The thing is, I should be feeling good. Wouldn’t you, if you were lying under a hot sun on a beach in Saint Martin in the middle of January, with your friends back in New York freezing their asses off under two feet of snow? I mean, who wouldn’t feel great in a situation like that, you know what I’m saying?
Especially when you’re there on that beach with a beautiful woman. And I’m talking supermodel beautiful. Felice, with no exaggeration, makes J. Lo look like Rosie O’Donnell. I’m serious.
And smart? Smart doesn’t even half describe her. How about, brilliant? How about, professor of economics at Columbia, is that smart enough?
“Yeah?” you might say, if you wanted to be a dick about it. “I’ll bet sex with a brainiac isn’t that great.” Well, sorry to disappoint you, but it’s incredible. It’s beyond incredible, it’s astonishing. Transcendent! Those are her words, not mine.
So I should be feeling pretty damn good, right? Wrong.
Because ever since we got on the plane to come down here, she can’t stop talking about Andrew.
Andrew is Felice’s ex-boyfriend. He’s an economist from Harvard, and he just got appointed to some big presidential commission. It was in The New York Times the day we left.
“That smug, self-aggrandizing asshole,” she said, tossing the paper aside as we sat in the airport lounge. “He’s going to be even more impossible to live with now.”
“So?” I said. “Why should you care?”
“I shouldn’t and I don’t, because it’s not my concern, thank God!” She gave a little shudder and then looked in my eyes. “Josh,” she said, “will you promise me you’ll never regard yourself as superior to others?”
No problem with that one. I was about to speak when she put her finger on my lips and stopped me. “Don’t say anything, I shouldn’t have even asked. You don’t have an egotistical bone in your body. You could never be anything like that insufferable prick.”
She went back to her book, something by somebody named Milton Friedman. She didn’t seem to like it much, because she kept shaking her head, underlining things, and making soft sounds of disgust. I figured that was that, but of course, it wasn’t.
* * *
We met about a month-and-a-half ago at Mister Sandman’s, this place on Second Avenue where I tend bar. She came in one Tuesday night with two other women, semi-regulars whose names I forget, and she was instantly the best-looking woman there.
Her friends must have worked hard to convince her to join them, because she clearly was not having a good time. Guys were hitting on her left and right, and she was basically ignoring them. Finally, they’d give up and start talking to the other two. Maybe that was the plan all along.
Anyhow, there happened to be a basketball game on TV, and it was playing on the big screen behind the bar. St. John’s versus Connecticut. Most of the guys were watching it, since other than Felice, who’d just shot them down, there wasn’t much else to look at.
St. John’s was, surprisingly, sticking it to Connecticut. At one point, they pulled off a perfect pick and roll, ending in a spectacular slam. All the guys in the place went nuts.
Felice glanced up at me from the vodka and tonic she’d been nursing and said, “What just happened?”
“A textbook pick and roll,” I told her.
Maybe it was the word “textbook,” I don’t know, but she suddenly got interested. “What does that mean?” she said.
So I explained it to her.
“A pick and roll is the essence of teamwork in basketball. It’s usually a big guy and a little guy. The little guy has the ball, and the big guy insinuates himself between the ball handler and his defender. That’s called a ‘pick.’ As soon as the defender tries to get around him, the big guy pivots in the opposite direction and ‘rolls’ toward the basket. The little guy floats him a pass and it’s two points.”
As I said this, they were showing it again on the screen in slow motion. She watched with what I eventually came to know as her studious expression, an intensity so beautiful it takes your breath away, or at least, mine.
“Hmm,” she said as they replayed it from another angle, “why don’t they just do that every time?”
So I explained to her about the different defenses: the belly-up against the ball handler, so the big guy can’t get between, or the trap, or the double-switch. She seemed fascinated. “You know,” she said when I was finished, “that was the most succinct and cogent sports explanation I’ve ever heard.”
“I hope that was a compliment,” I said, and she laughed.
The next night, she came back without her friends. It was slow and the place was nearly empty, so I wasn’t busy. We got to talking, this led to that, and she wound up staying ’til closing time, after which, I took her home.
We saw a lot of each other for the next few weeks. Every night, I’d close up the place and then go to her apartment. It could be three a.m., but she always greeted me at the door with a big smile on her face, as she pulled me into the sack. Then it was incredible, astonishing, and transcendent ’til nearly sunrise.
On the afternoons she didn’t have to be at Columbia, I’d meet her at a museum, and she’d show me the Fauvists, or the Pointillists, or the Cubists. I couldn’t tell you one thing about it, but I loved every minute. Because I loved watching the way she loved it.
This sportswriter friend of mine gets me Knicks tickets now and then, good ones, courtside. I took her to a game one night and she was spellbound. She said it was like watching trees perform ballet. I drew her attention to a zone defense the Knicks were using in the second quarter. When they did it again in the fourth, she spotted it, tapped me on the arm, and said, “Two-three zone, right?” It melted my heart.
Back in high school, I used to play some b-ball myself. I was that aforementioned ball handler who floated the perfect pass to the big guy on the pick and roll. All of that ended during my senior year, when I fractured my ankle in three places after my friend Tommy O’Ryan persuaded me to go skiing with him. It effectively put the kibosh on any chances for an athletic scholarship, and since my grades weren’t nearly good enough on their own, it effectively kiboshed college as well.
It was fine with me. If I couldn’t play ball there, there was no reason to go to college aside from meeting chicks, and I could do that anyplace.
My parents were a lot more disappointed than I was, and they showed it. In fact, they showed it so much and so often, I had to get out of there.
For the next six years, I crisscrossed the country doing factory jobs, driving cabs, tending bar, waiting tables, whatever. When it got too boring in one place, I moved on to another one.
Finally, I wound up back in New York, where I ran into Tommy O’Ryan again. He’d gone on to Dartmouth in the meantime and then made a ton of money in the stock market. Maybe it was because he felt guilty for dragging me along on that ski trip, but he told me about this upscale bar he’d just bought on Second Avenue and asked me if I wanted to manage it, at a ridiculous salary. How could I refuse?
Two years later, Felice walked into the place and into my life. During the whole amazing month-and-a-half that followed, Andrew’s name came up only once, when we were telling each other about exes.
I’d had lots of them, of course, but nothing even close to serious. She’d gone with Andrew for two years, living with him for the second one, which she said was an “unmitigated disaster.”
“It’s all in the past, and I’m so glad it ended that it’s not worth talking about. It would be a waste of good time.” And that’s how it seemed to be.
Since it was intersession at Columbia, and Tommy owed me a vacation, Felice and I decided to go to Saint Martin. Then that moment came in the airport, when she read in the paper about his presidential appointment, and it all changed. It became virtually all Andrew, all the time.
“Academia is nothing but politics,” she told me as I watched the cumulus clouds drift by the window of the plane, “and it’s all a bunch of hooey. It doesn’t matter how much you achieve, just how good you are at selling it. Andrew always had a talent for self-promotion, so I guess it really shouldn’t surprise me.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said.
“And the thing is, he’s so sure of himself that even if his theories are flawed, people fall for them because he’s such a charmer. It’s infuriating. The country deserves better.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I repeated.
“Aah, what’s the use?”
She went back to reading her Milton Friedman for a minute, then looked up and said the same thing to me again, just in different words.
“Mmm-hmm,” I said yet another time.
In the hotel room, while we were unpacking, she flipped on the TV. Wouldn’t you know, it was CNN with a segment about the economy, and who were they interviewing? You got it.
He was a good-looking guy, I’ll give him that. Nice hair, even features, stylish tortoise-shell glasses, and a sort of half smile whenever he spoke. Felice stood in front of the TV and glared at his image. She rolled her eyes at some of his answers and yelled, “Wrong!” at others.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Hey, come on,” I said as I reached around her and turned it off. She continued to stare at the blank screen as if he were still there but hiding. I gently turned her toward me and held her. She clung to me.
“He’s just so hateful!” she said as I softly kissed her hair.
“It’s okay,” I murmured meaninglessly.
Later, we drove to Marigot on the French side of the island and had dinner at a place she’d read about called La Vie En Rose. It had a terrace overlooking the harbor. We sat at a table and sipped kir royales as we watched the boats bob up and down in the sunset.
“If this isn’t perfection,” she said, “they’ll have to redefine the term.”
A slanting ray of sunlight caught her face just then and, in that moment, she looked like an angel.
“If this isn’t perfection,” I echoed, “it’s doing a great impression of it.”
We studied the menus, which were in French and English. As I lowered mine and looked across at her, I saw that she had a faraway look in her eyes.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
She frowned and shook her head. “Oh, I was just remembering how, in every French restaurant we ever went to, Andrew would insist that we speak only in French. He even told jokes in French to the waiter. What a pretentious jerk he was.” She shook her head again. “And still is, I imagine.”
“And do you want to hear the height of pretension? He actually wrote a novel in French. There was no reason for it, just that he wanted to show off.”
“If he liked something on the menu, he’d tell the waiter, ‘Mes compliments au chef!’ in a voice loud enough to rattle the silverware. Then he’d casually mention that he’d studied for a year at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.”
“What an ass!”
During the course of dinner, I learned, among other things, that Andrew is fluent in ten languages, is one of the world’s leading experts on the 15th-century European Hanseatic League, and that he wrote a Noh drama in Japanese that was performed in Tokyo by the Shiki Theatre Company. It was told to me in almost withering disdain, accompanied by lots of eye rolling and shaking of the head.
Later that night in bed, I could’ve been imagining it, but it seemed like we were falling somewhat short of incredible, astonishing, and transcendent. Maybe it was that extra bottle of Pinot Noir, but I had my doubts. A whole big bunch of them.
* * *
And now here I am, sitting on a beach towel, watching her as she comes out of the ocean. Her heart-stopping body is glistening, her auburn hair soaking wet and pulled into a ponytail that sways back and forth, caressing her tan shoulders as she moves toward me, carrying her snorkel mask and fins. She plops herself down on the towel beside me and gives me a big, salty kiss.
“Oh, Josh,” she says, “you’ve got to come in with me later and see this. It’s like a magical kingdom down there.”
She looks away for a moment, and her eyes take on that hard, distant look. I can see what’s coming.
“You know…” she begins, but I interrupt her.
“Don’t tell me,” I say. “Andrew is an expert oceanographer. He’s got a degree in it that he doesn’t even use. He knows the meanings of more dolphin sounds than any other human on the planet. He’s discovered a mountain range at the bottom of the Pacific that’s named for him.”
She gasps like I’d just slapped her. “Why are you being this way?” she says.
“Why? Because he’s like a living presence around here, an uninvited guest. And since you can’t stop thinking about him and talking about him, we may as well make him guest of honor.” My eyes start misting up and it’s suddenly getting hard to speak. “It’s killing me to say this,” I blurt out, “but I think you still love him. Or at least the idea of him, but without the faults. Someone like Andrew, Felice. That’s who you really want.”
I look away, because if I looked at her for one more second, I’d start crying.
She reaches out and gently takes my face between her two cool hands. She turns me toward her, making me look into her eyes, which are burning.
“No, no, no, no,” she says. “You’re the one I want, Josh. You’re the only one. People like Andrew only study life; you’ve actually lived it. You’ve gone out and done things they only wish they could do, but don’t have the courage. You know more about people, real people, than they could ever read about, or even dream of.”
She kisses me softly. “I’m so, so sorry I put you through all that. I’ve been an idiot, talking to you like I’d talk to some colleague, being nasty and dissing some other colleague for getting more than he deserves. Believe me, Josh, that’s all he is to me, nothing more. I swear it.”
She kisses me again. “I should’ve known better. That’s the thing about academia, it’s so small-minded and petty. But you’re not, and I’m not going to be either. I promise you, Josh, from now on, I will never act like that again. Can you forgive me?”
Can I forgive her? Oh, man!
We kiss, long and intense. It’s like happiness has just blossomed inside me and filled every cell in my body. We sigh in unison and lie on our backs on the towel, holding hands while the sun bathes us in its glow.
I doze and have dreamy thoughts. Maybe I’ll go back to school. I can certainly get into a community college, and I feel like I’m ready for it now. I don’t know what I’d be interested in at this point, but there are so many courses that I’m sure I’ll find out, and she can help me. For the first time in my life, I’ll have a direction. Think of that!
I turn on my side and look at her. Her eyes are closed and her breathing is shallow and regular. She’s especially beautiful when she’s sleeping. I put my lips to her ear and whisper, “I love you.”
Her eyes stay closed. She smiles, as if coming out of a sweet dream. “I love you too, Andrew,” she murmurs.