A new Chicago short story by Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

I have long been impressed by the aphorism — or is it a paradox? — that runs: “Married, single — neither is a solution.” A solution, of course, assumes a problem, and I’m not sure just what the problem here is. Is the problem finding companionship of a kind only the deep intimacy of a good marriage can, but so seldom does, provide? Or is the problem instead one of marriage being the only sensible institution under which to raise children and thereby give one a stake in the future, though here one has to note how often the family, as Freud thought, is the seedbed of neurosis for these children? Single, that perhaps utopian companionship remains unavailable; single, without children, one lives life exclusively in and for oneself, which can seem a not merely insignificant but trivial way to spend one’s brief span on earth. So there it is: married, single, like the man says, neither is a solution.

As a bachelor of fifty-three, I not long ago read a reference to a study by two sociologists from Wayne State University that I am in the group that includes the least marriagable of men: bachelors over fifty who have never married. Our group is thought to be too critical, too flaw-finding, too wary, altogether too difficult to become not so much successful but merely husbands at all. A lot to it, I’m afraid.

I sometimes wonder if there isn’t something called nature’s bachelors — men meant by their nature never to marry. These are guys who probably wouldn’t be much good as husbands or as fathers. I’m not talking about celibates here, or men with a vocation for the priesthood, but otherwise normal heterosexual men who by temperament have no vocation for marriage. One doesn’t have to be misogynist or gynophobic to be one of nature’s true bachelors. Many such bachelors love women. They find the conversation of women agreeable, their points of view interesting. If the complications aren’t too great, they don’t in the least mind sleeping with them. They just don’t want to take permanent responsibility for them. I know what I’m talking about here. I believe I’m one of them. 

I’ve been to a great number of weddings of contemporaries with whom I went to school in Chicago and who were absolutely nutty with happiness at the prospect of marriage that lay before them, only to see — in five, ten, sometimes as long as twenty or more years — the marriages end in acrimony, financial punishment, sullen divorce. A week or so ago I ran into a woman with whom I went to high school, Anne Goldin, now Levy, who, when I asked about her children, told me about her twenty-six-year-old daughter Leslie whose wedding plans got as far as sending out invitations, when things broke down completely at the pre-nup negotiations, and the wedding was called off. At the pre-nup, that supposed clarification of rights and privileges, Leslie and her fiancé apparently each revealed to the other such impressive selfishness that both backed out of the wedding, much relieved.
I hope I’ve not grown so cynical about marriage as to enjoy the failure of the marriages of friends. Trust me, I really don’t enjoy these failures. But I do have to confess feeling, and of course supressing, an air of “I could have told you so.” Somebody, I can’t just now remember who, called marriage, or maybe it was re-marriage, which so many of my divorced friends also have entered into, “the triumph of hope over experience.” Maybe my problem is that the experience of so many other people’s failed marriages has left too strong an impress on me to allow any room at all for hope on my part to begin with.

In exchange for the potential intimacy of marital companionship and the mixed pleasure of having children — the mix being that between pride and worry — bachelorhood offers freedom. I’m not sure whether I’ve taken anything like full advantage of my own freedom. I’ve not lived a year in Italy, nor visited either the north or south poles, but then I was never interested in either leisurely or exotic travel. I’ve been able to sample a fairly wide variety of woman over the years; I’ve never counted but I suspect I’ve slept with something like sixty or so woman. I’ve had a few of what I suppose would pass as relationships, though I’ve not lived with any of these women, nor ever really wanted to. But the real prize of bachelorhood is in the everyday freedoms: eating what and when I want; watching on television on Sunday two pro football games back-to-back and if the mood strikes me a third one in the evening; never having to compromise my own little pleasures because they conflict with another person’s desires. I feel like going to a movie, or walking the few blocks from my apartment to watch a night baseball game at Wrigley Field, I go, responsible only to myself, no questions asked. In the realm of freedom, all this might seem minor, trivial even, but I assure you it is not.

Having said all that, I now have to report that over the last three months I have been seeing — a neutral enough word, “seeing,” no? — a woman in whose company I have found considerable pleasure. Her name is Laura Ross. Like me, she’s an attorney; she does wills and estate planning for Austin Sidley, which is what I do for my own firm, Winston, Klein, Gates. She’s thirty-five, never married, no interest, she tells me, in having children, at least for now, when she wants to concentrate on her career. “As for my so-called biological clock,” she remarked not long after we began keeping company and the subject of children arose, “I neglected to set the alarm.” Laura is, as I hope that one remark reveals, witty. And good-looking — strikingly so: slender, tall, dark hair, uses make-up subtly, dresses well. When I asked her how she, an obviously attractive woman, had evaded marriage thus far, she answered, without hesitation: “Haven’t found anyone sufficiently worthy.” I’ve since reviewed the remark several times, and don’t believe it contained a scintilla of irony. She didn’t ask the same question of me, who am eighteen years older than she. Had she done so, I might have answered, “I haven’t yet discovered any serious need for a woman permanently in my life.”

We slept together the fourth time we went out. We had had an early dinner at The Phoenix in Chinatown after which we went to the Joffrey Ballet. We both enjoy ballet. I told her that my mind wanders at classical music concerts, and the darkness of most modern plays leaves me depressed. Finding movies that aren’t made for adolescent boys is becoming more and more difficult. Ballet presents the prospect, usually fulfilled, of lovely music and elegant movement. Laura took ballet as a kid and loved it, but felt that she was too independent-minded to put her body, like so much clay, at the service of choreographer-sculptors.
After the ballet, I asked Laura if she cared for a drink, but since the next day was a workday, she suggested instead we have a nightcap at her apartment. She lives on Marine Drive, in a two-bedroom apartment, furnished in a modern minimalist manner.  (I live four blocks away, at 3750 Lake Shore Drive.) White couches and leather chairs were set among black tables, with few tschotchkes upon them. Only black-and-white photographs were on the walls, and I recognized a few Atgets and Cartier-Bressons among them. The 36th-floor apartment’s large front windows gave a swell view of the golf course and Lake Michigan beyond that. Her bedroom, too, was done in black and white, a white coverlet with black throw pillows, black dresser, more black and white photographs on the walls. I thought of the Cole Porter song, “That Black and White Baby of Mine,” but couldn’t recall any of the words.

I’ll spare you a blow-blow account of our first sex, except to say that it was disappointing, and the disappointment was owed wholly to me. Although I found myself aroused by this lovely woman, I had a difficult time transmitting that arousal to the proper station. When it finally arrived, it departed all too soon. In bed I began to apologise, but she put a well-manicured hand over my mouth, ran her other hand over the back of my head, and said, “Not to worry. It’ll be better next time. You’ll see.” And it was, and every time thereafter. Laura has given me no reason to complain, none whatsoever, in the boudoir department.

Driving back to my apartment after that first night in bed together, I questioned myself about what had gone wrong. What I eventually concluded is that, thoroughly excited at the prospect of sex with her as I was, I also, somewhere in my subconscious, sensed that there was danger here, cheri. Not the danger of scandal, or of pregnancy, or of anything of the sort. No, the more serious danger of my outraging the boys who did their study at Wayne State and falling in love with and wanting to marry Laura Ross. The male member, it is often said, has no conscience, which may be true enough, but I’ve found mine has a pretty good alarm system. In this instance it turned out to be infallible.

I know there is much talk these days of the disadvantaged, but is there such a word as “advantaged?” If so, Laura was more advantaged than I. She went, for one thing, to better-regarded schools: first to Wellesley, then Harvard Law, next to my rather drab University of Illinois, then DePaul Law School. My father was in the scrap-iron business, my mother didn’t work; her father was a surgeon, her mother a successful interior decorator on the North Shore. I grew up in West Rogers Park, in an Eastern European Jewish milieu. The Rosses were members of the heavily German-Jewish Lake Shore Country Club, about which my friend Allen Katz once remarked that the only Jewish event ever celebrated at that club was Kristallnacht. Laura later told me that her mother was Eastern European, or Ostjuden, her father German-Jewish, or a Yekke. “I’m the product of a mixed-marriage, you see,” she said. My income was considerably greater than Laura’s, but she was good at what she did and this figured to even out before too long. Not that any of these differences and distinctions were much discussed between the two of us, but I couldn’t help noting them.
What did we talk about, Laura and I? Mel Newman, a fellow at my firm, a bachelor like me and a man devoted to the skirt chase, showed up one Christmas at an office party with a (for him) rather unattractive woman. I didn’t ask him what was going on, though someone else did, and he reported to me that Mel said the sex with this woman wasn’t much but the conversation afterwards was terrific. With Laura both the sex and the conversation afterwards (and before and at every other time but during) were damn fine. We not only had our work in common as a subject, but she was that rare woman who not only appreciated but told jokes — and told them well, with appropriate accents when required. She had a brother who played freshman football at Yale, and so she knew about and could talk sports. She was knowledgeable, bright, witty. The flow of our talk was always interesting. We could also manage stretches of silence when together, which I took to be a sign of a deeper rapport. Laura Ross, I came to conclude, possessed a man’s mind in a woman’s body, not a combination one came upon everyday.

Laura also passed the travel test. Toward the end of the first year we were keeping company we went off for a two-week holiday in England. The male fantasy for travel, if I am any measure, is to leave O’Hare Airport with nothing but the clothes you are wearing, your airline tickets in your jacket pocket, and an American Express Card in your wallet. Travelling light is the name of the fantasy, and it is of course never fulfilled. The female travel fantasy, I have always assumed, is four steamer trunks that would include everything but two sets of dishes.  On picking up Laura in a cab on our way to O’Hare, I was surprised — and much impressed — to see that she had brought along only a single suitcase, and this rather smaller than mine. What was more, throughout the two weeks of our trip she never looked less than her elegant self. Laura Ross, no doubt about it, was an extraordinary woman.

In London, we stayed at a hotel Laura knew called Durrant’s in Marylebone. Just right, too, comfort and convenience without glitz or staggering expense. On our third day we drove up to Oxford, to meet for lunch with a former teacher of Laura’s at Wellesley who had married an Oxford classics don. She and Laura had stayed in touch over the years. The woman — Arlene Davidowitz is her name — was warmly welcoming. When Laura had left the room, she told me that Laura was one of her most memorable students, and even now couldn’t help regretting that she hadn’t done a PhD in French, her major at Wellesley. “She was a natural,” Professor Davidowitz said. “Her accent was flawless. She had no trouble with the most complex texts. Ah, me, to wring a change on George Bernard Shaw about teachers, ‘Those who can, won’t.’”

We next drove to the Cotswolds, then up to Harrogate, where Laura had a friend, Annette Satersfield, a physician who specialised in thoracic medicine. They had met on a Swan’s cruise to the Greek Islands taken four years before. Annette Sattersfield must have been 6’2″ or more, with a charming English accent. She was ten or so years older than Laura, and had never married. The Wellesley teacher, the Harrogate physician, Laura was obviously someone who kept up with friendships, and was herself liked by serious people. Winning traits, these, or so I felt.
During our two weeks in England, the closest we had come to living together, I found nothing dreary or unpleasant in Laura. Nor was there anything in the least vulgar about her, at least nothing I could see, and I looked pretty hard. Until now I had never met a woman in whom I couldn’t find a flaw, a disqualifying flaw, insofar as my even thinking about marrying her was concerned. I didn’t keep a checklist, but if I had Ms Laura Ross would have checked out perfectly: high intelligence, sense of humour, sexually pleasing, ambitious, loyal, kind, naturally refined. What, I wondered, was I overlooking? Where was the missing flaw?

As the plane landed with a gentle bump at O’Hare—using miles from our law firm, one of my perks as a senior partner, we flew first-class — I felt a strange but pleasing contentment. Apart from the occasional weekend in Vegas, I had never travelled at such length with a woman before, and this trip with Laura was in no way disappointing. We disagreed about nothing, I never felt myself pushed in a way I didn’t want to go, everything, in short, was copacetic. As I dropped Laura off at her Marine Drive apartment, I thought I should have done something to advance our relationship further. Suggest we try living together, perhaps. But, maybe out of jet lag, I didn’t.

We fell back into our old rhythm. Laura and I saw each other usually three, sometimes four nights a week, Saturdays always among them. We also spent most Sundays together. Laura seemed to have no objection to this arrangement; if she did, she kept it to herself. I went on pretty much with my old life, except now I had the refreshment of the company of this elegant, smart young woman. Why push it?

One Wednesday, on LaSalle Street, I ran into Laura in the company of a young man, whom she introduced me to as Ted Monroe, a new associate at Sidley Austin. He looked to be roughly her age. He was well set-up physically, blond, with a strong smile. They were on their way to Title & Trust to check on a lien on a property owned by one of Laura’s clients. The day was windy; there was a chill in the air. We soon separated.

Later that evening — Laura was working late, and so we didn’t meet for dinner — watching a Bulls game, my mind turned to Ted Monroe. I went over our brief meeting on LaSalle Street. His good-looks, I discovered, offended me. Were Laura and he merely cordial, or more than that? And what if they were? Laura and I had never set any rules about seeing other people. If she wanted to see someone else, why not, that was her right? The same freedom applied to me, or so I assumed. Except now I was keeping company with her I had no wish to see anyone else.

I began to imagine Laura and this guy Monroe as lovers. Nor did it help that I had a vivid picture of Laura’s black-and-white bedroom, which gave too full and faithful a context for my fantasies. I preferred to think myself above such low emotions, but I was, no question about it, jealous. I recall reading somewhere that the distinction between envy and jealousy is that you are envious of what other people have and jealous about things you have. But I didn’t, in any serious sense, “have” Laura. We weren’t married, engaged, even in the loosest sense commited to each other.  Did I even have a right to my jealousy? Right or not, jealousy was what I was feeling, and it wasn’t pleasant, goddamnit. 
We met for dinner the following night, at Gibson’s, the steak joint on Rush Street. Two guys who play for the Chicago Blackhawks were at the next table with rather bimboesque women, possibly their wives. A few people came up to their table to ask for autographs.

“You seem a touch on edge,” Laura said. “Anything wrong?”

“Not really,” I said.


“I’ve been thinking about Ted Monroe, the fellow you introduced to me on LaSalle day before yesterday.” A mistake, I decided, but it was out.

“What about him?”

“Nice-looking guy.”

“I suppose he is,” Laura said. “A good Catholic. Married with three kids. Nothing for you to worry about.”

With her good instincts, she instantly spotted my jealousy. I decided to change the subject.

“These Blackhawks, like the Jews in the joke, sure know how to live,” I said nodding over toward the two couples at the next table. Laura didn’t know the joke — it was about a Jewish gent who wished to be buried seated at the wheel of his Cadillac — so I told it to her. She laughed, and the fat, or so I hoped, was out of the fire.

At home, I reviewed my relationship with Laura. Time to face it, I thought, I am unlikely to find a more impressive or more pleasing woman than Ms Ross. She was intelligent, beautiful, good-natured, good-humoured. She was even an excellent cook. If I hadn’t been able to find the killing flaw in her, even if she had such a flaw, how bad could it be? She didn’t like ironing? Paid her bills late? Was frightened of dentistry? Nothing, surely, seriously disqualifying.

Time to face it: if I was to marry, was a better candidate than Laura ever likely to turn up? As for my much-prized bachelorhood, I found I was ready to give it up. Laura, with her own work and life, was not likely to stand in the way of my small freedoms. Enough already. I would be fifty-four next month. Bring it on. Marriage, house in the suburbs, dog, children if need be, the whole gesheft.

The question of when and how to propose was next on the agenda. I thought of suggesting we take off for a longish weekend lark to Paris, where I could listen to what her old teacher described as her perfectly accented French, and pop the question there in my own halting and probably incorrect French: “M’épouserez-vous?” Another thought I had was to propose in a stilted legal brief: “Party of the first party . . .  party of the second part . . . ”

Then I thought, the hell with all that. The next day I dropped in at Tiffany’s on Michigan Avenue and chose an engagement ring, guessing at the ring-size of Laura’s long, slender fingers. The salesperson, a woman I took to be roughly my age, complimented me in my choice for my simple good taste. Simple good taste apparently doesn’t come inexpensively, for the ring cost eighteen grand and change. (With neither a wife nor children to worry about, money hasn’t been a problem for me.) My plan was to set the ring on the table at our next dinner, and ask Laura, in English and straightaway, if she would marry me.
We had dinner that night at Le Noumade on Ontario Street, a quiet place, good food, whose owner imposed a strict rule against table-hopping. I waited through the meal, which seemed unconscionably long. We both, as usual, passed on dessert, and after our coffee was brought and the waiter departed, I reached into my jacket pocket, took out and set the plush Tiffany ring box on the table, pushing it slowly toward Laura.

She looked at me, said nothing, though her eyebrows went up, quizzically.

“What you are witnessing, dear girl,” I said, “is the brief prelude to a marriage proposal. Will you marry me?”

An inauspicuously long silence greeted my question.

“Apologies,” Laura said, “but I’m afraid I can’t, or I guess I mean I won’t.” Without opening the Tiffany box she gently pushed it back to my side of the table.

“I don’t understand,” I heard myself say.

“Sorry,” she said. “I thought I was fairly clear. I have no interest in marrying you, or any one else for that matter, certainly not now.”

“Why not now?”

“Two reasons: first, I wish to concentrate on my career. I’m shooting for a senior partnership, and don’t want anything to stand in the way. Second, I like my life the way it is, and have no wish to share it fully with anyone else.”

“I thought we got on well,” I said, “marvellously, in fact.”

“We get along just fine. But I like the way we are just as it is. I’d hate to spoil it all by marrying.”

I was knock-down astonished. What was I thinking? Or, better, not thinking? I guess I thought of myself as a great prize in the marriage sweepstakes, a view it turns out distinctly not shared by the one woman I decided good enough for me to marry.

Neither of us so much as sipped our coffee, I paid the check, drove Laura back to her apartment in silence, went home, and fell asleep wondering if Tiffany would take back the ring. (The store did.)

Laura and I were to meet for dinner not the next night but the night after that. I called her office at a time when I knew she wouldn’t be in to leave a message that something had come up and I couldn’t make that evening’s dinner meeting. She called me the next day, but I decided not to take the call. She was too smart not to get the message in my not answering her call. This may seem curt, even cruel, but, somehow, with marriage no longer at stake, I found I lost all further interest in our relationship. I felt no need to see her again. I wasn’t worried about hurting Laura. She was an attractive woman. Other men would call.

I’m about to walk over to Wrigley Field, where the Cubs are playing the Texas Rangers in an interleague game. The night is coolish, in the 60s. I’ll pick up a ticket from a scalper, grab a hot dog and a beer inside the ballpark, which will do me for dinner. It’s the bachelor life. Free. Easy. You can’t beat it. 

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