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Comedy of Eros

ISSUE:  Winter 1986

This is about the hungry wives and starving husbands. About Stu Kahn, architect in New York—but architect didn’t define his special stuff, and how long would he have it, that special stuff? Here he was at 40—ten years and he’d be drowning in the soup of aching back, slack belly. Time now to break out of his 12-year marriage. Time to be his own person.

As for his wife, Cynthia, she was equally fed up—believe it—with an architect who took to wearing designer jeans to show off his buns, and when he pulled off those jeans at night, where were his underpants? No underpants, and on hot days he loped through the house bare-butted, bear haunched. Who the hell is this naked prancer telling me he wants to recover his natural animal innocence?

Naked is a kind of costume too,” she told him.

“My life,” he sighed, “is full of contradictions.”

“Put on your pants and get out.”

While, across town, a lady was weeping and smoking a cigarette, three-in-the-morning blues over her half-marriage, white-bread marriage, to a guy who said he loved her but could he communicate?—Not about the heart, not about the mind. A doctor used to laying orders on nurses. He wanted to turn her into a doctor’s wife, and hadn’t she, Karen, studied semiotics at Brown? Now, like just about everybody, she administered an agency, when who knows what she might have accomplished? And as for Stanley: well, while nobody ever said so, she was certain her friends were certain that her orthopedist husband had the better of the bargain.

Besides, Karen felt smothered. And what was smothering her? Not mothering Alicia and Gary, Not even rushing home from a meeting and having to make quiche. It was Being-a-Wife-and-Mother, as if to play that part she had to suck up a huge breath so that the costume wouldn’t ripple over her skin. But there wasn’t enough air in the world.

“I’ll be at a meeting till eleven,” she tossed Stanley-the-Doctor on her way out the door after dinner.

“Drinks. You mean drinks.”

“With my staff, so it’s a meeting, So bug off, Stanley. I don’t have to explain my whereabouts.”

“You call this a marriage?” He tossed down his dish towel.

“I need Space!”

“Take all the goddamned space you want. How about a separate apartment? Is that space enough?”

“God, are you Dullsville, Stanley. I feel like you’ve got me in one of your body casts.”

“That shows me how you listen. I haven’t employed a body cast in my practice for I don’t know how long—”

Karen was out the door.

And Stu was out on the street, naked soul or jungle beast— both—full of cock and holiness: his god was Dionysus— Éhové! Holy Stu, fervent copulator, room of puffy cushions in his new Riverside Drive sublease overlooking industrial sunsets of Jersey. Shimmer of Hudson currents calmed his turbulence.

Twenty-year-old blonde dancer: evidence Stu Kahn wasn’t by a long shot finished. One by one he brought into his eros space all the young women he’d tucked into the convolutions of his animal brain these past 12 years—an eros-space industry developed of drinks and jazz and meaningful looks—not the looks he used to share with a woman in the old days. Then, the look had promised final yielding, mutual absorption; now he and this woman were handing one another their complicated histories, intended to be preserved in complicated ways. And these histories were part of their sexual equipment. But how could you do that with 20-year-old dancers? You couldn’t. Stu looked elsewhere.

All this looking was hard on the face—crow’s-feet and tired bags—but great on the body. Ten pounds in two weeks, and lean and mean again he joined the Y for basketball and Nautilus. Trotting to Central Park to run, he sneaked looks at his silhouette in the windows of parked cars.

And Karen—anger and lonely late-night suffering sucked away most of the dismal sag of flesh at her waist; she trotted the park in runner’s suit, pumping knees high and checking out the competition and the men. Mostly pathetic, the men. Trying to pretend they’re in their twenties. Me, I am 37, she said. Thank God. In my twenties, what I did, I married Stanley.

He liked her running style. Came up on her and dug her sensuous energy, her no-bullshit eyes. Putting on the steam, he pulled 200 yards ahead to show he meant business, then bent to tie a shoelace till she caught up.

“Okay we run together?”

She smiled. Grinning back, trotting alongside, he went through a moment of panic: what about the blonde in violet running suit just at that moment passing the two of them? Maybe a little young, but Jesus. What if he’d seen her first?

It was no love at first sight. She had him pegged as a hostile post-young professional. But attractive—and she had to start somewhere. He had her figured for a hungry, desperate feminist. But attractive—and who knows where things lead. It was only when they got through the catechism about children and careers, the strangeness of separation; past an Italian dinner in the Village and another and were naked already and showing their stuff that each for the other was transformed:

Stu began to understand what an essentially passionate creature Karen was, and how he was opening her up to her own erotic power, and how beautiful she was and how repressed by some dumb bastard in a dead marriage and how she was the perfect vehicle to help him unlock his passional life.

And Karen began to understand that here was a man who knew how to accept a woman’s freedom and how to speak to her, heart to heart, and how to help her give birth to the ultimate meaning everybody’s soul demanded.

And all this got expressed in the dance danced on Stu’s kingsized bed, mattress on plywood on cinderblock, no need for frippery, your basic field of eros, got expressed in the clutching and the sweat, as if neither could quite say it all, fingers reading the braille of nipple and thigh, thrust of cock and thump of the mound of Venus, like This is what I mean, here, oh, babe, yes, what I’m trying to say. Ending in a satisfied howling (his) and giggles (hers), and eyes searching eyes for a final clue as to what the hell the dance was all about.

Not that the dance or the look said Ah, you are It, babe. You are the one who will let my life bloom. Who could be altogether certain? Holding hands and watching the old movie of Sun-Sinking-Behind-Spry-Sign across the Hudson, they didn’t say how they were each putting their money on the other. Nor how they were hedging their bets.

If this is supposed to be a comedy of eros, what’s funny?

All the work, the hard work of selling to the maybe beloved this newly refurbished you, or really selling her or selling him on the fact that it’s real—that Stu is not your ordinary professional on the make, that Karen is no bourgeois hyphenate: careerwoman-mother. Work of getting Karen to see him as a child of nature—but ah, smart and sensitive; getting Stu to see her as independent power lady—but passionate. So that, seeing their jazz bought by the other, they can buy it back. Can believe in their underground, un-smothered selves.

Then there was the work of getting yourself to believe in the other—as an effortless version of your new self.

“You,” he told Karen over drinks on Friday night, “are something. I mean you’re bursting with sexual energy, wow, passion—dark, brimming—not like the shmucky deadheads.”

At the same time, of course, she was also the clear-headed administrator. A woman who could handle herself. She ladled out opinions on culture like chicken soup. He swallowed.

No con, either. He had to buy her stuff, had to see Karen as worthy of affirming his own shining self, and that meant accepting her jazz, forgetting all the stuff that made her an ordinary person.

Karen was doing the same hard work. “You,” she told him as they strolled through the Rockefeller Collection of Primitive Art and analyzed their marriages, “are so different from Stanley. God. Hardly the same species. You listen to a woman. We talk the same language.”

So of course he listened, all ears, all heart, to the pain of her childhood, and he figured he was a pretty decent guy, not like some guys—Christ. And when he went over for dinner, he brought ice cream for Alicia (age ten) and Gary (age eight) and tried not to feel too much as if he’d walked into the wrong apartment, wrong quarterlies on the coffee table. What the hell am I doing here with my Richie across town probably playing in the bath right now. He taught Gary, almost, how to do a headstand—his old gymnast days in college—and looked at Alicia’s drawings and knocked off a quick sketch of her bedroom, its grown-up neatness, prints, family photos, plants, trees of Central Park beyond. Alicia made him sign it, she hung it up. Karen smiled; why did the smile make him feel trapped?

Karen’s smile blotted her own unease, her feeling as if children and new lover were her chamber orchestra and could she conduct this music? Books piled on the floor by the bookcase, books needing reshelving, overwhelmed her. She wished she could call in her mother, but her mother would have sent her a check for a housekeeper, and that wasn’t the point.

So she needed him: he was the only creature who could tell her how strong she was and she, because he told her, could almost believe it and the belief carried her through another day and another. But then, dear God, in a funny way his believing in her was as much a burden as the rest of her life. When she saw him, she had to give him more and more evidence of her strength, and the more she gave, the more she felt false and unworthy.

“God, I feel so lucky Stu’s around,” she told her friend Sarah, but she didn’t tell Sarah that she hadn’t told Stu she’d be free that evening—the kids were with Stanley. It was more relaxing to tell Sarah about Stu than to be with Stu. “I’m at least in like if not in love.” And that same night Stu was telling his buddy Gene how terrific Karen was. “A no-bullshit lover. And one deep goddamn woman, Gene.” But he didn’t say how his ass had dragged all day Monday from a weekend of too much lovemaking and too little sleep.

Because it could get to be too much after awhile, love. A relief, sure, after the dreary couple-of-times a week with Cynthia his ex. But he wanted to tell Karen, Hey, I’m not this wild young stud, you know? Not really. Not all the time. But by then, he’d established that indeed he was a tireless stud. He didn’t know how to say anything.

Until one night, sipping sherry at her place after her kids were asleep—he’d be heading home, no lovemaking tonight—she started to sob. They were talking about a new school of architecture and she was nodding, she seemed interested, when he began to wonder—was she listening; then, was she okay; was she crying? Christ, she was crying! She sobbed and wouldn’t explain. Is it me? Is it us? No, no, how could it be? No, it’s all the pressures of this crazy time. But I think of you as strong, so strong. Well, maybe I’m not. Why do I have to be Superwoman? Ah, you don’t, babe.

It’s hard, she told him, I mean the kids—I’m breaking up their lives, taking them from their father, she said, wishing he’d leave, wishing he’d just comfort, anything but talk, she was so tired of talk, just make love. . . . And she was jealous— it was so easy for him. Everything was so easy.

“You want to make love?” she whispered. “We can slip inside and be quiet?” she said, leading him to her bedroom. So nothing else had to be said.

What she wanted, he figured on the walk home, was him, Stu Kahn. Jesus Christ. Already a lease. And as he kept one eye out for muggers in the shadows, he told her, You got the wrong guy. Saying that made him feel the nice grip of his running shoes on the pavement. He jogged home.

All this pressure, ex-husbands and ex-wives, kids you had to hide your sex from the way you used to have to hide it from your parents, all the claptrap of a weekend relationship— that, they decided, was the trouble. If we could just get away over Christmas, he said.

“Christmas,” she said. “God, Christmas. What I went through last year, Stu—the bourgeois rigamarole.”

“I know. All the bullshit,” he sighed, but, with another part of his complicated brain he panicked—and listed the presents he could buy Richie to compete with the presents his ex would be buying. Buying with his child-support payments!

“If we could just get away,” she said. “We deserve it. We’ve both thought plenty about everybody else. Let’s do this for us.”

Courage to consume. Okay, why the hell not?

With a little juggling—his trip to Atlanta: the new Sheraton he was responsible for designing; her conference in Philadelphia—they could squeeze in, between Christmas and New Years, a week in St. Thomas.

It felt good. Instantly, they felt good about each other, grateful for this new rich life to which the other offered the key. Dark days of November, pre-Christmas sadness of split-up families—but those reservations and brochures, an inn on a bay, allowed each to see the other in glorious technicolor. In blue water, surrounded by sexual fish.

And he didn’t tell her how, beat one afternoon after a workout, he sat in the sauna and wept over his life, the waste. He refused to whine to her. He popped vitamin E like candy and, when he stood naked with her, sucked in his belly. And she told him how she was “really getting into my freedom,” and didn’t tell him how, when the appliance man looked at her fridge and said, Lady, I’m sorry—you take my advice and get rid of this thing, she broke down and wailed, and the old guy put his arm around her shoulder and said, Hey, you remind me of my daughter.

Last minute hassles over luggage and taxi soured her face. He noticed the clunkiness of her nose—nothing he hadn’t seen before but now, with her face pruned up, it seemed stuck on. He couldn’t make himself stop seeing her nose. And she eyed his tense, old-man face and his shoulders drooping under the tweed and her stomach leaped with the lurch of the cab at the green light and she had a sudden vision of fifteen hundred dollars bouncing from microchip to microchip into the blue Caribbean. For what?—for this uncomfortable guy with his eye on the meter? And on top of that the vision of her kids (my children!) being poisoned against her all week by that arrogant bone doctor she’d given everything to for so long. Planesick before she got in the air, she groped for Stu’s hand.

He patted. The pat made her squirm. Stanley had been a hand patter.

Patting, he copped a quick look at her early wrinkles, late thirty’s bulge, same bulge he’d read as love flesh last weekend. Now he felt caught by it, hoop of flesh around his life. No wild animal, he felt like a zooed panda, pampered but unable to forget China.

That night they ate too much and then drank too much rum on their private balcony overlooking the evening sea. Waking at three A.M., he couldn’t remember whether they’d made love. Then he did remember—yes, they had. Leaning over the railing, he got the spooks: Christ, you know what this is? It’s a goddamn marriage! Heavy-hearted—though he knew he’d remember this time, this place, as lush, sweet, gorgeous, no matter how he felt just now.

At four, Karen awoke to pee and think. In her bed, a stranger. God. Who talks and talks. “What I’m in,” she whispered, standing on the balcony and looking out over the sweet sea, “is another bourgeois marriage.” In a warm bath she read a murder mystery.

But then—the terrific beauty of the gardens trailing down from the deep green to palms and beach! He’d never spent this kind of money when he was with Cynthia. He’d put Cynthia down for just suggesting. Now, he held hands with Karen—but who was she, this person? Not some kind of soul mate. A stranger or a wife. Too much rum. Too much sun. He felt like tapping her on the shoulder: Excuse me, Lady. What’d you say your name was?

So he tried to hold onto the image of Richie. As Real. A point of rest. His little kid. Richie was learning to ski this week, off with Cynthia and her parents in Stowe. Hey, Richie. But in his inner eye Richie’s back was turned towards him. He was skiing fluently away, down a beginner’s slope.

Shmagoo, he called after him. Hey, Shmagoo. And Stu’s eyes grew hot. But what did that mean, for godsakes? The way you’d give a nickname to a pet dog, half aware you were doing it to create a creature you could feel some affection for. And he knew how little, when you came right down to it, he’d been with the kid. Panicky, he imagined polite Father’s Day calls sometime from a teen-aged stranger.

That scared him enough to want to say something to this woman. His companion, after all. Hey, Karen. . . . But she was lost to him, a woman he’d probably forget a week after they stopped sleeping together. Jesus Christ. And friends. What friends could he count on? Not even Gene, who was mostly into getting ahead. Stu felt like an orphan in the world. He wanted to say something, but he felt as awkward as if Karen were some woman he’d picked up at the bar last night.

Breaking away, he jogged the beach, plunged in the clear water, and, feeling like a kid being watched by his mother, trundled out and shook the water from his ears, grinned her way—

But she wasn’t watching. Wasn’t on the beach. She was swimming, gliding with long, easy strokes he could never match. He waved, she didn’t see. Nice body. Nice, the way she moves. But it made him sad, how separate he felt. Pasty New Yorker. He wished he were back at his office, playing with designs for poolside in the Atlanta Sheraton.

Karen was back on the women’s swim team at Brown. She was remembering the smell of chlorine, remembering how bored she’d been with the discipline. It had put her off swimming. But this was nice. She felt she didn’t need lover nor family nor piano nor career. Just to feel alive in this water.

She caught sight of Stu, waving. A tourist. Like Stanley last winter in Jamaica. It frightened her to see them as somehow, past trivial differences, the same. Her sense of reality was at stake. Why had she made this enormous change in her life if all it resulted in was a slightly different man in her bed?

It was, she decided as she turned back to shore, going to be one difficult week.

But the difficulties were buffered by the easy routine and sweet climate, by good food and cheap drink, by hikes in fantasy landscape and suddenly, halfway up a hillside of scrub trees and flowering bushes, there was a cast-off Cadillac hearse and it was an adventure to make love with this pleasant enough companion on a beach towel in back.

They felt bored, a little. Sad, more than a little. They didn’t talk at all about their pain, the pain of these past months, but in the middle of this beauty and silence, they both had leisure to feel it, to feel past the ways they’d each blurred their pain, so that the beauty was increasingly sad for each of them, but they couldn’t say that, didn’t want to get that close, so they nursed the sadness like a sweet poisoned drink, and when they talked, it was pleasant, If you’d asked what they talked about, neither would have been able to say.

So the week passed, and though it passed without a single unusual thing happening, still they felt very changed as their 747 landed at Kennedy, snow piled on both sides of the runway, the day wet and cold, Stu in his tweed and overcoat, in his New York eyes, Karen in a parka. Landing, they looked at one another seriously for the first time in days. Safe now. Wanting to make this time, in retrospect, significant, they needed to make the other significant, and each, as they kissed goodbye in the taxi, thought, Maybe I’ll marry this person.

And then didn’t speak for days.

Finally, she called, got his newsbroadcaster voice saying, “I’m not able to take your call at the moment. If you’ll wait for the beep. . . .”

He didn’t call back till the middle of the following week, and by then she’d shaped the relationship in her mind. “It’s nothing—you know—earth-shattering,” she told Sarah. “A transitional thing, really.”

“I’ve been down in Atlanta,” he told her over the phone. And had been—but only for a day. “Want to get together on the weekend?”

Oh, she couldn’t—the children. . . . And her old roommate from college was coming—

“Another time, then. It was nice, huh? St. Thomas?”

“Beautiful. I’ll always remember the hearse.”

All day he wondered what she’d meant by that. Then forgot her. Felt relieved. Hung out with Gene in a bar in the Village. Got fixed up one Friday night with a graduate student from Ann Arbor and made it with her the next night at Gene’s place in Amagansett. An okay weekend. They’d see each other, they said, maybe in the spring when she was coming east again.

They were each busy with work and children. Once they had tickets together to the Met, tickets bought months before when things were hot. Afterward, he stayed with her. You’re looking good, she said. Well, you, too. I’m swimming, she said, until I can run again. It’s not the cold, he sighed, that keeps me from running. It’s the filthy wet streets. Soon, she said. He was wondering, Does she have a lover? She seemed so collected. Only in bed did she let go, and then he had the feeling he could have been anybody. It pissed him off. No heart between them, so why bother?

Angry at him, even while making love, though she couldn’t have said why she was angry. It was anger and alcohol, and later she shrugged it off but felt depressed until the kids came home that Sunday evening.

So they didn’t call. Then he got in the mail a shirt he’d left behind. And a clever note. On her birthday, which he’d noted on his calendar months before, he had flowers sent, no card.

In April he began to run in the park again. Half knowing it, his eyes searched for her. Once, he came up on—wasn’t it Karen?—growing sure as he got close, but then it turned into somebody else. He grinned and passed. Lots of good-looking women. Maybe he’d begin the game again. He wasn’t hard up. There was the young public relations woman for the Sheraton chain. When she was in the city, they got together. He bought a few good pieces of furniture, a rug. He was settling in.

She cut her hair. A one-time colleague of Stanley’s, in from Seattle for a meeting, called her up and took her out for drinks and intimated—but she kept him at bay. When he was on his way home and she was returning the cognac to the cupboard, she knew, really knew, what she might have been able to say long before: something is basically wrong with my life. It’s not Stanley, it’s not Stu, it’s not my situation. It made her ashamed—but of what she wasn’t sure.

In April she began running again. Not wanting to bump into Stu, she stayed out of the park, ran along Central Park West.

He was jogging into the park at 72nd Street when he saw her. She looked self absorbed, and he envied—why am I so incomplete, he said to himself. Jogging in place, he watched her run uptown toward the museum and would have let her go if she hadn’t, just then, stumbled.

She stumbled, recovered, ran a few steps, stopped, examined her ankle, ran again, stopped.

He sprinted the couple of blocks, was puffing as he blurted, “Hey, what’s the matter?”

“My dumb ankle. A loose cobblestone. It’s not sprained. I can run it off.”

“Shouldn’t run on cobblestones. Come on. Run in the park with me. You think you can?”

“I’ll hold you up.”

“You won’t. It’s okay if you do.”

“It you re sure.”

The thought of taking care of her made him weirdly happy, as it somehow soothed her to give herself permission to let him take charge. She followed, her ankle hurting less as she ran. They ran the long, winding belt of park road, shut off to traffic, and real runners passed them as if they were walking, as they passed chugging middle-aged couples. Everybody running. Jogging suits, weights in their hands, everybody. Stu jogged ahead but felt uncomfortable, as if she’d think he was running from her or showing off, so he jogged in place to let her catch up.

“My ankle’s a lot better,” she said, passing him, breaking from a jog to a loping run. She turned it on, as if this were the last mile of a race, wanting to surprise him, taking him on. He bore down. He was losing ground, felt stupid panic, as if it were necessary to catch Karen. Put on the juice but he didn’t have much juice. Jesus, she’d been swimming all winter while he. . . . She was practically sprinting, never keep that up, he figured, and he steadied his pace. Let her wear down. And indeed, he began to gain ground. But she pulled away again. His side ached. He couldn’t take enough breath, his side ached so much, and his legs felt like the sluggish legs you had in a dream. But he’d narrowed the gap to maybe 30 yards when she pointed to the cafe by the boathouse. She turned off, and by pushing it, he nearly caught her at the entrance.

“Want an iced tea?” she asked. “My treat.”

“Sure. You were really moving out there.”

“I couldn’t have kept it up.”

“No.” He liked her with her hair stringy, a hint of delicious sweat about her. He was getting ideas.

But the first thing she did, after they’d brought groceries back to his place, was to shower, comb, install herself in his other running suit. They organized a stew, a salad. While the stew was simmering, he led her to bed, closed his eyes and kissed her. Something felt wrong. Maybe it was his baggy running suit, smelling of Bounce. Or music, he figured— music. He put on Keith Jarrett, uncorked a good red wine, and toasted her. It felt funny caressing her through his own running suit. So he pulled the baggy, discolored top over her head. It got caught in her damp hair. He tugged. It felt as if there were a camera grinding away. Touching her, he found she wasn’t really wet, and he figured, Jesus, I’m a geiger counter. I must be tuning in on what she’s feeling. “What’s wrong? Something wrong, Karen?”

What was wrong is that she felt diffident and clumsy, as if she’d never been to bed with this man—but without the musk of mystery that a first time carried. “I’m just not feeling like it,” she said—then added, “Well, you don’t seem to be here. You know? I think I’m responding to that.”

He shrugged, toasted her again, was secretly glad he didn’t have to try, secretly miserable because in fact he had tried.

She put her clothes in order, not looking at him. “I think I’d better just leave.” Her voice quavered.

It was what he wanted—but he shrugged. “Why? Don’t go. We’ve got a stew. Hey—we’re friends.”

“Are we?”

“No. I don’t know.” He considered. “I don’t know. But there’s a stew.”

So she told him about her work, knowing he wasn’t interested. He told about his, knowing she wasn’t listening. They drank more wine. He stirred the stew more than he had to, didn’t really give a goddamn about eating. If she’d offered again to leave, he’d have shrugged okay. He said how funny sex was. A crazy gift sometimes not given. What’s so funny? I don’t see anything very funny, she said. “I don’t have much of a sense of humor: diaphragms and romance? God.” But then, saying that, she blurted a laugh.

He caught the laugh. Tears came out of his eyes he was laughing so hard. “And body parts,” he said. “Are your breasts firm enough? Is my ass too big? Dear God, and the orgasm. Let’s hear it for the orgasm.”

“You nut,” she said kindly. “What are you laughing about?”

He kept on laughing. Oh, it was all very clear, the comedy, but he couldn’t explain.

“You, you’re laughing because you couldn’t get excited. So all of a sudden you’re putting down sex.” But she couldn’t help smiling. Here we go, she thought, catching herself liking this foolish man again. Dear God. She poured herself some wine and flopped on the bed. “When there’s desire and no strain,” she said, “admit it—there’s nothing funny, right?”

“Ahh, who’s talking about sex? I’m not talking about sex,” he said, his laughter done. “That’s the one thing it’s got nothing to do with. Everything else but.”

“What has got nothing to do with what? What?”

“Sex.” He grinned; but lying down, he avoided looking her way.

She stroked the hairy spot on his shoulder.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll tell you,” he said, expelling his sadness in a hot sigh, “Maybe I’d better introduce myself. I’m Stuart Kahn.”

“Well. A reasonably nice name. In case you’ve forgotten, I happen to be Karen, née Herzfeld.”

“Well. Also nice.” Phony baloney and he knew it—but also knew the little gambit would see him through tonight. Like handing out a nickname, it would fix up a little space of tenderness for them to inhabit tonight. He relaxed, felt tears stuff up his nose, knew it was only temporary, this gift of innocent selves that came with the exchange of names. But he was thankful for small favors. It gave him a chance, for this one night, not to work so goddamned hard, a chance to lie and listen to the music with her; to let the stew simmer.


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