November 15, 2008

I don”€™t know if it’s my reckless, Napoleonic march into middle age, or the decline of our infrastructure, but with each trip I feel more and more like travel is hell. This week, a “€œsimple”€ overnight trip from Manchester to D.C. felt longer and took more out of me than my long-ago, grad school Amtrak jaunts from New Orleans to New York”€”which would put me in a coach seat for 28 hours (one-way), armed only with a Faulkner novel and a fifth of bourbon. Nowadays, a short flight on Southwest, with a few commuter rail connections, is enough to make me feel like a burlap sack full of bruised, decaying mangoes. It doesn”€™t matter where I”€™m going or why”€”in this case, to emcee a dinner honoring veteran journalist Robert Novak, now sick with cancer (keep him in your prayers) and stay at the cozy University Club. Not even an open bar, an open mike and a captive audience make it worthwhile leaving town.

Perhaps I”€™m becoming a plant”€”a mushroom that craves instead of adventure a dim, quiet place full of steam and spores. (But let’s leave my bachelor housekeeping skills out of this….) The closest I can come to such an environment is the Acela’s “€œquiet car,”€ a blue cocoon of peace and order in the world. May God bless the railroad exec who came up with that idea”€”a place, perhaps the last on earth outside St. Peter’s Basilica, where if someone starts yammering into his phone, or bickering with his spouse, you can call a uniformed guard and have him silenced. Count on the Obamodites to eliminate this loophole. By 2010, the quiet car should be no more; its rules, I”€™m sure, impose a “€œdisproportionate impact”€ on some minority or other. I see plenty of black and female executives using the car to get their work done, but it’s no place for the “€œurban youths”€ I”€™d encounter in New York movie theaters, whose “€œinteractive cinematic viewing style”€ includes talking back to the screen, or the fishwives who ride the subway talking loudly about their pap smears.

Another reason I”€™m settling down is that I”€™m finally in a happy relationship. Most of my travel in the past was driven by dating. Working from home in a left-wing city, I suffered from the deficit of available Catholic women”€”which is all too real in New York City, if you leave out illegal nannies, whom I snobbishly didn”€™t date. So I signed up for various Catholic dating services, and cast my net up and down the Northeastern seaboard, writing witty little notes to women from Boston to Chapel Hill. If the first few phone conversations went the least bit well, I”€™d follow up with a trip to their home towns”€”typically for a weekend, which I”€™d spend in their basement or on their couch.

The downside of doing this should have been obvious: If you meet someone like this and there’s “€œchemistry,”€ you spend the next two days trying not to act on it.  If there isn”€™t, if one or both of you looks at the other and sighs”€”then you suffer through 48 hours of strained politeness, stretching out an encounter that should have ended shortly after “€œHello.”€ The Jews got this one right; Jewish matchmaker agencies in New York invented the technique called “€œ8-Minute Dating,”€ bringing singles together for mercifully brief encounters in public places, with clearly marked emergency exits and no hard feelings. A little bit business-like for some people’s tastes, but isn”€™t mating serious business? The heroines of Jane Austen’s novels would have welcomed this innovation”€”in fact, you could very well interpret their quadrilles with bachelor vicars as the 18th century 8-minute date.  

In retrospect, there’s no other word to describe my strategy but “€œstupid.”€ Like Charlie Brown barreling forward to kick the football Lucy was holding, I kept on repeating the same behavior, expecting different results. I”€™ll recount a few of these pilgrimages to nowhere, reminding the gentle reader that (like each of my essays in the art of the memoir) these are strictly cautionary tales:

“€¢ “€œInga”€ of Boston. A former professional dog-trainer, at forty-something she was trim and fit, neat as a pin and a stickler. Her speech sharp and precise, she had high expectations of men”€”and I sensed right away that if I didn”€™t measure up, she might just smack my nose with a rolled-up copy of The Globe. She”€™d already visited me, and disapproved of my beagles. When Susie leapt on the Afghan coffee table to howl for a solid minute, Inga stared at me icily. She insisted that Susie obey some strange command called “€œHeel!”€ and trot morosely beside us”€”instead of pulling me down the street after random squirrels, as I”€™d trained her. Goaded by “€œchemistry”€ (which was, alas, mutual), I trekked up to Beantown for the weekend, to crash on the couch of her condo. But by the second flight of stairs, as she showed me up, I knew our love was doomed. Pointing to a nearby apartment, she whispered: “€œThat’s the unit that causes all the trouble in this building. They”€™re always having dinner parties with music”€”and guests. I”€™ve had to call the police on those people seven times.”€ I let this sink in, as we climbed another stair, then turned to Inga and stammered: “€œEr, Inga. In my building, I am the Noisy Neighbor.”€ And through my head ran the silent corollary. “€œAnd you”€™re the Bitch Down the Hall. It’s nice to meet you.”€

“€¢ “€œNatasha,”€ the self-styled “€œCatholic Bohemian”€ in North Carolina who”€™d posted all those artsy pictures of herself in black and white, in vintage dresses and poses from paintings by Gustav Klimt. That should have been enough to warn me off. She”€™d styled herself in her profile as a “€œrecovering society queen”€ and “€œmaven of the arts,”€ which all rang slightly hollow when she showed me the isolated shack where she lived with her two-year-old son”€”the fruit of a previous marriage she”€™d promised would soon be annulled. After seven glasses of Riesling and a long, strained conversation, it was clear we couldn”€™t stand each other. The rest of the weekend stretched before us like a stint in “€œdating rehab.”€ I”€™d talk about right-wing politics”€”which seemed to tick her off. She”€™d recount with obvious nostalgia her dabblings with cocaine, and treat me to hundreds of pictures she”€™d taken of herself in Roman togas, Hellenic tunics, and 19th century gowns. “€œIn this one I”€™m Helen of Troy. And here you see me as Medea….”€ (Her toddler cried all night, every night.) At last I took to sneaking off down the road to visit her landlord, who kept an entire kennel full of beagles”€”which almost made the trip worthwhile.

“€¢ “€œYvette”€ of Massapequa, who lived only a few hours away on the LIRR, so escape was easier. And a damned good thing, since this one was actually dangerous. Not the girl herself, who seemed a good-natured sort, and claimed to be “€œdevout.”€ Chemistry pretty strong in this case, since she really did look like Disney’s Snow White: all powdery skin, midnight hair and scarlet lips. And blazing blue eyes”€”which I later discovered came in a box and could be removed. (It’s amazing how tinted contacts can color a first impression.) We didn”€™t share too many”€”okay, any”€”intellectual interests, but I”€™ll confess that if the girl is pretty enough, I can carry on a one-sided conversation for several dates and hardly notice. So I probably deserved the experience of Yvette. She batted her eyelashes fetchingly as I blathered on, so we went out three or four times before I found out a troubling fact: She had a boyfriend. Indeed, a regular bedmate”€”a Greek guy named “€œNiko”€ who collected guns and knives, and brought Ziploc bags of bloody deer meat to parties, insisting “€œI only eat what I kill.”€ I learned all this one night at a meeting of Theology on Tap, at a talk on the Guardian Angels by a saintly pro-life activist whose wife founded Operation Rescue, who now adopts handicapped children from Russia and China. As the talk wound down, and I goofily held hands with Yvette, a dark-haired gent of some intensity burst in the room and gave her a baleful stare. He stalked out. She leapt to her feet and started bawling. I asked for an explanation, but she was already calling him on her cell phone, begging forgiveness. She pushed me away and barged into the back room, interrupting the priest who was hearing confessions. “€œI”€™m sorry, Niko, but this is what happens. You said you”€™d never marry me”€”what do you expect? I”€™m sorry”€”please don”€™t hang up….”€  I later found out that he was the jealous type; he hunted down my picture on the Internet, printed it out, and kept it on his dashboard in case he spotted me again. But my guardian angel kept me from ending up in a Ziploc bag.

“€¢ “€œLeslie,”€ of Ottawa. This one I never actually met. We”€™d encountered each other online and corresponded, then spoken, for weeks. She talked a good game. She”€™d actually read all the works of three of my favorite writers, and seemed to understand them. A month or so of discussing Mauriac is enough to turn my head, and her photos were appealing. So what if at age 37 she still lived in her parents”€™ basement, and worked part-time teaching ESL to refugees from Vietnam? That didn”€™t mean there was anything wrong with her. Nor the fact that she seemed fanatically jealous, checking on my dating account to see if I”€™d been writing to anyone else. Nor her choice of favorite movie, Fatal Attraction. Nor the nervous, demanding quality that crept into her voice, when I temporized about meeting up in the flesh. “€œYou invited me to New York,”€ she said once (I rashly had), “€œand I am coming to New York. Whether you like it or not.”€ She booked a flight, and announced the dates she expected to use my apartment. By this point I was genuinely frightened at the prospect of a Canadian Glenn Close impersonator spending time alone with my dogs. At last, I blankly told her not to come, and she answered with icy silence. The next day, she guessed my password and hijacked three of my email accounts”€”which I never got back. I got in touch with the Internet Fraud Division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who promised to watch her. Never have I felt less chivalrous than this: To protect myself from a woman, I had to call in the cavalry.

“€¢ “€œCatrin”€ of upstate New York. A mental health professional with an M.A., she was plenty smart and had a sexy, breathy voice. A sharp-tongued paleocon, skinny with long blonde hair, she looked good enough for her age that I could look past her extensive array of baggage”€”which came in the fetching form of an adorable four-year-old, and the girl’s never-married father, whom Catrin kept talking about. All that, and the fact that one of the pictures Catrin sent me turned out to be a publicity shot of Gwyneth Paltrow. (When I pointed this out, Catrin insisted that she was often mistaken for the actress.) After weeks of intense conversation, I trekked up the Hudson, this time with prudent plans to stay at a B&B. As I got off the Amtrak I couldn”€™t help noticing the helpful signs from the local Chamber of Commerce: “€œWelcome to Syracuse”€ and “€œCaution: Stairs May Be Covered with Wet Debris.”€ Catrin drove me to the most elegant French bistro in the City of Wet Debris, and announced in the first five minutes that she had trouble with other moms in her daughter’s play group because “€œThey resent me for being a MILF.”€ Things got a little better after that. She recounted how she”€™d spent much of her childhood in Franco’s Spain. When I said something like, “€œWe could use a few years of Franco over here,”€ her eyes lit up. She took my hand and said, coquettishly: “€œCan we have sex right now?”€ Five pricey courses later, she led me to watch a cheesy 80s band performing songs by Styx and Flock of Seagulls. She insisted on matching me drink for drink, all the while making vicious fun of other patrons”€™ clothes and hairstyles. When I made a mildly romantic move, she looked indignant”€”and poked my smallish paunch. “€œIf you want to date, you”€™d better do something about that.”€ I shrugged, and answered: “€œYou might want to do something about those eyebags.”€ Things went downhill from there. In the end, she got so drunk that I insisted she couldn”€™t drive. Since I didn”€™t have a license, I found a payphone to call the city”€”which offered a service to keep sodden, unqualified drivers like us off the public roads. For $75 of my money, they”€™d send a cop to drive us home in her car. When I emerged from the biker bar with the pay phone, Catrin had driven off. I was stranded at 2 a.m. in downtown Syracuse. I call this my “€œGeorge Costanza moment.”€ After 7 hours on a bumpy Greyhound, I called Catrin’s number to see if she was still alive. No answer. It was 48 hours before she rang to let me know that she had indeed, plowed into a tree”€”but at a moderate speed. She”€™d called her baby-daddy, and now they were dating again. And of our date? She couldn”€™t remember a thing. Small mercies make all the difference.

I”€™m a little more than lucky now to be still alive, and in love. I aim to settle down soon and put down roots, in the snows of a seedy milltown”€”as soon as I can convince my lady beloved to move up here from Texas. In the meantime, I”€™ll see you at the airport. I”€™ll be the guy shoving two enormous dog-crates along the floor from baggage claim….


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