For Michael’s birthday, in early February, I planned a dinner of calf’s liver (this I had learned to cook superbly in school) and Black Forest cake. I bought him copies of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the essays of George Orwell, and a volume of the correspondence between Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin, a lusty long-running interchange that seemed right up his alley. I also gave him a check to have my hair stylist take his mane in hand, along with another can of mousse.
I probably should have bought him a robe as well because he was wearing one of mine, a unisex number that fit him too snugly across the shoulders, when he told me for the first time in eight months, “I love you.”
“Oh, you’re just feeling well fucked and well fed,” I shot back, but secretly I was pleased. Beyond pleased. Thrilled to my toes.
Before leaving, he officially invited me to his house later in the week. Aha, I thought, now maybe we are getting somewhere.
Two days later, two nights before I was scheduled to take a train upstate, he called to say he was in the city and wanted to stop by. His voice sounded serious. “Sure,” I said. “What’s the occasion?”
“We need to talk.”
Here it comes. The “talk” about the relationship, setting the boundaries, establishing ground rules. Or maybe we’re breaking up again.
“Okay. Come on over.”
An hour went by and no word from Michael. I called and left a message on his cell. Another half hour. I left another message. He responded finally. “Something’s come up. I have to head on home. Doug and his mother had a fight, and Doug’s run off in her car.”
“My God. Keep me posted. Call me.” I was genuinely concerned, more involved in his life than I realized.
When I heard nothing more for an hour, I called again. “What’s happened? Did you find Doug?”
“That’s not it,” he said in a very small voice. “There’s another woman.”
“What are you talking about? What do you mean, another woman….” I was nearly screaming. My ears were filled with a furious din, as though my brain had set up a blockade to hearing any further details. After I hung up, I called a friend and pressed her to join me for a drink. Or three.
“You don’t have enough information,” she said. “You need to know more.”
In the days that followed, in the conversations that ensued, I could begin to piece together the scenario, or the scenario Michael chose to construct. In its simplest version, it went like this: He had broken off with Susan, the woman he’d been seeing for four years, a few months before meeting me. He’d picked up with her again recently. The relationship didn’t pan out…. He broke off with her again, the same night he informed me of her presence in his life. He was totally confused. He simply couldn’t “do” relationships, as he’d said again and again. He needed some “space” in his life.
“Why couldn’t you have told me this face to face?” I asked.
“I was afraid that if I came over, we’d wind up in bed.”
“And why did you have to lie to me about Doug’s running off in his mother’s car?”
“I needed time to think. I needed an excuse.”
“You are one confused fucking motherfucker,” I said. “How can you tell me you love me and then three days later tell me there’s someone else?”
He had no answer for that.
But I wanted to know one last thing, the hideous fear of many women in their fifties. “Is she younger than I am?”
“No. She’s older, even older than I am.”
Not that the knowledge helped all that much. In the days and weeks that followed, I sent off scornful emails, left pleading voice messages (“you don’t really love her…you love me”), drank too much, and was utterly devastated. It wasn’t so much his physical presence I missed—since that had been rare enough—but the day-to-day intimacy with each other’s lives. News of his daughter’s boarding-school applications, his son’s minor truancies, even his goddamn horse’s ailments. It was as though I had annexed another life, a family, though most of it was by proxy. And, of course, I felt used, bewildered, suckered, and ashamed that I had been so easily gulled.
That vast cacophony of emotions can’t be sustained for any lengthy time, any more than the crazy heady drama of being head-over-heels can be prolonged before it’s replaced or abetted by more stable and reliable sentiments, like comfort and trust. But we never really got to that point.
If it’s true that Nature abhors a vacuum, I wonder if one’s emotional life operates along the same principles. I felt as though I had a huge hollowed-out space where my gut once was, but within a couple of months I started dating again. I briefly took up with a guy who had just written his first book, who also drove a crappy car and also had a troubled teenage son. And a backpack. But he wasn’t Michael and the liaison didn’t last much beyond my birthday in April.
Then later that month I received a mysterious email, which said: “I am one of several girlfriends of Michael K____ and I’m having a hard time getting over him. I wonder if you would like to meet for a drink or coffee.” It was signed Susan and included a Manhattan phone number. At first, I thought this was some stupid practical joke and decided to ignore it. The message sat in my in-box for a week before curiosity got the better of me. I dialed the number she provided and got a man’s voicemail, a heavy Hispanic accent. I dialed again, and again heard the same recording. Then I began to get angry. What the hell was going on?
I called Michael. I had not talked to him in weeks. He claimed to be at a dinner party and said he would call back within the hour. I heard nothing after two hours and left a couple of messages on his cell. Then, toward midnight, when there was still no word from him, I called his home upstate and left a message there, threatening to track down his ex-wife if he didn’t call and explain why Susan was seeking me out.
He phoned the next day. “She thought she wanted to speak to you, but now she’s changed her mind.”
“So what’s the deal here? You’re still seeing her or you’ve broken up again or what?”
“We got together again for a couple of months,” he said, “but as I told you, I simply can’t handle relationships.”
“What about the other girlfriends she mentions?”
“I think she’s delusional.”
I wasn’t satisfied with that response, and I wanted to hear from Susan firsthand. I emailed her, leaving my phone number. When she didn’t call, I hounded her mercilessly, calling her a doormat for letting herself be treated in this way. Finally she left me a phone message with email addresses for the “other women.” One was a psychologist name Roberta H, who, I learned via Google, ran a New Age-y therapy practice in New Jersey. The other’s name was Cynthia S, and a search for her turned up only a name on a list of sponsors for some upstate arts organization. I emailed both. Roberta responded, saying she was more than happy to talk to me.
In the course of a reasonably civil—almost warm and chatty—conversation with Roberta, I learned that she and I had overlapped for a few weeks in the late spring of the previous year, but she dropped him in mid-June. The distance between central Jersey and his home upstate made it too difficult to continue, and he wasn’t really her type. In what I assumed was her most soothing therapeutic voice, she also accused Michael of transmitting a nasty case of genital warts and urged that I see my ob/gyn. I hung up, feeling sick and bewildered, but rallied enough to put in a call to my doctor and encouraged both Susan and Cynthia to do the same.
Susan’s online response was “Oh, my God, I need a drink.” I never heard a word from Cynthia.
It was at this point that I began to get more than a little obsessed and crazy. I emailed Michael, begging him, only half-seriously, to send a time line to show me how and if all four of us had overlapped. I wondered with whom he had been spending New Year’s and Christmas Eve. I wondered if and how often he went from my apartment to Susan’s, only about a mile downtown. I wondered where Cynthia lived full-time, and how he kept such a juggling act alive. And I wondered what happened to the table leg he’d promised to have turned upstate almost a year earlier. Finally he did mail it, with a return address on East 57th Street, which was nowhere near where Susan or Roberta or Cynthia lived, as far as I knew (though maybe Cynthia kept an apartment in the city), but if I started to entertain the idea of yet a fifth woman, I would surely lose it completely.
I thought about him so often—heard his voice, felt his touch, smelled his skin—that I worried I would never be “normal” again. I considered seeing a shrink but decided there was no way I was going to spend good money on getting the little shitbag out of my thoughts. And over time, of course, the mind simply gets tired of traipsing down the same old tired trail and moves on to other prospects.
And then, months later, I received an email from Susan, which read in part:
Please, please, please stop calling me in the middle of the night. I know it is you. The guy I am dating thinks I have some jealous lover. I am not seeing the little psycho. Ann, it is time to stop all this nonsense. Michael is such a freak that he probably likes all of the attention. Put the guy in perspective. He is a 63-year-old self-loathing jerk who shaves his whole body to look younger and who has had enough plastic surgery to become a new life form. He only pursues women for some weird gain. He went after Roberta to get help with publishing his book (she shared her agent). His first words about Cynthia to his partner, David, were that she was really big time (she travels in private planes and uses a car and driver to get into Manhattan) and that they would be doing great if they only got part of her portfolio to manage. The guy goes on the Internet and picks up women to sweet talk into using his “superior” financial services. Why do you want to make my life miserable? I was the schmuck who slept upstairs while the boyfriend was downstairs toiling on the computer, tracking stocks supposedly. You just can’t find women that dumb anymore…. Now please don’t call me again.
To which I responded:
Susan, really. I don’t even know your phone number…. You gave me the wrong digits last spring, remember?
If you want to verify this, you can check with the phone company to find out who’s been calling you and file a harassment suit. Or you can block my number, which is 212-555-0560. Verizon, or whoever is your carrier, can easily arrange for this. You can also use caller i.d. to find out who’s been disturbing you.
I resent the implication that I would call you in the middle of the night. Generally, I’m sleeping.
That short exchange unleashed a volley of emails that went on for several couple of weeks. Susan refused to meet with me, but she plainly needed to vent and had a mother lode of information to impart. The deceptions were especially hard on her because she was close to Michael’s children. In fact, she had been traveling with him and the kids in England and Japan when he was emailing lusty billets-doux to me. Cynthia, who was in the midst of a messy divorce from her financier husband, must have entered the picture sometime around the holidays of the previous year. Susan speculated that the attraction did indeed have a lot to do with Cynthia’s assets; Michael was so broke he’d had to take out a second mortgage on his house. And he had at some point been sufficiently worried about his appearance to undergo a facelift.
As all the information came tumbling out, I couldn’t help but marvel at the audacity and mendacity of the guy—I’d never met a male gold digger before. The amount of subterfuge required to keep three women on the string, even if only for a few months, hinted at more slamming doors than a Feydeau farce. I suggested to Susan that we buy Cynthia a pair of tickets to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; Susan said she would probably be too dumb (or too smitten) to get the message. The two of us developed quite an affable online relationship, but eventually we both tired of parsing the mind and motives of this awesomely cunning liar. Susan claimed her therapist had advised her to cut off the correspondence, and I was more than ready to let it go. Learning just how badly suckered I’d been all over again was not exactly conducive to my own mental health.
In reflecting on my eight-month involvement with Michael, after hearing all of Susan’s revelations, some of his behavior made peculiar sense. Perhaps he was trying to do right thing by Susan the few times he’d tried to cut the ties with me. His motives for asking about my finances were now also clear: He wanted to know if I rented or owned my apartment, how much I’d made on my parents’ house in Montauk, even how much I paid my cleaning woman (in all cases, I told him, None of your business). Maybe he was weighing the advantages of which woman would best serve his long-term needs, and neither Susan nor I could compete with a hefty portfolio and private plane. And of course my impending visit to meet his kids must have thrown him into a tailspin: Yet another woman on his doorstep would have totally spooked the poor dears.
When I’d absorbed the hurt enough to tell the story to women friends, I was surprised that others had been caught in similar scenarios or had friends who’d been as easily gulled, though the situations were usually the classic adulterous triangle and not the more complex quadrangle in which I’d been unwittingly entangled. When I wailed to myself, What kind of man would . . . ? I thought of a friend with whom I’ve lost touch, a man who, over a twelve-year period, compulsively cheated on the woman he lived with. I found his escapades amusing, even understandable, for a while, and then one day I didn’t. He and Michael shared many similarities: Both were extremely literate and well educated, and both were mediocre at their chosen professions. As a doctor, Michael had apparently never written a paper or maintained a successful practice; as a financial adviser, he had nothing more to show than a self-published book and a Web site. But both Michael and my former friend, in spite of average looks, had a talent for ingratiating themselves with women, largely through relentless pursuit and clever conversation.
Is Michael a psychopath, which according to one online definition includes “glib and superficial charm, grandiosity, need for stimulation, pathological lying, conning and manipulating, lack of remorse, callousness, poor behavioral controls, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions and so forth”? I’m no expert, but he sure seems to fit the bill. When added up, his behavior was all of a piece: the risk taker who loves the emergency room for its unpredictability and likes to play with other people’s money, the user who will seduce a woman to get the name of her agent, the Don Juan whose ego is bolstered not by love or achievement but by conquest.
Sometimes in bed, after making love, he would get a blank, faraway look in his gray-green eyes. I would ask him what he was thinking. “Nothing,” he would say. And that’s probably the truth.
Top: Oskar Kokoschka’s Alma Mahler doll. I believe this is before the artist’s dinner guests destroyed her.