I was not shocked by this. I knew something was bubbling down deep in me; something was ready to explode to the surface. And I think I knew what it was.
I shoved it back down, and went out to look for a nearby bar.
I took me actually kneeling in front of TheThinker, looking around sheepishly, feeling both vain and silly and a little stupid, before I became conscious of what had been eating at me since I got on the plane to Paris.
But goddamnit, I returned her kiss.
I’d taken a cab from my flat. It was a not a short walk, but I decided to hoof it back. I had to think.
Where were we, Rebecca and I, getting this image of our relationship as such a passionate, love to end all loves, entity?
Other than the intensity we shared in bed, there was no there there. We were inhabiting Oakland, for Christ sake.
We’d both quickly realized we’d fallen in love with a cardboard cutout. Her with the sexy, smart, potential mentor, older guy. Me with the young, nubile, smart, sexy wanna-be writer.
But behind each curtain was a stark naked Emperor. We’d created this great sprawling edifice of love, this ruse, this child’s version of a candy-cane filled heaven. And when the light of day shown upon it, all was revealed was a shameless sham.
How long does a fraudulent love last?
One and half months. 45 days, to be exact.
As I got to my flat and unlocked the door, I hesitated and looked up the dark narrow street.
Taylor, I wondered, when are you ever gonna encounter wisdom BEFORE the fact?
That night I wandered the rainy streets of Paris and did not think of Rebecca once.
Well, maybe once.