What if Tolstoy was wrong when he said that all happy families are alike while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? Michael mused. Turn that statement on its head and it rings even more true. If there was any way he’d manage to screw up his marriage plans with Karen it would be, let’s just say, in the usual manner, he speculated. Oh well, c’est la vie! he shrugged. After all, there were plenty of other fish in the sea. Better not focus on negative things on such an awesome, sunny day, he reminded himself. He noticed through the translucent curtains the conic outlines of the two majestic pine trees growing right outside his bedroom window. They shielded him from the prying eyes of neighbors, making him feel like the king of his castle. Michael stretched out his arms above his head and wiggled his body. He enjoyed the cool smoothness of the sheets against his warm back. Every morning he rose with a sense of wellbeing peppered by a restless excitement. He thought to himself, “Ladies, fasten your seatbelts because IT’S SHOW TIME!” in bold capital letters of a flashing neon sign, like at his favorite strip club, Foxy Lady. Beep, beep! A loud noise suddenly jolted him. He hit the alarm clock with the flat of his hand.
“Michael, you’ll miss your class!” he heard Karen’s singsong voice echoing from the bathroom, intermingled with the sound of running water.
“I’m already up,” he announced, but apparently not convincingly enough, since his fiancée emerged out of the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. She wanted to make sure that Michael was telling the truth. “Well it’s your class, your job,” she mumbled. Her mouth was still partially filled with a pasty mix of water and toothpaste. Karen often assumed a maternal manner with him, projecting the attitude that she had enough common sense for the both of them. In her heart of hearts, she hoped that no matter what temptations Michael might face with other women, as far as the deeper matters of human existence were concerned, she was indispensable to him.
From time to time, Michael slipped away on vacation or to scholarly conferences without her. Before he left, Karen felt very apprehensive. She’d give him a fidelity lecture, to make him feel that the idea of hooking up with or, worse yet, falling in love with another woman would be sheer frivolity compared to the depth of commitment she had to offer. Sometimes Michael couldn’t help but smile. Karen genuinely believed that there was an inverse proportion between libido and depth. Which is perhaps why, for her, daily communication over dinner and in the evenings was obligatory. In her estimation, good communication consisted, first and foremost, of a detailed account of their daily activities. For him, these entailed teaching, taking graduate seminars, eating, screwing around with other women (however, this particular detail he understandably omitted) and returning home. For her, it entailed going over the minutia of her job as administrative manager in a physician’s office.
Moreover, about once a month, Karen initiated “us conversations,” or thorough debriefings about the state of their relationship. These conversations usually culminated in Karen melting into a heap of self-doubt that took Michael hours of effort to comfort. He recalled how often he’d seen his fiancée’s scrunched up face, the sides of her nose rosy from crying. Karen would wipe her tears away with two quick butterfly wing movements. They started from the inner eye, along the curve of her nose, then brushed her cheeks and vanished into the air, she hoped, unnoticed. But Michael did notice, of course. Most of the time, however, he pretended not to and craftily changed the subject to something more pleasant. His evasive behavior led his fiancée to suspect that something was lacking in their relationship. That something, she hoped, could be compensated by his constant verbal reassurances.
“You don’t talk enough about your feelings,” Karen would periodically complain to him. Granted, Michael manifested all the outward signs of romantic sensibility. He bought her flowers on special occasions. He took her to fancy restaurants. He said “I love you” with commendable frequency. He patiently listened to her concerns. Yet there was something flat and mechanical about his emotional reactions. It’s as if Michael were rehearsing a role or just going through the motions. Sometimes he’d greet her anxiety with a plastic smile. At others, he’d brush it aside with an inappropriate joke. One minute he’d be gazing lovingly into her eyes, his attention fully absorbed by her. The next minute he’d be whistling, completely distracted, ending their conversation abruptly with a nonsequitor.
He’s so immature, Karen would tell herself. Although he was twenty-seven, Michael looked and acted younger than his age. His brusque movements and brief attention span reminded Karen of the children who came in with their parents to the doctor’s office: particularly those diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. They wouldn’t sit still in their chairs for more than a few seconds. They quickly flipped through the books and magazines on the table, moved around, sat back down, doing everything they could to relieve a perpetual state of restlessness.
Was that what led Michael to moon his parents at the end of their visit last Thanksgiving? Karen wondered. After saying their goodbyes in a more or less civil manner, Michael had suddenly turned around, pulled off his pants and bent over like a drunken frat boy. He peered over his shoulder and burst into laughter at his parents’ and fiancée’s visibly perplexed reactions. Karen couldn’t comprehend such outbursts of puerile behavior coming from a grown man. Yet, at other times, this very same Michael would appear wise beyond his years. He’d listen to her attentively, gazing at her with a reptilian tranquility that she had never encountered in anyone else. He’d tell her calmly his reasoned opinion, in a voice as smooth and soothing as silk. Her insecurities would temporarily melt away in the fusion of her gratitude and his affection, only to resurface later, when the insensitive boyfriend suddenly returned. Through the perplexing oscillations of his mercurial temperament, Michael held his fiancée fascinated and captive, under his spell.
“What do you want me to say?” he’d object when put on the defensive about his apparent lack of interest in their conversation.
“If I have to tell you what to say, that defeats the whole purpose of talking in the first place. I might as well deliver a monologue,” Karen retorted. And often, she did. As far as communication was concerned, she presented herself as a role model since, in point of fact, she did open up to him--and only to him. To everyone else, Karen presented a cool, unflappable exterior. Even her own parents viewed her as a pillar of strength. Only Michael knew that this pillar had deep emotional fissures, like a ruin. “The reason I go on these eating binges is because I feel so insecure about my self-image,” Karen had commented earlier that week, when they were having lunch together at Panera’s. She had looked up at him from her oriental salad, scooting with some regret the unopened package of peppercorn dressing towards his side of the table. “Here. You can have it.”
To spare her the extra calories, Michael gallantly poured the dressing over his own salad. After saturating each leaf, he looked up at his fiancée and thought of a defense strategy, before the conversation headed towards another meltdown. At worst, she’s about fifteen pounds overweight, he estimated. But they hang pretty well on her tall frame. “You look mighty fine to me,” he observed, thinking that massaging her ego would pacify her.
This prediction, however, proved a bit too optimistic. “I don’t understand how other women stay so thin,” Karen responded with a sigh, looking around at her competition in the restaurant. “After all, I watch what I eat and I’m as tall as a skyscraper. It must be my mother’s genes.” She blamed her slow metabolism on her mother, a three hundred pound diabetes patient. That weighed less on her conscience than acknowledging the periodic binges on gallons of ice cream, atoned by brief semi-starvation periods, when she survived solely on herbal tea and salad. And that was part of their underlying problem. Karen recalled how often people would look at her and her fiancé with a gaze that measured them up and determined that they were a mismatched couple. Michael was shorter, only 5’9” compared to her towering 5’11”. But what struck the eye most was not the slight difference in their heights but the big discrepancy in their physical appearance.
“Your son’s so cute,” a little girl once said to Karen during a shopping trip at Filenes’s Basement. Michael had emerged out of the changing room in a brand new gray suit he intended to purchase for future job interviews. He looked striking, standing proud, his jet-black hair set off by the paleness of the gray suit. His bright brown eyes, mischievous yet angelic, beamed with an inflated awareness of his own good looks. “So is yours,” Michael replied, looking at the stuffed animal that the little girl held in her hand. Ostensibly, he tried to diffuse the tension, being painfully aware of his fiancée’s insecurity about her appearance. Tall, slightly overweight, with long legs and stringy brown hair, Karen thought that her best feature was her deep brown eyes. But even in that domain, she couldn’t compare to him.
Michael’s eyes had an amazing ability to fix your gaze, seize your attention, then glide all over you slowly, covering you in a visual syrup. After being anointed with such sweetness, you felt blessed that this angel looked in your direction and you were instantly his. The problem was, however, that Michael’s wondering eyes glazed every pretty woman they encountered, lingering over her features with a feral hunger that simultaneously intimidated and flattered. Karen feared that she’d never be able to fulfill her fiancée’s constant need for sexual stimulation. This thought deeply concerned her, no matter how hard she tried to dismiss physical attraction as merely superficial. If you can’t fix a big problem all at once, start by taking smaller steps, she had read something to this effect in an advice column. And that was precisely what she decided to do by focusing most of her energies on losing the extra weight.
Given that Karen had avoided putting any dressing on her salad, Michael took this opportunity to expound upon his own, more liberal, theory of dieting. “Being on a diet is the wrong way of going about losing weight. In France, people eat whatever the hell they want. Only they do it in moderation. Plus they walk a lot. That’s how most Europeans stay so thin,” he proposed the only strategy he thought worked. It was modeled after his favorite culture, which he happened to teach as a graduate student in the Department of French and Italian at Michigan University. For as long as the magnifying glass wasn’t placed directly on him, Michael’s ostensible emotional generosity expanded. He did his best to coach his fiancée into improving her self-image, which only fueled her dependency on him.
“Yeah, well, maybe that works for those skeletal French waifs. But I come from peasant Irish stock,” Karen shot his argument clear out of the water.
“What you have to remember is that image isn’t just about how you look,” Michael altered his approach.
“That only goes to show how little you know about women,” she countered.
As a matter of fact, Michael had done more empirical research on the subject than he cared to admit. Since that argument wouldn’t have impressed his fiancée, however, he contented himself with nuancing his point. “Well, I realize that looks are important to women, since they’re often judged by their physical appearance. But it’s the inside that counts.” That’s the kind of crap women like to hear, he thought.
“Oh, yeah?” Karen challenged him. “Then why is it that when we’re at the mall you start drooling over those bimbos in miniskirts? I have yet to see your tongue hanging out over their intelligence!”
“That’s only because I don’t know any of them. Our contact’s strictly visual. But once you get to know a person, the inside matters far more,” Michael countered philosophically. I wriggled my way pretty good out of that hole, he observed, pleased with the double entendre.
Indeed, those proved to be the magic words. They confirmed Karen’s innermost conviction that she had depth while other women--particularly the sexy ones--were just plain surface. Which is why Michael worked hard to veer the “us conversations” away from sexual matters towards the higher spheres of human existence where his fiancée preferred to dwell.
“Well, how much do you tell me about yourself?” Michael had turned the tables on her during one of their infamous “us conversations.”
“What do you mean?” Karen acted surprised. “I told you about how Mary’s leaving the office. And about how Maxine got a bonus of one and a half pay even though she only works for us part-time. And about how I suspect that she’s having an affair with Dr. Tolbe. I tell you everything that’s going on in my life.”
“Yeah, but that only tells me about what other people do. It doesn’t say anything about who you are,” Michael objected, with a meaningful arch of the eyebrow.
Karen looked perplexed. “We’ve been together for over two years. You know me.”
“Do you even know yourself?” Michael, a self-proclaimed hedonist, suddenly turned Socratic.
“You sound like a fortune cookie,” Karen observed, becoming skeptical of this line of inquiry.
“Not at all. Fortune cookies predict your future in a generic fashion. I’m asking you to tell me who you are as an individual,” he emphasized. “Like, for instance, what do you like to do in life?”
Karen shifted nervously in her seat. “You already know what I do. I go to work. I help others. I give to charity.”
“But you don’t really like doing any of those things. You do them mostly out of duty,” Michael pointed out.
“That’s not fair. I enjoy helping others,” she retorted. After all, every Christmas she donated ten percent of her annual income to Amnesty International and Doctors without borders.
“Fair enough,” Michael conceded, taking note of his fiancée’s agitation. “But it takes you a few minutes to write those checks. What do you enjoy doing the rest of the time? I mean, when you’re not working?”
“Now that’s a silly question!” Karen’s face lit up. “I like to be with you.”
Michael rapped the table with impatience with the tip of his fingers. “Sure, but aside from that? Who are you as a person? What makes you tick?” he insisted on keeping the ball in her court. The only sound he heard in answer to this question was the ticking of the mechanical watch his maternal grandfather had given him on his sixteenth birthday.
After considering the matter for a few moments, Karen replied: “Well, for instance, this week I read an interesting book. It was about this woman whose dream had always been to live in Japan,” she picked up momentum. “Then she had kids really young, so she got stuck in the States and became really depressed. Her therapist explained to her that when you have small kids, accomplishing your goals could be done gradually, by taking baby steps.”
“No pun intended,” Michael interrupted, glad to have spotted a jeux-de-mots in what he considered to be an otherwise uninspiring narrative.
“Yeah,” Karen ignored the joke. “And then she started taking Japanese language classes. The next summer, she took a short vacation to Japan with her family. So in the end she felt happier. At least she partially accomplished her goal.”
“So she sold out?” Michael drew his own conclusion.
“What? No. That’s not what I meant to suggest at all.”
He shook his head. “I don’t see how taking a vacation with one’s family in Japan constitutes moving there. Nor what any of this has to do with my original question.”
“What do you want to do with your life? Once you figure that out, we’ll see about taking baby steps or having babies or whatever.”
Karen stared at him as if the answer were transparently obvious. “I want to be your wife,” she replied with disarming honesty. “But I don’t want any kids,” she added. Which was another point of contention between them.
Her answer doubly discouraged Michael. First of all because, someday, he wanted to have children. And not just the imaginary kids they made up, by way of compensation. On their first Valentine’s Day, Michael had given Karen a stuffed stingray. They named it “Ray,” for short. They concocted stories about it, as if Ray were their real adopted child. Henceforth, whenever they ran out of things to say, they slipped into the momentary complicity of make-believe. Gradually, they expanded their imaginary menagerie. Next came a horse named Stallion, which Michael gave Karen on her birthday. On the anniversary of their first date, they adopted Peanut, an elephant. Each stuffed animal had its own personality. The stallion was wild and stubborn. Peanut was large and clumsy, with dependency issues. Ray was sweet but spoiled, since, after all, he was their first child.
More importantly, even before seriously contemplating starting a family together, Michael wished that his fiancée would get a life. Granted, in the beginning, he had fostered Karen’s dependency. He had enjoyed the thrill of seduction. He had basked in the sense of being needed by a woman to the point of becoming her whole existence. But Karen’s complete focus on him, though flattering, soon got in the way of his numerous other conquests. It also placed the burden of her happiness upon his shoulders. Michael preferred not to carry that weight by himself. Perhaps others could help. He kindly encouraged Karen to meet more frequently with her acquaintances from work. Unfortunately, this request only aroused her suspicions: “You want me to see Susan? Why? Did you make plans with anyone else?” she’d ask, narrowing her oblique eyes.
The very insecurities that made Karen appear too possessive and cramped his style, however, also made her seem appealing in Michael’s eyes. Unlike most of the other women he had been with, his fiancée could be trusted one hundred percent. Karen had no sexual desire worth mentioning, so Michael felt quite confident that she’d never cheat on him. She was hardworking, putting in overtime at work to compensate for his modest graduate student scholarship. She had no interests to speak of, except perhaps for the growing obsession with her vacillating weight and self-esteem. If he ever needed her support, he knew Karen would be there for him. She listened to him almost to a fault, so much so that he felt compelled to fabricate facts to satisfy her appetite for meaningful communication. She managed their money responsibly and was almost as averse to spending it as he was. They shopped together for groceries, armed with a handful of coupons. They bought most of their clothes at Goodwill, despite their decent joint income. In short, Karen was dependable, devoted, virtuous, frugal and hardworking. Weren’t those the qualities of a model wife? What more could a man want? After all, Michael thought, for pleasure and entertainment, he would always have flings, affairs and one-night stands. Following this logic, after nearly one year of dating, he decided to propose to her. After pretending to consider the matter for a few days, to appear hard to get, Karen gladly accepted.
Now, a year into their engagement, Michael went over his fiancée’s qualities, to remind himself that the reasons for marrying her remained valid. He examined Karen’s towering frame as she stepped out of the bathroom. She stood two inches taller than him, covered almost from head to toe by loose-fitting flannel pajamas. He peered into her eyes, in which he hopelessly sought a come-hither look. His gaze then fixed upon her square jaw, which reflected the locally strong will of a desperately dependent woman. Her thin mouth was still caked with a white pasty liquid, which he would have preferred to furnish himself. Unfortunately, she rarely gave him that opportunity. Still, Michael thought, feeling his midsection harden at the possibility of a quickie, it never hurts to try.
Karen saw his hand slip underneath the covers. His familiar “I’m up to no good” grin made her feel viscerally uncomfortable. Michael’s prospects were grim. Unfortunately for him, earlier that morning, Karen had weighed herself. She had made the tragic discovery that instead of losing weight, she had gained two pounds. No more sex until I lose it, she had resolved. “Don’t even think about it!” Karen preempted his move. She then pointed sternly to the alarm clock as her alibi: “It’s 8:30 and you teach at 9:00. It takes you twenty minutes to get ready. You do the math…”
Michael’s dark eyes shifted languorously from underneath their long lashes towards the alarm clock. “8:31 a.m.” it announced in bright red neon, reinforcing his fiancée’s message. “Okay,” he relented. He swung his lean, muscular legs out of bed, to gather enough momentum for a quick shower. But then he changed his mind, noticing that Karen had removed her pajamas and was sliding on a pair of underwear. He swiftly grabbed her from behind.
Her spine straightened defensively. “Geesh! You startled me. Aren’t you going to shower already?”
“I prefer to spot wash like Chairman Mao.” He had read a recent biography that claimed that the Chinese dictator only “washed” himself in women: a practice that may have been somewhat unhygienic, but that had other health benefits. “You’re so sexy in those granny panties. Grrrr, you turn me on, Baby,” Michael growled, simultaneously making light of his own desire and of his fiancée’s need to de-eroticize her body.
Stung, Karen clamed up. “Well, if you don’t find me attractive, then go take a cold shower!” This time her pride was at stake. But even then, only momentarily. Whenever she felt that Michael eluded her grasp, she became sweet and clingy again. Sometimes he hoped that his fiancée would stay mad at him a bit longer. At least that would give him a few extra hours of fun with other chicks. But no such luck… Oh well, you can’t win them all, he sighed, regretting that he couldn’t even flirt with his own fiancée. In the beginning, Karen’s seriousness had made him feel like she was more mature than him. But at deflating times like these, he thought that she should loosen up a bit.
The thought of looseness reminded him of Lisa, his student in first period French 102. Lisa was everything that Karen was not and then some. Michael released his fiancée without too much regret. In fact, he was suddenly in a hurry to get to class on time. He looked forward to explaining the distinction between the imparfait and the passé composé while scoping out Lisa’s double D boobs. The way she emphasized her chest in low-cut blouses--those protruding mounds of flesh that lengthened like ripe bananas whenever she leaned down to pick up a pen that she had deliberately dropped on the floor--made him tingle with the desire to scale those natural twin peaks with his hands, tongue and lips.
Karen had had a few moments to recover from his jab. She started to have second thoughts, feeling uncomfortable about letting Michael out of the house in such a dangerous condition. “You don’t give up, do you?” she smiled sheepishly at him. “Maybe we have time for a little quickie,” she relented. On the one hand, she’d starve herself the rest of the day to lose those stubborn extra pounds. And, on the other, no matter what Catholic reservations she may have had about premarital sex, Karen considered it her womanly duty to satisfy her man.
But Michael could sense that, in her heart of hearts, she still felt guilty about it. Her pangs of conscience generally coincided with the times she spent with her family and Sunday mornings at church. She even stopped going to confession once she actually had something to confess. But Michael’s needs usually swayed her, playing upon her preemptive jealousy. Karen noticed the way other women looked at her fiancé. Why give another woman the opportunity to take care of a problem that she could, when hard-pressed, efficiently handle herself? Karen emboldened herself and firmly grasped his member. Despite his hurry, Michael wasn’t one to miss an opportunity. In a race against the clock, he hastily propped Karen up against the sink. He wrapped her legs around his waist, then glided in between her lips, which, despite their intimidating dryness, quickly pushed him to the brink. Michael knew that he could rest easy on that score since, fortunately for him though somewhat less fortunately for her, Karen had been on the pill since the age of twelve to alleviate the symptoms of endometriosis. He then kissed his fiancée quickly on the cheek, said “I love you” and wiped himself clean with a piece of toilet tissue.
“I love you too,” she replied. But the sense of postcoital guilt was already imprinted upon her features. “You’re thirty years old. You can decide for yourself and do whatever the hell you want! You don’t need a goddamn preacher to tell you what to do,” he’d exclaim whenever she made him lose his temper over what he perceived as her outdated prudishness.
“Please leave my priest out of it. He’s got nothing to do it with it.”
Bullshit! Michael thought whenever he became fed up with frustration. “Don’t you think it’s a bit strange that you still live with your parents at your age?”
Although Karen fell head over heals in love with Michael practically from the moment that she laid eyes on him, she didn’t want to rush into a serious relationship. She’d been burned by men before. This time she wanted to play it safe. Yet no matter how much she tried to protect herself, as far as Michael was concerned, Karen’s heart led the way far ahead of her head. The only thing she could control was when she actually moved in with him. On this issue alone she put her foot down. Like a good Catholic girl, she told him they’d live together only after they got married. “It would kill my folks,” Karen tried to explain the situation to Michael more diplomatically. She wanted him to understand the disappointment her parents would feel if she openly lived with a man, as opposed to doing what she was doing now: which is to say, sneak into his apartment in the mornings and afternoons and return home in the evenings, feeling ashamed and impure.
But Michael refused to be alone. Though completely untouched by the suffering of others, a sense of painful emptiness overcame him late at night, when he went to sleep without holding a woman—and not just any woman, but his woman--in his arms. What the hell! If she won’t commit to me, then I won’t commit to her either. He made a conscious decision to continue his philandering ways while giving Karen the distinct impression that they were dating exclusively. “You’re the woman of my life,” he’d declare looking dreamingly into his fiancée’s eyes, right after he had been with two other women on that day. Which was only fair, Michael thought, savoring the duplicity. Because in his mind, Karen’s choice was telling. Her parents and their antiquated morals were far more important to her than he was. In which case, he felt, rationalizing the worst of his behavior for the smallest of her infractions, he was also entitled to pursue other priorities. At the moment, he had three of them to be exact: not counting, that is, the scores of flings and one-night stands.
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