A pinch of cayenne: Part I

January 25, 2010 at 3:01 AM 2 comments


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Part I

Before Internet times, I used to look at the personals ads in the New York Review of Books. Oh, stop that guffawing. I like books. I figured why not find a guy who likes books too. Turns out there was one named Fred. Over my rotary dial telephone, Fred told me he was reading Dickens’ Hard Times. He was an editor at Barron’s. Good combo: Fred was a man of the world and a man of feeling.

We decided to meet at Edgar’s Cafe, a dessert restaurant on West Eighty-Fourth Street. Fred showed up sporting a pair of seersucker shorts, a stretched out polo shirt and the kind of eyeglasses worn by Charles Colson in the Nixon White House. The afternoon would lead nowhere, but if you know anything about me at all, you know I am pathologically polite. I listened.

Fred told me two things I still remember. First, that his wife cheated on him again and again and he never had a clue. Second, that Jay Gatsby was not a credible character because nobody in real life would ever carry a torch for Daisy as long as he had.

It was too late for Fred to cheat on his wife — they were already divorced — but he was determined to create a body count of his own.

He asked me if I wanted to see a play called “I Hate Hamlet.” I did. I’m sure it says something about my own lack of principle that I would see this guy a second time just to get a free theater ticket. Okay, now you know something else about me. Don’t worry. I got my payback. Fred called me the same evening to cancel.

I always wanted to tell Fred that I am a walking breathing Jay Gatsby because I have carried a torch for a Daisy of my own my whole adult life.

Handsome as a war correspondent

My Daisy was Bennett Radomer. I met him in a college lit class taught by William Phillips, a co-founder of Partisan Review. After watching Ben stealthily through the first class, I was hooked on him. He was the embodiment of everything I adored — urbane and knowledgeable about politics and history. He looked like a handsome war correspondent before shipping off: clean-shaven and in a hurry.  I managed to give Ben my phone number on the pretext of lending him a book. He called the next day to say he found another copy and wouldn’t be coming by.

But he did come by. Ben showed up around dinnertime with a friend who played in a local bluegrass band called Breakfast Special. I had the feeling that Ben told Breakfast that a pretty girl had given him her phone number and why not check her out? Ben and Breakfast laughed and joked with each other and left five minutes later. I felt irked and kind of humiliated. But by the time I saw Ben in class the next week, my attraction to him was in my marrow.

I would show up fifteen minutes early for class. I waited on the front porch of the Partisan Review house, braving rain, snow and cold for a chance to talk to Ben for a minute. I don’t remember if he actually ever spoke to me.

A couple of months after the semester ended, I went to a Kafka symposium at the student center. William Phillips was there talking about the “bureaucratization of experience” and how Kafka had rendered it in his work. I don’t know what else Phillips said because after I spotted Ben sitting near the front of the room, I didn’t concentrate on anything else but him.

I left the student center when Ben did. He didn’t show any particular emotion upon seeing me, but he invited me to his apartment in town for tea. It was April, the cruelest month, but I was so over the moon that I didn’t notice.

A Tanzanian eggs me on

I saw Ben three more times. The first time was at a pub.

Ben and Breakfast were on their way out when I came in with Michael, a gay friend who could pass for straight. Michael and I were debating how I should go over and say hi. A graduate student from Tanzania overheard us. He was a slim, world-weary guy in his late twenties who wore his disappointment with life on his sleeve. “You want that Bennett?” he asked me. “You go follow him and the consequences be damned!” He volunteered to walk me to Ben’s apartment. “If I can’t have you, Bennett Radomer should!” he insisted.

The Tanzanian was so abject that out of pity Michael and I invited him to have a beer with us.

“Will you go out with me?” he asked.

“She’s in love with Ben,” Michael said.

“But he is not in love with her.”

The Tanzanian looked me in the eye. “Tell me who you like here,” he said. “I will bring him to you.”

He was so lost and so degraded. Michael and I left the pub.

“Life is short,” the Tanzanian called after me. “Go after your Bennett!”

The only friendship that lasted past that night was mine with Michael. Every time we got together, Michael would greet me with an endearing, “Eat me!” He did not make it out of the 1980s AIDS crisis alive.

I give up the chase, sort of

The second time I saw Ben was at an on-campus double bill showing of Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and a German print of “Young Törless” whose director I know only by visiting the IMDB. I sat directly behind him with a view of the hairs on his nape that resides to this day in that border territory of plangency and failure. At the end of the movie, he smiled, chatted for a moment and apologized for not being able to stay longer.

The last time I saw Ben was at his induction into Phi Beta Kappa. (I was there to see my college roommate inducted; I could never rebound from the “D” I got in philosophy.) Ben was standing with his mother as his sister snapped a photograph of them.

Ben was so happy that he hugged me. I attributed meaning to an action that sprang out of fleeting exuberance.

Over the years, I ran into people who knew Ben. His friend Jake ended up at a party that Michael and I threw several months after graduation. All I wanted to do was talk about Ben. All Jake wanted to do was make out with me. I couldn’t have been less interested. To get even with me, Jake told me how in love Ben was with a girl named Allison. They had broken up for a while and were back together again.

Ben must have invited me for tea when he was on the outs with Allison. The realization stung, but the love of a Gatsby for his Daisy has no pride.

A year later I was living in the Virgin Islands and working as a radio announcer. My sister wrote to say that she had run into a guy named Bennett Radomer who knew me from college. He told her that he regretted not staying in touch with me and gave her his phone number. He was living in Sausalito. When I came back to the States, I called him.

A male voice answered. I didn’t recognize it.

“Ben?”

“Yes?”

I told him who I was. He repeated my name. He didn’t remember me.

And then suddenly, “Barbara!”

I apologized for calling. “You have no idea who I am,” I said.

“No, no!” he said. “It’s just that I’m in the middle of making salad for a dinner party and I was distracted.”

“I’ll let you get back –”

“What a strange day! I got a call from my friend Jake and his wife Mo this morning. My life is like the salad. My friends here are the lettuce. Jake and Mo are the croutons. And you are a pinch of cayenne.”

At last the glibness of my interaction with Ben shook me into some semblance of self-respect. I couldn’t stop apologizing.

He encouraged me to write to him. “I’ll write back,” he promised.

He gave me his address but he didn’t ask for mine. The man simply did not want to initiate anything with me. I didn’t write.

Blame it on youth

I tell you all this to say that my love for this twenty-two-year-old acquaintance was all in my head. For Ben I was a shadow that vanishes when the wind bustles a cloud past the sun.

But, you know, loving somebody who does not love you back is not a sign of mental illness. It is not evidence of having low self-esteem or needing to assert yourself in the face of overwhelming odds. Life is full of disappointments, especially when it comes to love. I know why I got attracted to Ben, but in all the years I heard nothing of him, what kept my curiosity about him going?

  • A persistent feeling inside me that made me think there was only one right man for me in the world.
  • An irrational belief that if only I had gotten a second — or third or fourth — chance to show Ben who I really was, he would have fallen in love with me.
  • A hope that I would become more beautiful, dramatic, enchanting, intelligent, lovable if only I could meet him or somebody like him again.

Youth kept my curiosity about him alive.

The time I spent with Ben drinking tea — I could write that afternoon’s entire conversation here verbatim. Suffice it to say that Ben talked about William Phillips and his former allegiance to the John Reed Club, which I had never heard of before. He told me to see a movie called “Stavisky” by Alain Renais about a Jewish scam artist in the 1930s who nearly brings down the French economy.

I mentioned my feeling for Jews and Judaism. Ben said that to him being Jewish meant a good pastrami sandwich. He patted his lean stomach for emphasis.

And then he said, “You and every other college graduate thinks she’s going to become a writer. Why don’t you find yourself a sugar daddy? He’ll support you while you learn that you and the rest will never make it.”

It takes a stake through the heart to kill my love. Ben’s remark was mean, but it didn’t even put a nick in my feeling.

D = Deceased

Along comes the Internet. One day I decide to Google Bennett Radomer. Snake eyes.

I wondered if Ben’s contempt for my writing ambitions had masked his own. I searched the Library of Congress website and Amazon.com to see if he had published anything. He hadn’t. I even checked the Sierra Club website. In keeping with the fiction I had invented, I thought he might have become a hiker. You see, living with unrequited love does not make you a mental case. It makes you a fabulist.

I finally tracked Ben down on our alumni directory website. A six-point capital “D” stood off to the left of his name. The legend at the bottom of the page linked “D” with “Deceased.”

Note: All names in this post are fictionalized, except for the names of public personalities.

PART II

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Entry filed under: Bookpod, Love. Tags: , , , .

Seeking illumination on the Grand Concourse A pinch of cayenne: Part II

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