The Casanova Of LaSalle Street

A new short story by Joseph Epstein

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"‘I’ve long suspected, until now without actual proof, that my father, like me, is a player . . ." (Illustration by Leslie Herman)

I am sitting here at the bar in the restaurant called Kiki, on Franklin in downtown Chicago, not far from the East Bank Club. I’m awaiting Cindy Olsen, a personal trainer who works out of the East Bank. She’s not my trainer, I don’t have one, but I have had my eye on Cindy for several months now, and last week, after an earlier meeting in the club over coffee, I asked her out to lunch. My sense is that women are much more likely to accept a lunch over a dinner invitation. Lunch suggests a briefer meeting, fewer strings attached, no trips to apartments afterward, “the victim ate a hearty meal” and all that. I hope to wind up in bed with Cindy, who is a knockout, Scandinavian division: blonde, deeply blue eyes, in her late twenties, maybe early thirties, the body you would expect of a woman who exercises all day long.

I’m thirty-eight, a personal injury lawyer, a partner at Dubinsky, Kotler, and Levy at 101 North LaSalle Street, and have been married for twelve years, having cheated on Carol, my wife, for roughly the last nine of them. I’m fairly sure Carol has to know about my extracurricular activities, though she has never said anything about them. Perhaps because she hates a confrontation, which she does, perhaps because she is afraid to be out on her own if she forced a divorce, she lets it ride, doesn’t say a word. We have a son (Zack) and a daughter (Melissa), both in middle-school. How do I justify cheating on my wife? Truth is, I don’t. But I have no desire to be separated from her either. She and my kids need me, and having a family gives ballast to my life.

I sometimes think that being married also adds to such allure as I might have, at least with certain women. Having a family makes me safe. I’ve never once suggested to any of my lady friends that I planned to leave my wife for them, and none has ever suggested I do so. They all seem to have understood that another marriage is not what I’m looking for, and it turns out that neither were they. We are all after something else.

I don’t pursue married women. The few times I’ve done so I’ve found the complications outweigh the pleasure. For one thing, I have no interest in breaking up homes. For another, married women ready for love affairs usually have too long stories, and I have no taste for hearing elaborate bills of complaint about negligent husbands. Nor do I want to be chased down by these same husbands looking to punch me out.

Neither am I one of those guys I think of as actuarial seducers, playing the long odds, hitting on every woman they meet, figuring they’re eventually bound to get lucky. The humiliation factor seems not to trouble them. The line of reasoning here seems to be that the first ninety-nine women may kick you in a tender place, but the hundredth will make it all well. Herb Margolis, a lawyer in our firm a couple of years older than I, operates on this assumption, or so I’ve noticed. He tries them all: waitresses, secretaries, female cops. He also doesn’t mind telling women anything that will get them in the sack. Herb is maybe sixty pounds overweight, untidy to the point of scruffiness, sweats a lot. That he actually finds women who will take him up on his propositions does not speak well for womanhood. A year or so ago he told me that he arrived home to discover one of his recent lady friends, a paralegal in the Friedman & Levine firm, in his living room in Lincolnwood. “Come on in, Herbie,” his wife Ruth said. “Kimberley here tells me that you are planning to leave me to marry her. Is there anything to it?” I asked him what he did. “What the hell could I do?” he said. “I got the girl out of the house as quickly as possible, and promised Ruthie I’d go back into therapy.”

Philandering is expensive, and while I make a decent living — it fluctuates, but averages somewhere around three hundred grand a year — I can’t afford to court my extra-mural lady friends in the grand style: no Bulgari watches, apartments on the Gold Coast, open credit cards. No romance without finance, I’ve heard men much older than I say. But I’m not ready to consider myself a variant of a sugar daddy, someone women make love with because of his money. I have too much vanity for that kind of arrangement.

I notice the term “sex addiction” is getting a pretty good workout these days. I’ve never counted, but I suppose I must have slept with maybe a hundred and fifty, a hundred and seventy or so women over the years; that is, from my earlier bachelor days and now since my marriage. With luck, I hope to sleep with maybe thirty or forty more before I hang it up. Does this make me a sex addict, or instead, as I prefer to think of myself, merely someone who likes women? I do like them, I like talking with them, I like all the steps in the elaborate dance of seduction, I like to make them like me, I like the deep intimacy with them that only sex makes possible. If things don’t work out, I don’t take it personally. I move on.

Unlike the Herb Margolises of this world, I have to be really attracted to a woman. The reasons for the attraction aren’t always obvious. I need to see a mystery in her that I want revealed, if only to myself. Shyness in a woman can sometimes do it for me, but then so, sometimes, can an apparent hardness. The central thing for me in a love affair is the revelation it brings with it. I’ve never looked on seduction as any sort of triumph. Conquest is not what’s in it for me. When I pursue a woman, I leave my ego at the door. Strange though it may seem to say this, in some sense it isn’t really about me. To win over the confidence in a woman to the point where the outer shell she shows to the world slips off is for me the pleasure and the thrill of the game. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the sex, I do, a lot, only that sex isn’t the only, or even the main thing, at least not for me it isn’t.

Take Cindy Olsen. Never married, I learned from my earlier coffee meeting with her. Brought up in the western suburbs, went to La Grange High School, did two years at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Her father died when she was fourteen. He worked for Allstate Insurance Company. She has very few pretensions, cultural or otherwise. Not all that much humour, either, at least not that I can thus far make out. Yet I sense something beneath this blandness; a grand passion, maybe. I could be wrong. I hope fairly soon to find out.

What, you might around now be wondering, would Cindy Olsen see in me? I’m not a lavish spender. I’m not impressively good looking or well set-up physically. But then women are better, more tolerant about physical deficiencies than are men, who tend to be interested only in the obvious: face, boobs, bottom, legs, over and out. I like to think my general agreeableness first attracted Ms Olsen, at least enough to accept my invitation to coffee at the East Bank, and now to this lunch at Kiki. Maybe she thinks I’m someone she can talk to, complain to about her clients, or the various jokers who must regularly hit on her in the club. My greatest weapon is the art of patient listening. I can usually tell after half an hour or so with a woman whether I have a chance. With Cindy Olsen, the vibes have been good. We’ll see.

Here she is now. The man holding open the door for her is — Jesus! — the man is my father. With him is a striking redhead, deeply tanned, obviously high maintenance, and distinctly not my mother. I don’t wave, for Cindy sees me and begins walking over to the bar. My father, though he obviously also sees me, shows no sign of recognising me. I stand up to greet Cindy. My father and his red-headed friend are given a table toward the back of the room. We order drinks: a vodka and tonic for me, a margarita for her. Before the drinks arrive, I excuse myself to use the men’s room. I need a moment to think.

Standing at one of the urinals, I hear the door to the men’s room open, and my father, without looking at me, takes his place at the adjoining urinal.

“You know, kiddo,” he says, staring straight into the wall, “this is damn awkward. I think one of us ought to leave, and I’m going to claim seniority here and ask you to be the one to do so. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not,” I say. “I understand completely.”

“Thanks,” he says. “Much appreciated.”

I zip up and walk out. We, my father and I, never make eye contact.

I’ve long suspected, until now without actual proof, that my father, like me, is a player. He kept odd hours, even when I was a kid, and I gather does so still. Women were always drawn to him. He’s tall, with dark good looks. (I more closely resemble my mother.) At sixty-two his hair is still without a touch of grey, and he seems to have lost none of it. He’d been a high-school athlete — football and basketball at Roosevelt in Albany Park — and he moves with a jock’s easy grace. Clothes looked good on him. He’s kept himself well groomed, always closely shaven, shoes shined.

He was in Vietnam, my Dad, though he rarely talks about it. He sells cars, Nissans, at a dealership in Schaumburg. He does reasonably well, though my sense is that his heart has never been in it. His marriage hasn’t been an easy one. My mother can be a tough customer. She’s one of those maniacs of common sense, her version of common sense that is, which means that one does things her way or it’s the highway. My mother can’t imagine how anyone of any intelligence can think other than the way she does. “What do you want to do that for?” I remember her saying to me as a kid whenever I suggested doing anything with which she didn’t agree. “Are you crazy?” was another of her favorite expressions. She hauled it out when I told I was planning to marry Carol. I could escape her, and when I married finally did, but his marriage can’t have been a smooth ride for my father, who, for reasons unknown to me, has chosen to stick it out with her.

I’ve never felt especially close to either my mother or my father, even though I was their only child. They married young; my father was twenty-four when I was born. Why they married, why they bothered to have a child, was never quite clear to me. They must once have loved each other, and the love soon died out, maybe under the tyranny of my mother’s common sense. The three of us went through the paces of being a family: had family dinners with cousins, celebrated Jewish holidays, even went on a few not especially joyful vacations together. True good feeling, though, was never there, or if it was I never felt it. As I grew older I began to feel sorry for both of them.

When I return to the bar, I tell Cindy that, while waiting for her, I’d looked over the lunch menu and couldn’t find anything that really interested me. I am in the mood for a steak. Would she mind, after we finished our drinks, if we left Kiki and went on to Gene & Georgetti’s, four blocks south on Franklin Street? She looks at me questioningly, but doesn’t argue.

The lunch at Gene & Georgetti’s goes well. We talk — or rather I encourage Cindy to talk — about what turns out to be her thwarted ambitions. She had wanted to be a nurse, but couldn’t get by the killer course called organic chemistry. She had briefly been engaged to a man, twenty-three years older than she, who, she discovered, was a serious depressive. She has a dog, a Yorkie-Poo named Edwin. She lives alone, in an apartment in Andersonville. She loves to cook. She wonders if I would be interested in coming over one night for dinner.

“I would like that a lot,” I say. We decide the following Wednesday would be good. I put her in a cab back to the East Bank Club, feeling that in laying the groundwork here I have accomplished a good day’s work.

Jules Feingold, for whose law firm I signed on as an associate right out of law school, a man of wide experience with a taste for philosophising about human nature, once told me that in his time he knew quite a few skirt-chasing men. “Funny thing,” he said, “none seemed ever to regret it.” Jules himself, married to a woman still beautiful well into her late sixties, was, far as I could tell, not himself a player. Was he right about the absence of regret on the part of men devoted to the chase?

So far it is true for me. Has it, I wonder, been so for my father? I don’t of course know the extent of my father’s philandering. Whatever its extent, it doesn’t appear to have has brought him much happiness. Certainly he doesn’t carry himself as a happy man. He fought in a war nobody appreciated, he married an unobliging woman, he works at a job that gives him a living but little pleasure. I hope his love affairs enliven his days.

Mine do. Everyone needs something that does. My love affairs are for me what litigating was for Jules Feingold, who came most alive in the courtroom. My wife seems most alive in her role as mother, driving our kids around to their various tennis, ballet, and piano lessons, exulting in their achievements in school. My mother is most alive expressing disapproval.

What we don’t know about even the people supposedly closest to us! That I knew absolutely nothing about the side of my father who is the charmer, the lady-killer, the seducer, is just one example of what I mean. And while I’m at it I have to wonder if my father’s playing around turned my mother into the chronic complainer she is or did her complaining turn him into a player. I’m unlikely ever to know.

“Can you talk?” my father says over the phone.

“Yes, sure,” I say. “Carol’s out. What’s up?”

“I wanted to thank you for accomodating me earlier today at Kiki. It made things a lot more comfortable.”

“For me, too,” I say.

“The thought of the two of us in one room with women not our wives didn’t seem such a hot idea.”

“No argument,” I said.

“A beautiful young woman you were with, by the way.”

“Her name’s Cindy Olsen. She’s a personal trainer at the East Bank.”

“You seeing her regularly?”

“Not really. This is the first time I took her to lunch.” I thought about asking him about the redhead he brought in to Kiki, but decided that might be pushing it.

“Well,” my father says, “I mainly called to say thanks. Take care, kid.”

“Take care,” I say, and we hang up.

Wednesday night I arrive a bit before six at Cindy’s apartment on Rascher off Ashland Avenue. (I told Carol I had an appointment with a client in Valparaiso, a guy with lung problems suing a construction company that used asbestos in its buildings, and that I might be home late.) I have an expensive bottle of Merlot in hand as I ring Cindy’s bell. Her apartment is small and doesn’t get very good light. The night is warm, and she is in shorts and a tank top, over which she is wearing an apron with dogs on it. From the front, it looks as if she has no other clothes on but the apron. Very sexy. Her own dog, Edwin, is asleep on the carpet, and doesn’t move when I enter the living room.

“Not the greatest of watchdogs, my Edwin,” she says, with a smile.

She says she hopes I like French food. She’s cooking a cassoulet for dinner, made from a Julia Child recipe, very complicated. She’s not done it before, and hopes it will turn out.

“I’m betting it will be great,” I say.

She says she has a bottle of white wine, a Riesling, open, and asks if I’d like a glass. I sit on a red velour-covered couch in front of the windows and look down at the sleeping Edwin. Dejected people say that it’s a dog’s life, but his looks pretty good to me. Cindy returns from the kitchen, hands me a glass of the Riesling, and sits in an armchair facing the couch.

“I’m glad you could come,” she says.

“My pleasure. I like the smells coming from the kitchen. Very promising.”

“Is your wife a good cook?” she asks. A trick question, or so at least I sense it to be, a way of feeling me out about my feelings toward my wife. “A good but not an ambitious cook,” I say, “everything wholesome and tasty, but nothing fancy. She has to feed two kids and a moderately gluttonous husband.”

“Does she know you’re here tonight?”

 “I told her I was with a client in Indiana,” I say.

“Would she be angry if she knew where you really were?”

“If she knew how good-looking you are, I don’t see how she couldn’t be.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” she says.

“I was hoping so,” I say. “This Riesling is excellent, by the way.”

I ask her how long she’s lived in Andersonville. Does she know that the neighborhood is also called Mandersonville, because so many older, now settled-in gay couples live here? Mandersonville as opposed to Boys Town, around Belmont and Broadway, where younger gays had clubs and baths and leather shops, and the rest of it.

“The neighbourhood feels wonderfully safe,” she says. “I can walk Edwin as late as midnight and not have to look over my shoulder.”

The cassoulet is good. I sop mine up with a sourdough bread Cindy bought from the Swedish Bakery on Clark. During dinner I tell her I admire her being able to live alone, that I think her brave, being on her own, and that not everyone could do it.

“My therapist thinks my being alone so much is pure avoidance mechanism on my part,” she says, “and therefore unhealthy.”

“Been in therapy long?”

“Nearly seven years,” she says. “Have you ever been, in therapy, that is?”

“Not thus far, though a few of my angrier clients have suggested I could use it.”

“My therapist tells me that I have a fixation on my father, who died at a crucial time in my life, when I was just fourteen.”

“What’s his evidence?”

“Hers, not his. My therapist’s name is Brenda Spivak. She claims I have a thing for older men?”

“Really?” I say. “I wonder if I qualify.”

“Very funny,” she says, “but by older she means twenty and thirty years older. I’m afraid I’ve got entangled with a few such men, each time with unhappy endings. She’s also suspicious of my having no desire to marry.”

“Marriage isn’t a good fit for everyone,” I say.

“I grew up with parents who didn’t have a very good marriage. They didn’t yell at each other, or argue much. But there wasn’t much feeling there. You didn’t have to be a genius to tell there wasn’t much love lost. My sister Jeaneane, she’s four years older than me, she lives in L. A., works as a masseuse there, is also unmarried. Our parents made the whole proposition of marriage pretty unattractive.”

We both had parents with unhappy marriages in common, I think, but decide not to bring it up.

“I don’t want children,” she says. “I hate the thought of being completely dependent on a man. Solitude doesn’t bother me. I’m fine the way I am. I don’t really have anything against marriage, it’s just not for me.”

After we finish the cassoulet and the bottle of Merlot, she brings out coffee and sorbet. I am less than certain where this was going, but still hopeful.

“May I help with the dishes?” I say, after we finish.

“No need. I’ll get them after you leave.”

I take that to mean I won’t be staying.

“A great dinner,” I say.

“Thanks,” she said, “but I ought to think about getting to bed. It’s been a long day, and I have a client, an overweight cardiologist named Rosenbloom, scheduled for a 6.30 a.m. appointment.”

We get up from the table. She walks me to the door, leans in, and lightly kisses me on the mouth.

“It’s been sweet,” she says. “Thanks for the wine. See you at the club.”

“I enjoyed it a lot,” I say, playing at being the good sport.    

No point in pushing it, I tell myself, walking to my car. Give it time. The next day I send a dozen yellow roses to her Rascher Street apartment with a note: “Thanks for a lovely evening. Hope we can do it again soon. Next time on me.”

I stay away from the East Bank Club the whole of the following week. My plan is to give her room to breathe, not to feel in any way pressured, time to let her think about linking up with me.

“How go things?” I say, when the following week I see her in the workout room.

“You’ve been away,” she says.

“I was out of town,” I lie.

“Some place pleasing, I hope.”

“Boston, trying a case. Are you up for dinner sometime this week?”

“I don’t think so,” she says.

“The following week maybe?”

“Think I’ll pass.”

“Anything wrong?”

“No, nothing,” she says. “I just think things between us aren’t going to work out. No hard feelings, I hope.”

“Of course not,” I say. “Everything’s cool here. Good to see you.”

“I’m glad,” she says, and, touching my elbow, walks off.

Were the roses a mistake? Make me look too earnest, too insistent? How did I misjudge Cindy Olsen? She invited me to her apartment for dinner, after all. Should I have pressed my case more firmly that evening in her apartment? Some women prefer a stronger lead than others; some don’t in the least mind sexual aggression. Maybe I shouldn’t have stayed away from the club for a full week. I did something wrong, but what, exactly?

Over the next few weeks, I thought a good deal about how I blew it with Cindy Olsen. My judgment in these matters, while far from perfect, is usually fairly good. This time I went off the tracks, but how, and at what point precisely? Normally I don’t like to dwell on these things. I do, though, like to get them right, to learn from experience. Who knows maybe someday I’ll write my memoirs. The Casanova of LaSalle Street is the title I have in mind.

I have a new client, a young woman, an assistant professor at Northwestern who is suing the anthropology department there for not giving her tenure. She been giving me proceed-with-caution signals since our first interview. I’m hesitant. She’s a bit nuttier than I like. Far from concealing some deeper inner personality, everything about her is too much out in the open. Still, if I can arrange it, I like to have something going, at least something simmering on the back burner, at all times.

It’s five weeks or so after Cindy Olsen put the kibosh on what I hoped would be our pleasing relationship, and I am sitting in Gibson’s on Rush Street with a client, a man named Ernie Ross, who wants to sue for negligence the nursing home where he stowed his ninety-two-year old mother. She fell, fractured her pelvis, and died a week later. He wants me to sue for $10 million. Where he got that number, I don’t know. I tell him to think more in the neighborhood of $25,000, if we can get that, and to think hard about it while I excuse myself to use the men’s room.

As I’m heading towards the men’s, I spot the crowded bar twenty or so yards away, and who is standing there, margarita in hand, but Cindy Olsen. In the men’s I decide to go up to her, just to say hello, to show her that I’m a man who holds no hard feelings of any sort. On my way towards the bar, I note her standing there still, when the man standing next to her turns around, and goddamn if he isn’t my father.

You may be way ahead of me here, but let me nevertheless try to connect the dots, if only for myself. When my father first saw me with Cindy in Kiki, he must have been attracted to her; she is, after all, a beautiful woman. Over the phone that same night, he asked me who she was and if I’d been seeing her for long. I gave him both her name and told him she worked at the East Bank. He must have called her, using what line to get her to see him, I don’t know, but it must have been very impressive. At her apartment, Cindy mentioned her problem of being attracted to much older men, and there aren’t many older men more attractive than my father. Had he called her and met with her before I had dinner at Cindy’s? Can’t know for certain, but I suspect so. I, standing there with my $85 bottle of Merlot in hand at her door, was probably already out of the picture. What a schmuck!

I suppose I should be angry, feel betrayed, and by my own father, of all men. Somehow, though, I can’t work up much anger nor feel betrayed. If anything, I rather admire my father’s prowess. A subtle joke is buried somewhere in all this, but I haven’t quite got it.

I return to my table and Mr Ross, my client.

“I’ve been thinking over what you said,” he tells me, “and maybe you’re right. Let’s ask for $5 million, and see where things go from there.”