After a brief exchange on OK Cupid, Christine and I met. The date was at the end of her well-heeled block in Brooklyn. She had said she didn’t care for dating much so why travel to another borough? I thought this was funny. We met at a tiny café run by a surly Irishman on Fifth Avenue. She claimed they had the best apple turnovers in New York. I’d referenced pastries as a key interest in my profile, and she was running with it. From the outside, the small triangular snack looked perfect. We split the lightly browned delicacy in half, but in doing so I discovered that most of the apple filling was at one end of the pastry. I was screwed. As much as my mouth watered at the cowering fruity hostage hiding in the one end of the pastry. Sadly, I knew I would have to take the hollow end. Impressions are important on a first date.
Still, my date was tall and quite lovely with long, floating blonde hair and gray-blue eyes. She made a poor joke about her hair color and her Polish heritage, and when I guffawed loudly, she smiled. We both knew we were trying too hard. When she laughed at my dry English delivery she did so with the giggle of teenager but the directness of a woman who was used to holding her own in a city that could chew you up like a 2-by-4, then spit you out as toothpicks.
Since the end of my marriage five years ago I’d been dating below my weight. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was a stereotype. A series of much younger women had drifted thorough my life without much complaint. Certainly my own ideas of what it meant to be a man were easily flipped into black and white when I was giving succor to a woman who, if not young enough to be my daughter could be her older cousin. Through a series of brief affairs I drew on the armor of the older-man trope, did battle, complained my needs weren’t being met, and sulked off on my white horse to put down the next stirring dragon. I wasn’t being challenged. “Perhaps you’re are intimidated by women your own age?” My friend and confidant Gabby suggested. I conceded. It was a cop out.
I really liked Christine. She was funny and smart. She was my age. If nothing else, I could expect her to know Joy Division was a band and not just a screen-printed T-shirt hanging from the narrow frame of a hipster barista. When she agreed to meet again, I was flattered. We decided on brunch in my Brooklyn neighborhood, Bay Ridge. A part of Brooklyn described as a cultural desert by some but feted by excellent pizza and its equidistance to all N.Y.C. Area airports.
We dug deeper over Eggs Benedict in a smart overpriced restaurant on Third Avenue within view of the sweeping feminine curves of the Verrazano Bridge—made famous in the disco-era film Saturday Night Fever—for a brief time it was longest suspension bridge in the world.
I explained how when I arrived to make a life with my wife-to-be in the US, my work as a newspaper photographer in ‘90’s in London had morphed into freelance photography. As these assignments got fewer and further between, I found myself writing and teaching.
I over-shared about my failed marriage (which she didn’t seem to mind) and she told me about her work, which I didn’t understand. Some sort of consulting gig? Something to do with urban renewal? I made a note to Google her when I got home. We traveled together on the ‘R’ train and said our good-byes with a mingling of tongues that made my tummy flip.
On our third date, we had a passable burger at a crowded restaurant in her neighborhood. It was a nerve-wracking night for me. We’d all ready kissed on the train and now I just wanted to get through the meal and kiss her again! Did she feel the same? Ours knees, pressed together under the table, led me to believe she did. My heart beat faster as our napkins became soiled with grease.
Chris made a series of substitutions to her meal choice. The harried waiter was a little sarcastic, “Anything else?” he said. Not an inappropriate comment exactly, but his tone gave away his frustration. I probably would have sparred with him a little, cheered him up even, but Christine fixed him with a cool, blue stare and he scuttled away chided. Tragically, he fawned over Chris for the rest of the night to no avail. She refused to look the man in the eye, not even acknowledging him when he brought the bill. I was too besotted to notice but her behavior did seem a little harsh.
I walked her to her gate and she asked if I wanted to come in. We sat on the couch and made out like teenagers. Then during a pause, she insisted on making hot chocolate. I stood in the kitchen leaning against the fridge, wise-cracking. She doubled over with laughter, her blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders. We took our chocolate to the bedroom.
The sex was spectacular; we clicked in bed. When she came, she cried and we fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Hardy, a 19-year-old gray cat, croaked the alarm call. It was a disturbing sound—the volume of a scorned toddler with vocal fry. Perched naked on a small chair by the door, Christine smiled and apologized for the intrusion. The skinny cat sat on her knees. A saline drip line ran from the coat hook on the back of the door into a long needle piercing the mean looking feline between its shoulders. It seemed unconcerned with the medical attention and much more concerned with my presence. She’s a bag of bones from kidney failure, Chris explained as she gently held the catheter in place and stroked the sullen animal. The cat was named Hardy after the black-and-white double-act Laurel and Hardy. Hardy—the cat, not the chubby movie clown— had killed Laurel, her sister, when they were kittens. I looked into the Hardy’s dead black eyes. Her tongue protruded comically from between her teeth. She looked like a killer.
Despite disapproval from her sulking pet, Christine and I fell in love. We spent way too much time together, and when we weren’t in bed we texted and decorated our advice about each other’s work with emojis and sweet expressions of love. I took her swing dancing, something I could do reasonably well, and she grinned and glowed in my arms as we reeled clumsily around a church basement to the music my grandparents fell in love to.
She was in the running for a consulting job with a Brazilian company in São Paulo, but she didn’t want the gig. Since we’d met, she’d already disappeared a week to work with the same company and the work environment in São Paulo was toxic. They hated this strong female American telling them what to do. In New York my life seemed almost intolerable without her. We spent nights on Skype talking and laughing. We masturbated to each other’s pixellated faces. I watched her Wi-Fi portrait blur and reassemble in her orgasom.
She didn’t want to return to São Paulo, but she couldn’t turn the company down. We decided she should pitch a number so ridiculous they’d have to pass. They offered her the job. When the confirmation email arrived the color drained from her face. Shit. Three months in Brazil—the whole summer! Our brand-new love suddenly seemed in peril.
My knee-jerk reaction was fuck it. I’m not doing long-distance. I wanted to break it off. It was a new relationship, barely out of the oven—the grief would pass quickly. I kept these thoughts to myself while she desperately schemed for a solution. I would move into her apartment part-time and look after Hardy, she proposed. She’d save a bundle on the daily care the cat needed—I would play nurse—and in return she’d use her air miles to fly me down to São Paulo for a month.
I liked the idea of going to Brazil. But the cat? Not so much. This cat was a ‘critter’ with at least one murder under her belt and the medical stuff gave me the creeps. It reminded me of my father’s unsuccessful fight with cancer just the year before. Our childhood home became a battlefield littered with pharmaceuticals and saline sacks like ones stacked neatly in Christine’s linen closet. I pulled back. I was in love with Christine, but the closer it got to fixing dates for my trip to Brazil, the more I balked.
I didn’t want to go for a whole month. I would miss New York and my friends. I was worried I’d feel uncomfortable and out of my element. It’s easier to be lonely at home. But it wasn’t much of an argument for her. She pushed and pushed, and we struggled not to fight over this trip that would bring us together again.
I was won over by her pleading; she really missed me! But I felt guilty. There was no way I could afford a trip like this and she’d sweetened the deal with the promise of a weekend getaway to Rio. While she worked she said, I could spend my days writing and taking photographs, exploring. In the end we settled on ten days in August, and she would fly home for a long weekend before I came out, splitting the trip into manageable chunks of longing.
Christine teased me when I insisted on making overly detailed lists for the cat. I had to mix an anti-nausea medication with her food. She peed a lot, of course, so I had to refill the cat box every day. She guided me through the process of hydrating Hardy. The saline was introduced under her skin with a hypodermic in the scruff of her neck every morning. I was wary of hurting the cat, but Chris held my hand gently as the needle penetrated the cat’s rump, praising me when I succeeded, soon I was doing it on my own. The saltwater gathered and wobbled like a big tumor on Hardy’s back and after I removed the needle, I had to be careful to hold the puncture firmly closed for a minute or two or she’d leak water all over the apartment. When Christine departed, I adapted. I became skilled and quick with the needle. There was no blood, and the cat seemed resigned to the regimen the way any long-term invalid accepts their fate. Though there was no love lost between nurse and patient.
My relationship was once again cast into the shadow of long-distance communications—which, as it turns out, is a good way to stay in love with someone. Longing and heartbreaking distance keep you connected to someone when you can’t quite engage in a traditional courtship. Skype enables a strange sort of intimacy—I don’t think we really got to know each other in those nightly exchanges; we just became more entangled.
When she returned and dropped her bags at the door, we fell into each other. Hardy joined us in bed every morning, trying to break up the love fest, but now I didn’t object. When we were fucking, I’d see beady feline eyes peering at me from under the chair by the injection station. “You’ve won this battle,” the cat seemed to say, “but the war’s not over yet.” I was starting to feel sorry for Hardy. She couldn’t get a look-in on Christine’s attention. It was like she was invisible when I was around.
One evening a few days later I met Chris in Downtown Brooklyn for dinner and she insisted on walking to Carroll Gardens, a couple of miles away. She liked to take long walks around the city with no particular destination in mind. She loved cities and often pointed out architectural anomalies along the route: Flemish brickwork or a converted stable buried under a pre-war facade. But tonight, I wasn’t in the mood. I was schlepping my heavy camera bag, and I soon became grumpy and uncommunicative. I sulked alongside her trying not to show my misery. She was studying me with every glance, trying to figure out what was going on.
We walked into a couple of restaurants—both of them were packed. At the second I stood there passive in the doorway, waiting as Christine accosted the hostess, there was a twenty-minute wait and a gaggle of diners waiting patiently ahead of us. She was borderline rude to the overwhelmed hostess. It reminded me of date No. 3: The burger date, the night we slept together for the first time. Her abruptness wasn’t appealing then either, but in the excitement of newly pressed bodies and wet mouths later that night, I forgot about it. Tonight it pissed me off.
“I’ll be outside,” I said, disgusted.
A few seconds later, Christine appeared on the pavement with her turn-to-stone look.
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m not the fucking staff.”
We walked home. She stalked on ahead, stopping occasionally to see if I was behind her. I followed, still pissed off. I was angry I had let myself get talked into walking so far and I felt guilty I’d lost my temper. When we’d met downtown I’d tried to excuse myself from the excursion. But she’d insisted. “It’ll be fun, you’ll love it—I’ll pay for dinner.” Just like the trip to Brazil I didn’t want to say no without a decent excuse. I couldn’t get behind my own arguments. So I slow-boiled.
“Christine,” I called to her. “Stop, please. I’m sorry.”
I’d cooled off. We were on the corner of her street.
“I think we should split up.” She said.
“What? Wait. What? Split up?”
She said she wasn’t used to being talked to like that, and I needed to leave, go home. I stood statue-like as she turned around and walked off. I trailed her to her gate and stood there on the borders of her disapproval as she unlocked her front door. I felt helpless.
“Christine. Let’s talk. If I go home tonight, right now, there may be no way to come back from this. ‘Don’t let the sun go down on an argument.’”
I winced as I trotted out dubious relationship advice my father had whispered to me on my wedding day.
She waved me in. I made tea in silence. I didn’t want to lose her over a stupid cruel remark. I couldn’t believe I’d put the relationship in jeopardy with my big stupid mouth. Weird thing though: She seemed completely calm. It was disturbing. She was utterly deadpan as she spent about ten minutes ripping me to shreds. I can’t remember all the things she said. Everything delivered utterly without an indication of how she was feeling. It was devastating. She had to be angry—that should have been the normal response to my surliness—and she delivered such a fusillade of contempt that I was shell-shocked for the rest of the evening.
There was something familiar about her steadiness, the blankness in her eyes, her anger that seemed trapped inside.
I was getting up to leave and go home when she got up and walked around the table, put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me on the top of the head and I think she said, “Don’t think this changes anything.” And took my hand and led me to the bedroom.
In the seconds after her ecstasy, she told me she loved me for the first time. I cried and told her I loved her too. And I did. I was so grateful she hadn’t dumped me. As the night drew down, we once more fell into intimacy, then I talked openly about my father. As the first anniversary of his death approached, I told her in whispers about how I felt guilty about not being present at the moment of his death. My sister and my mother were there when he passed—held his hand as he faded away, I wanted to know, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask what that was like. It seemed morbid.
I insisted on viewing the body, though. Laid out in the chapel with his Rugby Football Club tie, brogues and a dark suit. His jaw was sunk into his collar, his eyes like small eggs wrapped in leather. I cried out in shock. He was really gone. I realize why the Victorians were obsessed with photographing their dead in familia. They wanted to preserve that feeling—the understanding that comes with seeing a loved one’s corpse; the familiar form, absent of breath and movement. It’s a liberating experience and an acknowledgment that death genuinely isn’t the end. He was still alive in my mind. In fact, if there’s one place he wasn’t, it was folded into old clothes in a large box, within a glorified storage unit in a small-town English funeral home.
In the gloom of her Brooklyn bedroom, Christine’s cheeks glistened with tears as she listened. Calmly she told me about her late father. How he tormented her with his ever-ready fists creating a perpetual state of emergency amongst her siblings that resulted in sporadic hand-me-down violence. ‘There was no unity with my sisters. We went at each other as often as we sold each other out to avoid his anger.’ She said.
When she was 17, a vicious beating from her sister set off the alarm in the teacher’s lounge at school and the next day she was taken into the care of the state for her protection. When presented in family court, her father refused to take her back. Christine was a troublemaker, he told the authorities. Exiled, she lived in the sanctuary of a friend’s family home until she finished high school. Abandoned by her father she nonetheless felt liberated.
All this she related matter-of-factly and I realized why her quiet anger in the kitchen never rose above a whisper. She couldn’t show anger, the way anyone else would, because she was scared. Scared perhaps of how I would react, or that she wouldn’t be able to control it. But her delivery—in the kitchen and now in the half-light of her bedroom—was familiar because I too once talked like that.
When I was 12 my friend Dominic was killed in a car accident. We were riding our bicycles in our quiet English village when at a blind corner a car sprang out from nowhere and crushed him. It happened no more than 20 feet from me. I stood over him as a sheet of crimson slid across his face. Tiny shards of shattered glass from the windshield sparkled like jewels around him. He didn’t die there in the road but was brain damaged beyond my understanding. I never mourned him, it never seemed necessary—adults were always telling me he might get better and amazingly I never received counseling. Teachers were told to ‘keep an eye on me’. Without any help I lived with the violence in my head everyday. I soon discovered that I as related the events to people—even as they listened, clearly horrified by my story—I could detach myself from the emotions. It became routine. Whenever I had to talk about the event—a new girlfriend or a new therapist—I would press play and step away as the tape unwound. And I too used the understated, glassy-eyed parlance that Christine displayed.
It was pointed out to me by a shrink, that what I was doing was camouflaging my fear about the accident. It was PTSD. Just like Christine reporting her childhood, I recalled the accident deceitfully. My breakthrough, when it came, was extraordinary and led to a new understanding of myself. I found an ability to connect with people in a new honest way. That was just five years ago and I knew as I lay beside this wonderful woman reaching out for me in my distress, that there was a path for her too.
She trembled in the half-light, sensitive to the grief I revealed about my father. I pulled her in close and I felt her hands gently soothing me. She moved down my body with the consolation of sex. My family and I would surely plan some sort of commemoration for the anniversary of his death in November, I told her, a memorial of some kind in my hometown. As she squeezed me, and her mouth closed around me, I asked if she would join me in England for the occasion. Alarm bells rang somewhere far away, I knew I was caught up in the moment and I should absolutely think before inviting her to a potentially very difficult day. I should sleep on it. But I didn’t know how not to ask—she was just lying there, waiting.
Read “Christine” (Part 2) here.