She was taken aback, on the previous evening, when her announcement that she had lost the extra weight was greeted by an empty stare and a flatly delivered “Great.” That’s it? Karen asked herself, upset by Michael’s obvious lack of interest. She had to remind herself to calm down before she said, in her best impersonation of a suggestive voice, “If I lose five more pounds, I’ll be fitting into that sexy black lace teddy you gave me on Valentine’s Day.”
A vision of Ana in the black negligee crossed Michael’s mind. “I’m impressed by how consistent you’ve been with your exercise program this time around,” he remarked.
“Yeah. I’ve been doing four hours of exercise a day. I divide it up between cardio, yoga and weight lifting, so that it doesn’t get too monotonous,” she replied, encouraged by his sign of approval.
“How are your knees? Do they still hurt?” He listlessly shifted the food upon his plate.
“No. I’m giving them a break by swimming instead of walking this week, remember?” Karen couldn’t believe her eyes. Here he was swishing around the meal that had taken her over two hours to prepare. Earlier that afternoon, she had made him fresh yellow fin grilled tuna with seared potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, black olives, anchovies and garlic, covered in a fancy Dijon vinaigrette. Now all that was left of her culinary masterpiece was the dark yellow sauce mixed with the colorful vegetables making a chaotic abstract expressionist painting upon the whiteness of the plate. “Don’t you like the fish? It’s very fresh,” she assured him.
“It’s delicious,” Michael said, demonstratively taking a bite. “But I’m not that hungry. I had a big lunch.”
“Where did you go?”
“I went to this Greek restaurant on campus where I had some bhabha ghanoush,” he conveniently incorporated the actual meal he had with Ana.
“You like eggplant? Then I’ll make you an eggplant dish for tomorrow!” Karen offered, glad to have found an easy way to please him. As luck would have it, she had just learned a new recipe for Mediterranean vegetable casserole. In fact, following her mother’s motto that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, ever since they had gotten back together, Karen had thrown herself headlong into cooking, using most of her free time to prepare his favorite meals. She had learned how to make veal scallops; sautéed beef tenderloin with black pepper; sautéed chicken, along with all sorts of pasta dishes filled with fresh herbs and vegetables, healthy and delicious, just the way he liked it.
“I won’t love you any less if you don’t spend hours a day cooking for me,” he commented, adding to himself, nor any more.
“I know, but I like cooking. And, more importantly, you like eating,” she replied with an ingratiating smile.
“That’s nice of you,” Michael replied, having abandoned the effort to change her. You either love a person as she is or you don’t, he recalled the conversation he had with Ana. Ever since they began living together, he was struck by Karen’s dry, methodical manner, which he couldn’t help but contrast with Ana’s freshness and spontaneity. Whenever Karen set her mind to any goal, she threw herself into it with a determination that he had never encountered in anyone else. Out of all of the American women he had met through the French program at the university, Karen was the only one who spoke French like a native. “Did you have a hot French boyfriend?” he had asked her when they first began dating. “No,” she replied. “I watched T.V. a lot and posted vocabulary words all over the apartment, to make sure that I absorbed the language and its correct pronunciation.” In retrospect, Michael found this approach typical of Karen. Only she would go to France, the country of romance, and instead of finding herself a nice native boyfriend, or at least a couple of friends, she spent the year decorating her apartment with vocabulary words. Everything she does, he observed in retrospect, has method but no madness. Michael couldn’t help but smile when he recalled her innuendo about the black lace teddy. Had he shown any enthusiasm for it, he was willing to bet that Karen would buy a dozen different items of lingerie. Her pliability to his will flattered him. But none of her compulsive behavior, he thought, could make up for the quality she lacked, which he had in excess: an insatiable appetite for pleasure, which could be best summarized as joie de vivre.
“Why are you grinning at me like that?” Karen asked, noticing his smirk.
“I was just thinking about how when you put your mind to something, you really do it. Like the way you learned French.”
“That much is true,” Karen replied, pleased that Michael seemed to appreciate her drive. He’ll never find someone like me, she told herself. Nobody will love him like I do or put as much effort into our relationship. The problem was, it occurred to her, that what should have been smooth and easy now took so much energy. The effort to please him left her feeling drained and insecure at the end of the day. And yet, she couldn’t imagine any desirable alternatives. The break-up with Michael had made her realize that she didn’t want to spend her life without him. It’s not even that I’m scared of being alone, Karen gazed wistfully at Michael. It’s just that I want him and nobody else. She had seen what other men were like. Her own father was an alcoholic who neglected his wife. His sister’s husband behaved like an overgrown frat. boy, who preferred leering at women, beer and sports to spending time with his wife. That’s what most men become after a few years of marriage, Karen extrapolated. Michael was different. It’s true that he enjoyed leering at women and drinking beer as much as the next guy. But at the same time, he also had manners, could be as sensitive as a woman and liked to engage in meaningful conversation. This train of thought led Karen to attempt to probe, once again, those deeper layers of their psyches. Which is why she decided the following morning to do a little research on her fiancé and find out more about his past activities. That way, she hoped, Michael would be more interested in their communication. Besides, she thought somewhat cynically, how could I possibly go wrong with this strategy? Everybody likes to talk about themselves.
Earlier that day, when she looked over the entries on Michael, she discovered that he did cross country and track in both high school and college. But she already knew that. Besides, what can one say about it? Since nothing particularly interesting occurred to her, she moved on to the entries that linked to a few articles Michael had published during grad. school. She found one essay on Flaubert, one on Marivaux and one on Rousseau, all in scholarly journals that focused on French literature and culture. Unfortunately, that field was so antiquated and impractical that, quite frankly, it didn’t capture her imagination. Rousseau put her to sleep, Flaubert sounded cheesy and she hadn’t even read Marivaux. As Karen was about to turn off the computer feeling disappointed that she hadn’t come up with a single intriguing subject of conversation for that evening, she had an epiphany. Why don’t I ask him about why he doesn’t want to get a doctorate and become a French professor rather than a high school teacher? That way we’ll keep the conversation focused on him, to help him figure out what he wants to do with his life, which he’ll no doubt appreciate.
Just to make sure that everything went according to plan, Karen slipped on a little black dress and put on the high heels that Michael had given her for her birthday. She then set the table for the meal she had prepared earlier that morning, which was so French that it would make Michael feel like he was being transported straight to Paris. For an appetizer, she planned, they’d have escargots in a puff pastry shell with shallots, garlic, white wine, chives, butter with a hint of pernod; followed by a salade nicoise that combined fresh vegetables, tuna, tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg, anchovies and olives. The main course, her tour de force, consisted of the eggplant dish she had promised him on the previous evening, made with fresh eggplant, roasted peppers, onions and garlic, slices of zucchini and tomato and fresh herbs topped with Parmesan cheese. Initially, her strategy worked.
“Wow, you’ve become quite a chef lately!” Michael praised her as soon as they sat down at the table.
Karen smiled with satisfaction and poured him a glass of Merlot. She decided that the moment was right to broach the subject of conversation she had prepared in advance. “You know, I looked up your name on the internet today,” she informed him.
Oh, oh, I wonder what dirt she dug up, Michael thought, becoming slightly apprehensive.
“I was struck by the fact that I found no entries on you since a year ago. Before, you were publishing articles regularly,” Karen observed.
Michael breathed a sigh of relief. So I’m not in trouble, he concluded. “That’s because I published those essays when I was taking grad. seminars and had to write papers for them,” he explained. “Since the work was already done for the classes, I figured I might as well send the essays off to journals and get a few articles under my belt.”
“But why did you stop writing all of a sudden?”
Michael looked at her with an air of incredulity: “Didn’t you notice that I’m teaching now?”
“Any interest in pursuing a Ph. D. in French?” Karen assumed the patient tone of a career counselor.
“Nope,” Michael said, taking a bite of his salad. “None whatsoever,” he said with his mouth full.
“Why not? You’d make a wonderful college professor.”
Michael looked at his fiancée, her head slightly cocked, a patronizing look imprinted upon her features. How many times had he explained to her that what he loved about his job was the teaching part, the human contact—preferably of the female persuasion—rather than contributing to some irrelevant scholarly dispute about how many angels can fit on the pin of a needle? She listens without really hearing me. “Like I said before, I want to be a teacher,” he repeated. “I like the people contact too much to waste my time like a geek in some dusty library doing useless research to write articles nobody cares to read.”
Seeing his dismissive reaction to her constructive suggestion, Karen’s patience began to wear thin. She focused on the only part of his reply that was relevant to her: “People contact? Is that what you call it?” She looked down at her plate and realized she lost her appetite.
During the rest of the evening, Karen refused to speak to Michael. She retreated into the guest room, to punish him for the curt manner he had assumed with her during supper. Why do I put up with this? she asked herself, her heart overflowing with self-pity. Yet when her fiancé knocked on the door to apologize, Karen’s anger quickly dissipated. Perhaps I’m overreacting, she told herself. After all, Michael knows what he wants and what he doesn’t want from life. Who am I to tell him what to do? “I was only making a suggestion, trying to be helpful,” she said, in her own defense.
“I know, Baby. I shouldn’t have jumped on you like that.” Even this minimal show of contrition touched her. As often before, following moments of tension, Karen went over Michael’s attributes to persuade herself that continuing to work on their relationship was well worth the effort. After all, she reminded herself, he’s a good man. He listens to me. He’s handsome and desirable. He’s charming and fun. He can be so sweet when he wants to be. And I’m doing my best to be interesting and attractive too. Yet, the fundamental problem remained: none of that seemed to make that much of a difference in their relationship.
That night, in bed, the couple slept back to back, a pattern initiated by Karen to avoid stimulating Michael’s frequent nocturnal arousal. But lately she’d have given just about anything to be able to turn him on as easily as before. I’ve lost weight, she kept repeating to herself, dumbfounded by the fact that finally being in shape didn’t spin their world around. Does he still love me? she wondered. She really wanted to believe that he did. Yet, at the same time, Karen felt apprehensive, as if trapped in an endless labyrinth. For some incomprehensible reason, every path she pursued in their relationship eventually turned into a dead-end. No matter how I dress; how I look; how much I exercise; how pleasant I am; how much I care about him; what I cook; what I read; what I do for him, in the end, none of it matters. She began to feel like a lab rat caught in a twisted experiment, where she had to run faster, spin the wheel harder, only to get rewarded less and less frequently with a tiny pellet of Michael’s affection, the emotional fuel that was keeping her alive.
Despite her self-doubt, Karen threw herself headlong into the frenetic fervor of a desperate optimism. Sometimes she felt like a novel heroine struggling to reverse the direction of the river of indifference that was engulfing their lopsided relationship. When each and every effort failed, in the moments of deepest despair when she was drowning in waves of self-pity, Karen found the sole consolation that gave her the patience to reclaim the affection of the man she loved. I must have hurt him so badly when I broke up with him, she turned the blame upon herself. Paradoxically, whenever she could see herself as the main source of their problems, Karen felt empowered, as if the solution also lay in her hands. Maybe I should discuss our earlier breakup and apologize to him, so that we can finally put that whole nightmare behind us, she resolved that night. She turned towards Michael and tapped him on the shoulder.
Although awake and struggling with his own demons, Michael remained perfectly still curled up in a fetal position, hoping that his fiancée would think he was sound asleep. He was troubled by Ana’s reticence, which he had encountered in dozens of women and which, quite frankly, had never daunted him before. In this case, however, he hesitated. On the one hand, being aware of Ana’s difficult past, he didn’t want to force his way into her life in a manner that might sabotage their budding relationship. On the other, he feared jeopardizing the progress they had made. As Woody Allen once said, a relationship’s like a shark. It either moves forward or dies. Which is why, Michael sensed, they couldn’t afford to flounder too long in ambiguity, neither lovers nor friends. He had been in that situation before and knew exactly how the story would end. Friendship would displace the attraction, the forward momentum would be lost and indifference would efface the incomparable excitement of falling in love.
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