I. June 2011
Most stories with a beginning and an end have a middle, but not this one. It’s about two people who began with an ending, or two people whose ending was nothing more than a long beginning. Or maybe the story’s all middle, since they had no history, and no future. Whatever it was, they never managed to decide and somehow made a life in that conundrum. I was one of them.
At 54, after 30 years of marriage and two of loneliness, I went on JDate to find a man and found Dean.
My sensei in dating arts was Miri, my former graduate student, who was seeking a diversion from her dissertation on Henry James. She’d had a wide and subtle education, from a yeshiva in Toronto, to Cambridge, to Princeton, and at 27 was wiser in the ways of the world than I. While most of her yeshiva friends were hefting toddlers, Miri was proudly single, a virtuosic JDater. We had bonded in the weepy weeks after I left my marriage, watching Olympic pairs skating in my drafty apartment. All I remember from that time is sequins.
We slid into a booth at Panera. “Have you gone online?” she asked, waiting for the gizmo in her hand to buzz, the sign that our soups were ready.
“JDate is out of the question, if that’s what you mean.” My sister-in-law, Sherri, who JDated for years before marrying at 40, had cracked the code of masculine misrepresentation. “Mid-50s means 60s,” she’d told me. “Medium build means heavy. Entrepreneur means unemployed.”
Miri sipped on her ginger tea. “When was your last date?” she asked, the good lawyer who never asks a question to which she doesn’t know the answer.
“About 30 years ago,” I said.
She gave me a severe look, put down her cup, and flexed her fingers on the table. “OK, here’s what we do. Take my username and password and go on as me.” She scribbled them down. “Just look around, and you’ll see that it’s not so scary. There are people out there who want to date you,” she said urgently, “think about them.” I resolved to forget about the billions of human beings who did not want to date me and concentrate on the rest.
When I went online as Miri, JDate promptly delivered a matrix of photos of attractive, thirtysomething males. This seemed pleasant but irrelevant, so I emailed her to say I’d think about it and put it out of my mind. A few days later my former husband told me he was dating a woman introduced to him by an old friend of ours. As I soon learned, she was a 38-year-old beauty, an MBA cum kundalini yoga instructor. I imagined her checking her iPhone in poses of jaw-dropping flexibility, and the news hit hard. No one had ever offered to set me up with anyone; no one ever will, I thought, and that evening I bought a three-month subscription to JDate. I combed through my photos to find one without my kids where I was not squinting into the sun, and hastily composed a profile. I skipped the physical description, ignored the salary question, and then read it over, cringing:
Poet and professor, early fifties, amicably separated, eager for intimacy but needing solitude; capable of joy yet given to melancholy; left-wing on Israel yet ravished by Edmund Burke.
But. Yet. Yet. . . I thought of myself as an accomplished woman of lively contradictions, but I sounded like an irresolute dilettante, someone I’d probably skip over. As for answering what can only be called the “Jewish question,” all I knew was that tone was everything. I wrote that I was raised in a kosher home but didn’t keep one and that I made Shabbat dinner every Friday night unless lucky enough to be invited out, but avoided services; that I often wrote on Jewish topics. I asked Miri to vet my profile, sending her my password, and she gave it her pre-doctoral seal of approval.
Some use JDate for algorithmically generated matches, but instead I used it for online man-shopping. Men came in many styles, I found; the trick was to find one who was flattering to my bruised self-esteem. Don’t care for a doctor? Click on a lawyer, a social worker, a human rights activist. Too conservative? Click on “Reform.” Too long? Find someone shorter. Unlike blind dates set up by friends, JDate means you’re not beholden to anyone for the loan of a brother-in-law. No awkward postmortems, no “Nu?” On the other hand, if you’re arrogantly choosy and abysmally insecure, like me, shopping’s an ordeal, since what they’re showing these days is dreadful, and nothing quite fits.
To compound the problem, the array of men in my age range, which I put at 45-65 to maximize my prospects, bore little resemblance to those in Miri’s. These men were balding, gray, and pudgy—those who dared to include a photo, that is. Many didn’t and I doubted they could all be senators or celebrity CEO’s. Several had their arms draped around nubile daughters in T-shirts from Brandeis or Michigan, as if to say, “Make no mistake: I picture myself with a young, attractive woman.” The brighter the smile, the more they looked faded and wrinkled, like seconds. My soul, who speaks in my daughter’s voice, said looooosers.
After a few days of deleting emails, “winks,” and rose-strewn “cards,” I realized I could scroll through the pictures of men who had clicked on mine. Most I’d heard from, but not one slim man in profile, wearing a black T-shirt, playing what appeared to be a zither. His jaw was taut, his arms muscled, and his shock of white hair swam in a sea of blue light. His profile pegged him as an avant-garde composer, professor of music, instrument-inventor, and curator of an “instrumentarium.” A double black belt in karate, he was a vegetarian who juiced and made a great red sauce. He liked Seinfeld (as I did) and the Yankees (not so much). He’d left the physical description, salary box, and Jewish question blank. He was separated and, apparently, only on JDate for a few days—brand-new merchandise, next fall’s fashions in June.
I messaged him. “You’re new to JDate, I’m new to JDate; I’m a professor, you’re a professor; I’m separated, you’re separated. But you passed me over.” The rest of the day, I wore down my cellphone battery checking for responses, and around 11 p.m. received one.
Honestly? I thought you were cute, but you’re too Jewish for me.
Too Jewish? Do you still beat your rabbi?
I explained that I was not a synagogue person, and not really observant, at least not compared to my two Sabbath-observing brothers. Most of my Jewish life, I wrote, I live in my head, on paper, and in the classroom, reading, writing, teaching. This must have lowered my Jew quotient, since he then told me where he taught and I told him where I taught. We repaired to our browsers to Google the living daylights out of one another and an hour later had agreed to meet.
We began exchanging tentative, jokey emails, as if we had both placed into remedial flirting and were trying to eke out a pass. He wrote:
I ordered your book from Barnes and Noble and it s/b here today. B&N allowed me to read the first several pages online which I really liked. Like JDate, Barnes and Noble makes suggestions based on prior selections, but they also offer free shipping which would make JDate a lot more interesting if they did.
I catalogued his idiosyncrasies: texty abbreviations but careful spelling; two spaces between paragraphs, four between sentences. “Free shipping,” I volleyed back, “would of course be 2-day shipping, so JDate would have to provide (kosher) box lunches for those shipped.” He said he’d signed up for only one month of JDate; I’d signed up for six. Then he told me that he’d posted his profile, gone to make a sandwich, and come back to messages from eight women. Egotism? Narcissism? Macho pride?—hard to tell. I let it go, but this confirmed my hunch that online dating was not just an uneven playing field. This field had alps.
He was tickled to learn that I’d been a music major in college; a composer, no less, though only because I couldn’t compete as a performer. Would I like to hear some of his music? He sent me a link to his setting of Monica Lewinsky’s testimony before Kenneth Starr for baritone and microtonal instruments and asked to read my poems. I sent him, with a vague apology, an impenetrable poem about Leonardo da Vinci and the invasion of Iraq. He wrote that he liked it:
Hey, at a certain point you have to ‘fess up that choosing to be a poet or composer means you’re out there shouting ‘LISTEN TO ME! LISTEN TO ME!’
He had my attention.
After a few more days of banter, I received this email:
If this wasn’t a JDate event - two people looking for a potential Long Term Relationship - I would still be most interested to meet you, show you the instruments and read your poetry. But, since it is a date, I feel compelled to also share the following with you out of consideration for your time and feelings before we meet. I’m a cancer and cancer treatment survivor. I’m doing really well right now, but I do have regular blood tests and live with more trepidation than the next person. I have become a health food fanatic (veggie and wheat grass juice, kitchen sprout farm, lots of supplements) and given up my love for single malt scotch. I was already an exercise fanatic when I became ill a couple years ago. My friends tell me I am unimaginably optimistic and that’s probably true. Pessimism won’t help and I also feel a major responsibility to set a good example for my grown kids as well as my friends and colleagues (who might have to face something like this) and also my students. At my age of course anything goes, but I’ve been given warning signals as well as a lot of chemo and radiation therapy, plus a stem cell transplant. I’m not being treated now, not since last August. I hope this doesn’t change our plans to meet, but I do understand if it does.
I wish I could say I paused and pondered, or texted Miri, or even took a deep breath before responding. Instead, I replied immediately:
How to put this - I ‘speak’ cancer, or cancer as it was treated 21 years ago. My mother, who died in 1991, had breast cancer for 15 years, and I’ve been through many kinds of treatment with her, including chemo, radiation, many surgeries, dietary supplements, green juices, etc etc. About stem cell transplants I know next to nothing. I understand what you mean about being a cancer treatment survivor. So being in proximity to cancer per se doesn’t throw me.
Thanks for letting me know where you are, ten months after your last treatment. We’ll have a toast to the next ten months.
He was late, having made a detour to drop off his son Walker at LaGuardia. “I have to warn you,” he said, slipping into the booth in the Thai restaurant, “I’m a diehard atheist. You’re not going to get me into a synagogue, except for a wedding or a funeral.” Setting the menu aside, he ordered cucumber sushi with brown rice and steamed vegetables. When his order arrived, it looked like a supper I once shared with monks near Hanoi, a meal that went unphotographed.
He’d put the Jewish question on the table to get it off the table, but not so fast. “What about a bar mitzvah?”
“It’s never been an issue,” he said. No Jewish friends? Nephews? Nieces?
“Then why the hell did you go on JDate,” I asked, “if you’re so unenthused about Jews?”
“Not Jews,” he said, “Judaism. I’ve been an atheist all my life, though my brother was the one who got kicked out of Hebrew School. Anyway, my shrink suggested it. I quit therapy in May—I figured, I’m not sick, so enough talking about it. He asked about my summer plans, and I said I planned to start dating. So he said, ‘If you were Jewish, I would recommend JDate. . . .’ And I said, ‘Dude, I am Jewish.’”
His last name, once Drumlovitz, had been bobbed by his father to sound like a Scottish clan. Still, he had Jew written all over him: a New York Jew born in Los Angeles to Midwestern Jews from St. Louis born to Odessa Jews. He was Jews all the way down.
“Jesus,” I said, “Good thing you terminated.” The Jew-topic made me uncomfortable, so I proposed a more difficult one. “So, you’re separated. Why?”
He sat back hard. “Are we really going there?” he asked, “On our first date?”
What did he think we were going to talk about, Stravinsky? “Not if you don’t want to,” I said, but he’d already sized me up as headstrong and demanding, and it was all right with him. For the next two hours we talked about our marriages. At first, he was rancorous and I was weepy and elegiac for the loving, loyal husband whom I had somehow, to the bafflement of all and the outrage of many, left—“for no one at all!” as a friend put it. By the time an hour had passed, we’d exchanged roles: I was flushed and agitated, while he lamented Daphne, his brash, intrepid wife of 38 years, for whom he’d written a dozen ravishing flute parts, to whom he’d recently given a silver flute.
“So, we both left home,” he mused.
The comment stuck like a burr. “But it’s different for a mom, you must know that! The remarks and insinuations, the bewilderment … Dads who move out don’t have to deal with that.” Yet the more we talked, the more we seemed to be in the same rented two-bedroom boat. We both had twentysomethings who called the other spouse’s house “home” and had left behind a lifetime of picture books, Halloween costumes, and camping stoves; pizza stains, water rings, and cracked flagstones. The echoes of children ghosted other rooms than ours.
I was more arrested than attracted by him, but I was not unattracted. His biceps were taut even when he reached for sushi, but in person, he was smaller and less commanding than in his picture. His foamy white hair, minus the blue light, was a lunchtime salt-and-pepper. He wore dark green, artsy glasses, and something about his jaw was odd, a hollow starting just below his ear on his right side. Later I learned that he’d had radiation on a walnut-sized tumor in his jaw and it had worn away his jawbone.
When we rose to leave, he said he was about to take off for a week with Maggie, his terrier. They were heading south to visit Wendy, his first wife (surprise), a physician in rural West Virginia. “My first wife wasn’t Jewish,” he said, “and my second was half Jewish. Maybe there’s a trend there.” It was a statistic, not a joke. He hadn’t seen Wendy for 20 years, he said, but I was not to worry: It had been a brief marriage and he wasn’t resuming anything. Besides, he wanted to keep the conversation with me going.
“Is it OK if I call you every night?” His transitions were as maladroit as mine, and the question startled me. I began gnawing on it: Did we have enough to talk about? Would we scrape bottom? Why was he so intent on me?
“Sure,” I said uncertainly, “but I’m moving slowly.”
But he was not, now or ever.
At the age of 15, a quick study and a crack sight-reader, Dean became an assistant to outsider composer Harry Partch. A swaggering, hard-drinking gay Californian then in his mid-60s, Partch had one ear on the ancients and another on the hoboes he joined up with after dropping out of USC. If some visionaries have a third eye, Partch had a third ear, trained on the music of the spheres. Where many of us hear 12 tones to the octave, Partch heard the octave explode into an infinite number of pitches, and he began to invent instruments that would render them for the ears of others. In reality, what sounded like shimmering galaxies of sound were pitches Partch derived from overtones and undertones rather than from the effete, conventional tunings of Western harmony. Using bamboo, spruce, abandoned artillery shells, and huge glass drums cut down and suspended like temple bells, Partch fashioned an ensemble of microtonal instruments to be plucked, strummed, hit, whacked, or bowed, with fantastical names such as “Chromelodeon,” “Cloud-Chamber Bowls,” and “Spoils of War.”
Partch had taught Dean to hear his pitches, play his instruments, and read his scores. He also taught him to drink Jack Daniel’s and to rebel against his accountant father, who wanted him to become a Hollywood studio musician. Instead in 1976, Dean lit out for New York. He remembered driving into Manhattan the first time over the George Washington Bridge, where the $1.50 toll gave him a sinking feeling. “I thought, God, a dollar fucking fifty—this city’s expensive, this isn’t going to be easy.” He and Daphne settled into a Mitchell-Lama apartment tower on a dicey stretch of West 95th Street with a cat who liked to jump from balcony to balcony over a 34-storey abyss. Easy it wasn’t, but somehow he and Daphne performed and recorded, made ends meet, and after Rosie was born, moved up to Nyack to raise a family. Perhaps Dean’s father had some satisfaction after all, since he supplemented his income by part-time jobs as an uncertified, unchartered accountant. He also taught himself how to set up desktop computers and hired himself out as a system technician. Within a few years, he arranged for the Partch collection to be shipped to New York for a concert, and from then on Dean had been left in charge of them. Since then, all of his compositions had been for these instruments, Daphne’s flute, and an instrument of his own invention: the zoomoozophone, a massive four-player metallophone that he made in a friend’s barn in Woodstock, New York. Sawing metal pipes by hand, Dean had filed them himself to exact tunings, 43 pipes to an octave. He’d done what no one else had: realized exactly what orbit of sound was missing from the Partchosphere, and he built the zoomoozophone to play it.
While Dean walked me among the instruments the day we met, letting me pluck here and strike there, I told him I’d been entranced by Partch in my student days, that somewhere I still had an LP of And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma. “I’m not playing on that one,” he said ruefully, but the Partch kismet impressed him. He determined that he’d been to a friend’s recital in the same Yale building in which I was listening to Gregorian chants for Music 40. In fact, he said, he was sure we’d walked by one another in the hall. He seemed serious, and I waited for the hint of a smile, which duly emerged and lit him up. But he was not flirting; he was sharing his rich sense of the absurd and enjoying it. Afterward he drove me back to my car and we parted without touching. “You’re the real deal,” I told him, meaning a person of depth and integrity. What I wanted; what I’d had and left; what I needed. A year later, on a wintry visit to his daughter in Boston, I spotted a diner called The Real Deal, and positioned Dean under the sign for a picture. I had to stand far back to get both Dean and the sign in the frame, but you can make out his wide grin, as he looked upward to his bright neon caption. He was happy to be loved, but proud to have my esteem.
Back home, after our first meeting, I walked my golden retriever, who, like the other victims of our separation, was shuttled back and forth between exes. The sun was no longer visible, but the sky was awash in salmon and gold, darkening as it kissed the earth. I took a photo, all sky, and texted it to him along with a simple “Thank you.” Months later, he told me, “God, as soon as I saw that sunset, I knew I would get your clothes off.” On the spot, I opened my laptop and made that photo my wallpaper, and it still is.
Vowing to call every night from West Virginia was an impressive gesture, but Dean left his cellphone on the kitchen counter, so we settled for erratic emails sent from rural public libraries. His notes were a rush of reflection and resolution. Reflections on his two marriages, his survival of cancer, how Maggie the terrier was entranced by sheep, and how tough Wendy’s life had been—her forfeited career as a surgeon, the care of her estranged parents, both of whom lived on her property. Resolutions to get to know me better. I told him my resolution was pretty simple: no false bottom—honesty, or as much honesty as one’s psyche allows, all the way down.
On our second date, we met at a vegan restaurant in New York. Without looking at the menu, he ordered edamame and steamed vegetables with brown rice, while I sought in vain for something that would taste like lamb or anchovies. His mood was subdued. Earlier that day, he’d learned that his hospital roommate on the transplant ward had died. “He was the guy you knew was going to make it,” he said; “strong as an ox, positive, busting to get out of there. He was 39.” They’d both had multiple myeloma, he told me, a tenacious, recurring blood cancer, but he was sure he’d beat the odds, even after the morning’s news. “If I’m not down there at the end of the bell curve, then who is?” he asked gruffly, a question that would have made sense in a rational universe. And even if he did relapse someday, he said, the doctors had plenty of drugs to offer, and even a stem-cell transplant that might—just might—leave him disease-free. He described the excruciating itching, deep in his bones; the exhaustion of chemo; the blasts of radiation, all culminating in the nearly annihilating ordeal of a stem-cell transplant. This was the ordeal his robust roommate, too, had survived, only to die six months later. A few weeks later Dean would show me the white plastic head protector he’d worn for radiation, a catcher’s mask custom-made for Darth Vader. Putting it on, he became a soulless cyborg, girded in angry, jagged bars, and I made him put it out of sight.
Despite the Chianti, the conversation ranged in amplitude between serious and grave. Apparently I was not the only one wondering whether fun was in the offing. “Look,” he said, “we’ve both put a lot on the table: marriage, failure, cancer, despair, pain, you name it. We’ve done what we said we’d do—no false bottom, speak from where you are— and now I think we’re at a tipping point where we can have some fun … right?” His eyes were serious; deciding on fun didn’t make fun sound fun, but it seemed churlish to disagree.
When it was time to leave, we got into his car, and he didn’t start it. Gathering his thoughts, he put both hands on the steering wheel. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You might want to play the field, and I have five J-dates lined up for the next two weeks.” (I had none.) “But you’re cooler than all of them and I’ll cancel them all if you’ll hang out with me this summer. How does that sound?”
Dean never asked me to marry him, but he did make me this proposal. In hindsight, it seems flattering, exciting, sexy even, but what I felt, sitting beside him in his car, was honor, as if I’d been asked to serve my country in some post of dire significance: Would I like to be Ambassador to China? The Surgeon General? Secretary of Defense?
“Yes, I’d like that,” I said, and he grinned and softly kissed me and we began.
II. July 2011
We began before I met Maggie, before I heard him pinch flying saucer sounds out of the air on his theremin, before climbing under the most garish quilt in the annals of quiltdom. It was green and orange paisley, and the saleswoman at Bed Bath and Beyond had told him he’d love it once he got it home. (He did.)
I awoke alone in my bed the next morning, and so many mornings after that, to a text: “GMGF.” I took it to mean “Good Morning, Girlfriend”; “GMBF,” I ventured in reply, and received nothing back, wondering if I’d been right after all. That evening as I drifted off to sleep came the confirmation: “GNGF.” A few days later, after savoring his morning greeting, I opened my inbox to an email, sent before 7 a.m.: “I drifted off and awoke to very nice thoughts of you. I think as an incentive to join, JDate gives a prize to every 1000th guy, and I was the June winner.” Melting, I told him I loved kissing him, and he replied:
Thank you for the sentence about kissing! I’ve been trying not to refer to it in an email, to wait to tell you in person, but I assume you already know that I hope to make love to every inch of your body.
This I did not know, and was not sure I was ready to know it. Viagra-induced hyperbole, I thought.
I began to agonize over where and when we would sleep together. “I think we are two people who could benefit from a summer of love,” he wrote. I could no more disagree than I could imagine it. I invited him and Maggie to visit me the following Sunday for dinner and a concert—Maggie, to make clear that he wouldn’t be going home to walk her that night. As the day approached, his messages became eager, lustful, hungry. To defuse—to deflect?—the intensity, I asked him to clarify his food preferences:
I can’t eat peanuts in any form, lentils and sugar in any form except fruit or small amounts of agave.
I can eat, but avoid wheat and dairy.
I eat fish, eggs, grains other than wheat, all vegetables and fruits, especially avocados and berries.
I eat brown rice pasta and brown rice and whole rye bread, and drink red wine.
His list of aversions read like a credo by Maimonides. I taped it inside my pantry and for good measure printed out a list called “Cancer–Fighting Foods” and taped it just below.
As for my plan, it’s true what they say: Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht; man plans and God laughs. The Friday before our Sunday liaison, after dropping my daughter off at camp near Binghamton, I found myself in a downpour on the New York State Thruway, a blinding, syrupy rain that quickly overwhelmed my wipers. I pulled over at a rest stop, sucked on a watery iced tea, and called Miri.
“Help,” I said, “I need your advice. We’re supposed to sleep together Sunday night at my house, I have it all planned out, but I’m thinking maybe I’ll invite myself to his place tonight instead. Could I do that?”
After a brief silence, she simply said, “Listen to yourself!” as if I were 16. In a sense I was, living my life backward—marriage, career, children in my 20s, and now, in my 50s, impetuous sex. Encouraged, I texted him: “Are you crashable tonight?” A moment later came the digital merengue of my phone.
“Hi,” I said. “Well, are you?”
“Do you mean…you’re coming tonight? Wow.”
“Well, after Shabbat dinner with my brother and sister-in-law on 72nd Street …”
“That gives me four hours to clean my apartment,” he said. “I’ll make it work. Come.”
He made love to every inch of my body. He sounded me, as though I were one of Partch’s crazy assemblages, searching for the sweet spots—a finger here, a little pressure there—and finding them.
Sexual inebriation is not much different from the alcoholic kind. With effort, you can remember where you left your sunglasses, but forgetting to turn off the stove is par for the course. No use trying to be wise; the currency of this realm is unwisdom. Just when you think you’ve had too much, you want more, and where would you go if you could tear yourself away?
Sometimes, while we stood in the kitchen chopping onions, one of us would say, “Who ARE you?”
“Who are YOU?” was the ritual answer.
After three weeks together, we were assembling a secret language of daffy scripts, the kind we both sorely missed from our long marriages. As we came to know one another, in and out of bed, in the granular way lovers do, I was collecting his habits and quirks like baseball cards, shuffling them into the deck of Dean. His diet, it turned out, was not a problem at all, at least not when we cooked for ourselves. He convinced me to buy organic—rather, he shamed me into it with a look of scorn, as though I were the last person on earth who remained to be convinced. I gave up the local grocery store for the Whole Foods on Rt. 1, which happened to have a large gluten-free section where I found rice this and rice that. Cooking together revealed his excellent way with fish, herbs, and greens, and his austere tastes in music. For jazz there were Dolphy, Davis, Booker Little, Mingus, Monk; for post-tonal music, Stravinsky, Ligety, Varèse, Bartok, and of course Partch; for world music, Javanese gamelan; and in a class of their own, Beethoven’s later symphonies. His musical aversions were fiercer than his dietary ones. Dylan made him wince, at Joni Mitchell he gagged, and the bossa-nova CD I’d brought back from Brazil he simply put on a permanent pause. I’d always had eclectic musical tastes, as happy listening to Carnatic violin as to Brahms or Nina Simone; my tombstone might read “Beatles Above All.” But Dean’s rigor was intimidating. Next to his ear, mine seemed dull, undiscriminating, too easily pleased. As much as he liked being able to talk music with me, and of course to listen to it together, he never asked about my compositions, nor did he ever ask to hear me play the piano. I never offered, having overheard him tell a colleague that the best use of a piano (that tyrant of equal-tempered tuning) was to fill it with warm milk and bathe in it.
Dean’s arrivals were events in themselves. He’d read in a tantric guide that lovers should greet one another with a kiss lasting 10 seconds, and we glued our mouths together while his fingers counted to 10 on my back. He’d be wearing his Yankees cap, laden with paraphernalia: a huge basket of dirty laundry; high-grade headphones; his Dell laptop (he was fanatically anti-Apple); huge glass jars with mesh tops for growing sprouts; a box of powders and supplements; and his high-end German vaporizer. When he took it out the first time, I didn’t know what it was.
I learned quickly, the ways of weed—vape bags that blew up like jiffy-pop, glass water pipes, cellophane rolling papers, all the little reeking baggies. I had to, since he’d been smoking almost daily more than 40 years. I’d tried it once, in graduate school, at a party following my Beowulf exam. At the time, the sweet smoky rot had made me gag, and I still hated it decades later. “What does it do for you?” I asked.
He smiled like a kid with a crush, outed. “It makes the thoughts come from different places. I always smoke up before I compose,” he said. “But I never teach or perform high,” he added quickly. “Never. It just doesn’t work, I need to be on in a different way.” He was eight years older, and I felt the difference. He’d been a hippie since 15, as the ’60s slowly rolled into the ’70s. A scholarship student, obliged to play trumpet in the USC marching band, he’d done LSD before every Rose Bowl parade and once before marching down Main Street at Disneyland. I’d been a sheltered teen in the suburbs, home reading Dostoevsky while my friends were out passing joints at the beach.
As he’d disclosed on JDate, he was a martial arts fanatic—“Internal martial arts,” he insisted. “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” In his 40s, after earning a double black belt, his karate teacher told him that he’d aged out of karate and into BaQua, which cultivated strength, not force. Each morning, he’d clear a large space on my deck, bend forward, and do a sort of Groucho-walk, low, slowly, and in circles, for a good half-hour. For the next half-hour, he’d stand motionless, arms out, slightly squatting; this, he said, was a bone-marrow cleansing exercise, expressly to reverse multiple myeloma. Tai chi was a more recent undertaking. He’d advanced to the stage of spear-work, which involved crouching down and repeatedly thrusting (and retracting) a very heavy seven-foot spear. He ordered two spears online, taped up the sharp points with red tape, and deposited one at my house. “You have to thrust upward,” he explained, “ ’cause the guy’s on his horse, see?” Thrust, thrust. Once a month he drove up to Nyack to be treated by a Tibetan acupuncturist named Tashi who did not do email, and an “alchemical acupuncturist” named Lori, who did.
He hated television, or teevee, as he called it, accent on the first syllable. Had the HBO renaissance really passed him by? The Sopranos? Six Feet Under? Deadwood? He’d watched one hour of The Sopranos, he said, and he didn’t see what all the fuss was about; teevee was a waste of time. Once, on a snowy Sunday night, he reluctantly agreed to watch Downton Abbey with me, but only after smoking a joint. To show good will, I joined him, and we settled in on the damask sofa. Soon, the television seemed far away, the voices coming from a far more foreign country than England. It was impossible to enter into the sparkling dinner conversations, the squabbling of the maids. “Do we know these people?” I asked, and that was the last time we watched television high.
For a man who’d rushed headlong into a life in music—and headlong into a life with me—he moved remarkably slowly in the mornings. From rising to leaving the house took nearly two hours, and to hurry him was impossible. He made coffee, read the Times “cover to cover” (a favorite phrase he used of books, newspapers, and websites), and then prepared his breakfast: invariably, two slices of rustic pumpernickel, topped by a mashed avocado, topped by a salted soft-boiled egg. He’d then vanish into the bathroom, come back, and announce, “a healthy shit.” He needed “three squares a day,” he said, meaning three square meals—very square, since he refused to eat on the move. He showered at least twice a day, using only Dr. Woods’ Black Soap, briefly in the morning, and in the evening, lingeringly, till the bathroom filled with steam. Emerging from the shower, he’d reach for his foggy glasses, then wrap himself in a huge white bath sheet, pace the bedroom, and comment on the events of the day. Then he’d towel-dry his close-cropped hair, and whatever refused to lie flat stuck up. He didn’t own a comb.
Dean’s unfailing candor was the best and worst of him. It was relentless; it was a gift. His ardent admiration for me entailed a prerogative to criticize me, my friends, my world. Yet he took my criticisms—even criticism of character—without an iota of defensiveness. He seemed to trust them even more than his barometric needle of opinion. I found this astonishing, but he was just as permeable to criticism by his children and sister Adina. The criticisms of most others, however, bounced off his carapace of ego, tempered by the world’s indifference to his music. I discovered what all downtown lovers eventually learn: The self-regard of the avant-garde, built up by thousands upon thousands of tiny insults, eventually becomes inviolable.
Critical, opinionated, rigid in his habits and tastes, he was by far the most difficult man I have loved. But for a difficult man, he was in some respects an astoundingly easy boyfriend. His candor made it impossible to ignore my own misgivings, tensions, annoyances, though I had to nudge them out of me like downy fledglings. When they finally beat the air between us, he seemed surprised, but he listened and could usually pick up on the beat. For someone intolerant of so many things, he tolerated my own quirks—Olympic worrying, being a know-it-all, overplanning, overcooking (too much and too long)—with good nature and affection. “Take it easy,” he’d say as I agonized over whether to spend Sunday at a conference or hiking with him. He’d walk over and knead my shoulder muscles with his strong hands. “It’s not the last Sunday in the world.”
We had a running joke that we were committed, but month-by-month, like tenants in a building slated for demolition. He was faithful, and I was, for the simple reason that we wanted one another, and met one another’s wants. If he wanted to make love before dinner, I was ready; if I wanted his hands on me, he was happy to put them there. We slid into one another so easily, as if we’d spent our entire lives being sanded down for one another. He wasn’t jealous, either of my attention or my time; if I needed an hour more to work, it was invariably fine with him. He didn’t mind if I watched Mad Men with my ex-husband or met an old boyfriend in New York for dinner.
The truth was, it made him just as happy not to be with me, as to be with me. This would have been a hard fact had I not felt much the same way. Having married at 23, raised three children and two dogs, and seen seven au pairs through car crashes and bad boyfriends, I was rarely alone for 30 years, except while grading papers or swimming laps. Only after my marriage was over, my children were in college, and the dogs and au pairs had gone to their various rewards did I realize that I had a lifetime deficit of time to myself.
That I even needed time to myself.
There was another reason we lived apart, he in Montclair, and I in Princeton, each of us driving back and forth by turns. I found it hard to put up with his marijuana use, and he couldn’t be without it. When he stayed with me, after breakfast, he’d go out to the lake and smoke up, return to his study, put on his headphones, and compose. If I went in to ask him something, he was invariably spacey and silly, and I couldn’t imagine how he could lay down notes. “Good software,” he said, giggling. After a bad day on Gilgamesh, the opera he was writing, he emailed from the other end of the house that he’d deleted more notes than he’d composed: “Gilgamesh” looks like someone bombed it. I have to go back and see if anyone’s alive in there. I went to his study, kissed him, and suggested he get Maggie to sniff through the wreckage.
But that evening he returned to the lake to smoke around 6 p.m. and came into the kitchen for dinner stoned. His eyes were cat-slits, and the balloon of a smile bobbed on his lips. Dean knew I wouldn’t be pleased—we’d recently quarreled about his smoking up before a walk on the canal—but he was counting on being loopily endearing. That in itself made me angry.
“I don’t want to be with someone who stupefies himself before conversation! I can’t. I won’t.” The smile-balloon popped.
“I hear you,” he said, assembling the sentence with some effort. He vowed not to come to dinner stoned again, but the problem wafted through our days and nights together. Not only that; it infused our future. For Dean, pot-smoking was a way of life, and I did not want to reform him. But my heart sank when I arrived at his place to be greeted by the goofy grin and the reek of orange-spray. His being stoned exacerbated another problem: As I observed to a friend, our frames of reference did not match up well. This was a couth way of saying what I wrote in a tetchy email to Miri: “He has two conservatory degrees but apart from music, he’s basically uneducated.” I felt weighted down by the need to explain to him references to writers, films, philosophers. He had never heard of Deconstruction. He had a short, eclectic list of books he’d read several times, including all of Tom Robbins’ novels and Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan, which at his ardent recommendation (and leaving aside Céline’s anti-Semitism), I labored through, repulsed. Reading my email to Miri now, mortified, I marvel at how fixated I was on this, even as Dean listened carefully to whatever lecture, article, or Terry Gross interview I happened to be nattering on about. How to feign interest, a fine art among English professors, was unknown to him. Wuthering Heights he devoured, Emma he loved, but Mrs. Dalloway he abandoned before she reached the florist. When I recommended Bolaño as an acquired taste, he said he did not intend to acquire acquired tastes.
I wrote to my friend Sylvan, a rabbi in California who had counseled drug users.
I’m reaching a difficult point w my boyfriend, who in many ways is a marvel of fun and sweetness. His daily mj use is becoming a difficulty for me. He’s been somewhat receptive to my difficulty, is trying not to do it around me, and very undefensive. But I can’t take the stupefaction on a regular basis. Improvising here, totally - no experience w this.
To my surprise, Sylvan pasted into an email a list of Al-Anon meetings in my town:
Go to a meeting. You will find some people very similar to you and some very different and they will have very useful insight for you. Don’t wait, because if there’s something that will help, and you actually want the relationship to succeed, you’ll want to take action now before it’s a crisis.
Important!: I’m not saying he isn’t wonderful.
I was taken aback; I couldn’t imagine myself at an Al-Anon meeting any more than I could imagine Dean abstaining from weed. And he was wonderful; I knew because I felt wonderful, in body and soul. He made me laugh and calmed me down, often simultaneously. After Hurricane Irene, once two feet of floodwater in my basement had receded, he made me mint tea while “Worldwide Restoration”—eight sunburned men from Oklahoma in a pickup truck—took pickaxes to my walls and floors. Shortly afterward, when I arrived in Kansas City to give a lecture, he wrote:
I reported “Twin Peaks” missing. They’re sending a crew from Worldwide DVD Recovery, eight guys and a dog from Mississippi to search your house. Did you add the special Netflix search rider most home insurance policies now offer? Because these guys destroy furniture and walls and stuff until they find what they want. They told me they don’t need keys and prefer that the owner is gone. They’ll be done by the time you return.
After we made love, he would say, “Let’s breathe together,” and we would embrace, listening for one another’s rhythm, finding it, and breathing in unison. As long as we breathed together, all fears were lulled, all terrors dissolved. Eventually his breath slowed, and I slowed mine and in and out until sleep rolled lazily over on us. From time to time, when he had trouble falling asleep, he would wander back to the lake and smoke again. It relaxed him, and I came to welcome this bonus of dreamy, smoky kisses.
“Do you know about the jazz musician’s trinity of happiness?” he asked between kisses. I didn’t.
“You need three things to be happy: enough money; work you love; and a great time in bed. I have all three,” he said, wrapping me in his arms, holding me, breathing, breathing.
Good health was not in the trinity.
III. October – December 2011
Dean had been right: I was too Jewish for him.
I annoyed him by turning what he called a “TGIF” dinner into Shabbat. Each time I stood to bless the candles, he’d sing, in a nasal cantorial tenor, “Kadosh kadosh kadosh! Don Juan sevo-os.” In retrospect, he saw me not as Jewish, or as a Jew, but “Jewing,” and he thought it risible, atavistic programming laid down by a desert tribe. One night I said enough of this; from then on I would do Shabbat with friends, and drive up to Montclair after dinner. No more Shabbat tipsiness for me, perhaps, but no matter; it was worth it not to be ridiculed. A few days later, he wrote:
I think we will keep coming back to this: how different our practices of Judaism are. None in my case.
It’s not totally fair, but it seems like it works primarily because I don’t attend your most Jewish practices and you are tolerant of my wacky atheistic thoughts. Maybe you need my wackiness? You’re actually wacky yourself, but it’s never been allowed to fully develop. Three kids and married for thirty years, you had two feet firmly planted, except in the pool.
He’d read Genesis “cover to cover,” he said, and God was an asshole. He’d also read Exodus, which just proved the point. End of story. When I prepped to teach the Book of Job, he picked it up and read it in an hour.
“Like I said,” he cracked at dinner, “God’s an asshole.”
“Don’t tax me with God,” I wrote later that evening:
Here’s the thing: God, the big mean asshole God of Genesis and Exodus and Job—has nothing at all to do with my Judaism, and I need you to understand that. So your atheism doesn’t bother me at all, but it also doesn’t at all get at what Judaism is for me. It’s the way I mark time and milestones like birth, death, illness- I think them in a Jewish way. That is big, not small. But piety and God is not at the center of it at all. There is an altered state that takes over during services sometimes and I do pray. But it’s an idiom, a way of articulating what is unjust and painful and crying out for amendment or correction. And a way of imagining transformation. In all candor it did not get me very far in amending my life, not nearly as far as therapy. But it did help me to hold myself together during decades of pain and inner chaos.
I was uneasily grasping a truth: What his pot life was for me, my Jewish life was for him—a passport out of existential dread. It was alienating to him; it made me look infantile; it gave him pause. When I lit the candles, he saw me taking a weekly toke on Judaism. Then I passed the challah around like a joint. Perhaps he thought Shabbat was my gateway drug … to what? Kashrut? Menstrual prohibitions?
Yes, I thought, we will keep coming back to this, all of this crazy weaving together of two well-worn lives.
Five months after we met, at the urging of his internist, Dean decided to get a second opinion. Remission was a tricky thing with this disease, said Dr. Mershon; should he be on a maintenance dose of chemotherapy? To find out, we went to New York Presbyterian in a downpour to see an oncologist with a long Russian name, who turned out to be Mexican. While we waited in Dr. Romanofshky’s office, the nurse practitioner came in holding an iPad. She was a young Indian woman in kelly-green jeans and white clogs. Scanning the labs, she said, “You’re in complete remission! Congratulations!”
“I know,” Dean said jubilantly, “I feel great.”
A half hour later, the physician’s assistant came in, a young woman with an Arabic name wearing fuchsia lipstick and black clogs. After swiping through pages on her iPad, she said, “You’re in complete remission!”
“Check!” Dean said, “I feel great.”
The minutes passed, as they will in hospital waiting rooms: Fluorescently. Slowly.
By the time Dr. Romanofshky came in, it was dark, and through the picture windows, the FDR drive looked like a radioactive centipede. He had no iPad, having already scanned the labs. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Great,” Dean said, “I’m in complete remission!”
“I know,” said the oncologist, getting down to business. “So there are two camps. Your guys in Hackensack” (I pictured Riff and the Jets) “are following you bimonthly and not treating you. But if you were my patient” (one of us New York Presbyterian Sharks) “I’d be seeing you monthly, and treating you, especially with the abnormality.” Dean was quiet.
“Abnormality?” I asked, as though it was all about the details.
“Yes, he has a genetic abnormality that puts him in a high-risk group for early relapse. The average relapse is 18 months.”
I looked at Dean sharply; clearly this was not news to him. Yet he seemed almost placid, as though this were a fact of someone else’s life—the nurse’s; the PA’s; the tech’s. Silently, I counted out the months since he’d gone into remission: fifteen … sixteen … seventeen.
Dean shifted in his chair, indignation was breaking through. “But I feel great!” he said, like a lawyer objecting to innuendos about his client’s shady past.
“Sure, great,” said the doctor, smiling. “As I said, you can go either way, but you should be followed monthly. I’ll send these labs over to Hackensack so your guys have them. And you can talk it over. Your call!” he said cheerily, and we both shook his hand. It was clammy, I thought, but kept quiet.
Halfway to the subway, I grabbed Dean and hugged him. “Complete remission!” I said, as if that had been the headline.
Dean knew better. The next day, he emailed the internist a long, detailed letter, concluding:
The basic message was what I already know - I have a grave illness that is in total remission and no one can say how long that will remain the same. I should keep doing what I’m doing, but be tested more often via blood work and PET scans, so that changes can be detected sooner.
Later on the internist would give the letter, minus Dean’s signature, to his first-year students, to show them that some patients don’t need dumbing down. By now, every medical student at NYU has read it.
After the visit to Romanofshky, I dreamed I was staring into the headlights of an oncoming cement mixer. In fact, we were both staring into the headlights, but only one of us saw them closing in.
Dr. Schwartz, one of Dean’s three oncologists at Hackensack, was a rumpled, heavy-set man in his early 50s who looked like he’d just been awoken from a nap. Schwartz shook Dean’s hand, looked at me, and blinked him a question mark.
“This is my girlfriend,” Dean offered, and nothing further. Schwartz sat down and began to tap his foot to a silent tarantella.
“We saw Romanofshky last month,” said Dean. “He said he sent you the labs.”
But Schwartz had opened his book to another chapter. “We have some decisions to make,” he said evenly. “Your M spike is rising, and we’re going to have to begin treatment next month. So, you have some decisions to make.” Suddenly you, not we. Suddenly, chemo.
The M spike was an indicator that the disease had already returned; in Dean’s case, an early warning that symptoms were on the way. Its ascent was a massive, encompassing insult—to his wheatfree, dairyfree, sugarfree diet; to his sprouts and green juices; to his BaQua, acupuncture, Tai chi. To his optimism. “But I feel so good, and I’m in complete remission!” he said weakly. Your remission’s in remission, said my soul and I reached for his hand, but he was too agitated to take it. Instead, he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Schwartz’s foot tapped on.
“That’s great,” he said, “you’re asymptomatic, all to the good, you’ll tolerate the chemo much better. What we need to decide is which protocol to pursue,” and he rattled off two or three chains of consonants. “You might qualify for a study for refractory MM.” I’d heard of refractory depression; someone, somewhere, was being readied for electroshock treatment.
“Well, how long will I be on chemo?” Dean asked.
“It’s not infusions,” Schwartz said, as if Dean had asked a different question. “We’ll start with a cocktail delivered orally; you’ll take it at home.” Then, as if scrolling back to Dean’s question: “Indefinitely.”
Dean’s eyes widened. “Indefinitely?” My pulse thumped.
Explain. Don’t explain. Delete. Abort.
“Till it stops working,” said Schwartz, rising to leave. “Michelle will be in in a minute with the schedule,” he said brusquely and walked out.
Dean slumped forward, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. I reached over to rub his back with one hand. “I’m so disappointed,”he murmured, and kept his head down. “What a bummer.” New entry in my Dictionary of Dean:
Bummer:Yanks rained out, fender-bender, chemo “till it stops working.”
We went to a Thai place near the hospital for a late lunch. When we sat down, he realized he’d forgotten to feed the meter, went out, and came back. His eyes were wet
“I wanted to have years with you,” he said, sitting down. “I want to.”
“We don’t know…” I said, the words entangled, throttled by fear. “We don’t know what’s ahead. We just can’t—”
Tears fell into my tea.
“You don’t have to do this,” he cut in, as the server slid a red curry between us.
“I’m in,” I said. It wasn’t a promise or a vow, just my latitude and longitude: in.
The next morning, Dean lingered at the lakeside. It was mid-December, and the geese were still swimming, but ice had started to form in the cove. He stamped his feet in the cold, taking deep drags on a joint. It was a long time before he came back to the house and put on his headphones.
Back home in Montclair that evening, he wrote:
The geese are strange. It seems like 50% of the time they match on one pitch, and the other 50% random/microtonal/anything goes. So I could only intelligently communicate on the common pitch, no idea what they were saying the rest of the time. The main pitch, which is all I know, means something in between: “Me!” and “Hungry!” And the other pitches are used for poetry, politics and math.
Click here to read Part II.