Illusion and Effrontery
Cycling along the lake, he saw her coming, skin color light, dark rolling like swells of lake water. Could tell her half mile off, ballerina carriage, earth propelling her spring as if she were the red, white carnation cosmos dancing in the wind. Reminded him of existence, love.
Eyes straight ahead, seeing little, listening to music, poetry, story tapes crawling into her ears. At first no recognition then they smile reluctantly. He feasts himself on her eyes
“I remember someone like you somewhere, sometime when I was taller, better looking than you, took my arm, hand said let’s walk, talk, be in love. Be anything but intimate, innocent.”
He saw her thoughts. “I will try to give you what you seek yet in ways you do not prefer. More my ways, secret ways, very private ones. Be kind, gentle. Not all things are. Stay your ego mind.”
The whitecaps brushed the interval between them as did the juncos, fall leaves returned to the hackberries, oaks, the cherry sun stopped at the horizon, swallows returned, the moon rolled on the meadow.
Max Viertel is one of those people looking to fall in love. It is nice to say just since his wife died. But it isn’t true, Max is admitting to himself now. Something he could not when Syb was so sick. Max likes to think he has a conscience. But his eyes are all over the place even when Syb was still alive. He had to be with her much of the time. But in his head he is hardly ever faithful to Syb. Maybe to anyone.He does not fret about it.. He tries to be a husband but his head, as always is full of non husband things. He wants to make furious love with a creature who will show up on his door step. From where he does not know. When it comes to effrontery, Max is there at the summit. Check his fantasies, his ambitions considering he is in his ninth decade, muscles much shrunken, bald, his jog an exaggerated walk, his swim aided with fins to give his legs buoyancy and to give him the illusion he is moving, his cycling passable though because of the increasing gristle of his hips can barely get his leg over the seat.
Impossibly, he meets a beauty with a ballerina gait on the bicycle path along the lake on her way to work at the museum on Chicago Avenue which she does daily, unfailingly. In every weather, every season as faithful to her walk along the shoreline and meadows of Lake Michigan as are the gulls hovering over the water. The geese are nibbling the grass expressing their gratitude with their droppings, the wave actions slap the limestone breakwater and revetments, the nimbus clouds which sometimes are rising up as thunderheads, the sun is squirting from the horizon line over there where the vapors from the steel works in Gary give the impression of Wagnerian galleons in which ragged seamen from the Flying Dutchman hang on the ropes condemned to sail eternally with no hope of ever touching land.
She actually gives Max her card. “Call me.” She looks at him and smiles then walks away from him on the bicycle path along the lake. Not another word. He calls her. He may not be her slave but he is in some sort of hypnotic state of manumission even though she tells him, “I am a vegan. Eat only one meal a day. Like the Europeans. Which I am you know.I do not eat until late at night”, he hears her say on their first date. Her name is Iva.
She is turning into a queen of paradoxes. Yet he is not afraid to jab her. He has no idea what he is saying when he tells her, “You are a real find. You are not only beautiful but you will make me rich.”
She smiles. Then laughs. “I will make you rich? How so? Do you mind if I join you? If you are to be profitable from me how can I join in the take?”
“You are already way ahead with only one meal a day and being vegan. The money you save must be out of sight. I was thinking of taking you to all kinds of restaurants. Now I see there are none or few that would please you. That’s money in the bank.”
She shakes her head. “I eat late at night and I am vegan. So yes you would save awfully huge amounts. Because restaurants are not where I am. But even after many hours of work each day, if there is a concert or symphony I’m going. You coming along?”
“I’m not a music person. Barely remember Yankee Doodle. Must have had a stroke in my music brain long time ago.”
“I’m inviting you. Season tickets for the good seats are still available. You paying or me? We’ve been looking at each other on the bicycle path a long time, Max. I presume something attracts you about me, Max. You willing to just keep looking or you want to get any deeper, closer? If you do, you have to sit with me at Symphony Center or the Harris. I rather listen to music than eat or sleep. Can I make myself any more clear? I am not just any woman. You are my friend now. What is it worth to be anything more, Max?”
Max is appalled at how skimpy her diet is or how little she sleeps.. He is convinced no one can survive on the kind of regimen she sticks to. “All my life, Max. I have been at it all my life. What do you make of it that I walk almost ten miles to work each day. Have been at it the past fourteen years.”
“On so little protein?? It’s a miracle.”
She has an answer for all of his perplexities. “You have a closed mind. I can see. You have a fix on protein. Tell me if I am wrong.”
Max looks at her slim, graceful figure, the firmness of her arms, the powerful thighs, legs. He has read lots of books on nutrition. He knows more about how a body is put together and with what than a top notch mechanic knows about an up to date automobile. Max wonders if Iva is telling the truth or is defying gravity?
“I am listening to you and am looking at you. I cannot deny what my eyes see. I just can tell you I am wonder struck by what I am seeing and what you are telling me.”
She smiles and pushes against him with her shoulders, puts her arm around his lower back and pulls him close. He expects sweet nothings. Instead she whispers, “Look at the Viet Cong. With only bags of rice they destroyed the most powerful armies in the world. I sometimes think music puts flesh on me, as does my work. I am in love with both. When you are in love that way your muscles and brain get very powerful. Has nothing to do with protein, calories, minerals, vitamins. Maybe mysteriously they become the richest foods and generously supplant the real food.”
At first Iva gets him into all kinds of performances. She has put them together by contracting with performers from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Edinburgh, Memphis, Uruguay. She is the one who writes the grants for the money to support the travel, the performances, the hotels, the food which sustains the performers and gets the money from private and public foundations. .
As Iva gets promoted, her duties increase. It is now insufficient to leave the house at 8:30 AM for the 10 mile walk along the lake to the museum. It is necessary to start at 7:30 after she religiously does yoga for forty minutes. Max is a nut on saving the planet. So he gives up his Taurus, bicycles and takes the bus everywhere. Iva lets him use her BMW which she obtained from a man who died in his nineties. It is fifteen years old. She claims it’s a bargain. But it has to be parked on the tarmac of Max’s drive since there is no space in front of her building. Max can’t imagine what he is going to use it for particularly when he gets stuck paying for its insurance, new tires, aligning the front wheels, a new starter because the old solanoid has rusted into oblivion. She’s enthusiastic since she is convinced she got a bargain. He is wondering what he has got himself into with this old piece of prestigious junk with eight cylinders and the price of gasoline yet.
“You are lucky, Max. It only has eighty thousand miles on it. Hear it purr.”
“The gasoline that gourmand bolts would fill an Olympic sized swimming pool. That sucker is going to melt every iceberg in the North Atlantic and you are the one who will not accept the monthly fruit package from Harriet and David because of your concern that before it gets to you from the West Coast it will have created a carbon foot print as long and as wide as the state of California.”
She is intensely ethical insisting on filling in as a Republican judge at the polling place during elections at the polling place. The precinct is overwhelming Democrat so no one else will do it. She somehow fits it into her impossible schedule filled with meetings, interviews, emails, tutoring, book clubs, the writing of grant proposals, long visits with her mother who is languishing in a nursing home. All the other workers are happy to have her. She knows all the rules and regulations of elections to the nth degree. Max cannot figure out why Iva is paying the home for her mother close to five thousand dollars a month instead of letting Medicaid do it.. She is frustrated she cannot afford the best care for her mom. Yet she will spend thousands on exquisite jewelry which she finds on her trips as far away as Chile. At the same time when Max offers to take her shopping on north Michigan Avenue, she refuses. “I do not like to shop, Max.”
“Then where did you get those magnificent frocks I see you swaddled in at Symphony Center?” She shrugs, looks Max straight in the eye and sweeps off a piece of lint which he has overlooked on his coat sleeve.
“Those were gifts my lovers and husbands brought from Paris and Africa.”
Max wants to immediately match the gifts. “I’m afraid you really do not have that kind of money. Keep what you have for your granddaughter.” She rejects everything he brings her except the whole wheat buns his wife patiently outlined for him, sitting with him in the kitchen until he got the kneading, the rolling the mixtures proper.
Not only does she acquire magnificent jewelry on her excursions to other countries, she outbids experienced art connoisseurs for paintings, sculpture, ceramics, weavings somehow coming up with the thousands they cost. She is studying artists and their work for many years and is sure the work can only increase in value. Still she cancels her subscriptions to the New Yorker, the Economist, the New York Times maintaining since her promotion she has not the time to read though keeps the book club assignments. Max is not sure how much she is in hock for but he concedes that he will buy the tickets to symphonies and concerts. He is convinced she loves the music and the buns more than him despite the fact she maintains he is the love of her life.
She insists, “I do love you, Max. I talk with hardly anyone else, see anyone, send emails to practically no one outside of work. You are the main focus of my life. Can’t you recognize that? “
Max is frustrated. She talks love but he can barely touch her for several years. “Making love to you, Iva is a dream, a fantasy. We have not come close to doing anything like that for I do not know how long.”
”You are so impatient. Are you forgetting my mom? Men have this restlessness. And you particularly are so insecure.”
Max knows she is hooked on music. He splurges. Buys season tickets for both of them. It is the only time he is reasonably sure they will be together. He does not see her along the lake as much because she leaves the house earlier and earlier and her duties at work and promotions increase. He returns late July from a trip to the west. He is gone the better part of the month and hears practically nothing from her. He sends her several picture postcards. He is sure their relationship is hanging by a thread. He leaves messages. After almost a week, she calls to let him know how pleased she was to get the postcards. . She invites him to a performance but does not leave him a ticket. She forgets to put him on her schedule. He is left in the lobby without a ticket and is sure she forgot him. She suddenly appears, just before the doors close and apologizes. She thought he was coming tomorrow.
He is supposed to meet Iva at Millenium Park. He never sees her. She is in the wings observing the chamber mix from Nashville. She insists she looked for him from the stage which is unrealistic there are so many people. He is not impressed with the group. She is. So he leaves early.
There are only a few days left before he leaves for northern Michigan. But he wants to see Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. He is positive Iva wouldn’t want to go. She does not like that production of Lookinglass Theater. He mentions it to her. To his surprise she not only wants to go but will cancel Django Reinhardt at Millenium Park. So they go. Of course she does not like the production and insists on leaving early. Max drives the BMW which he just had in for a checkup and had to get two new tires since the old ones were as smooth as a baby’s behind got the front wheels aligned, the oil changed and fixed the gasket from where the oil is leaking. The car is purring. They get to his house where he wants Iva to have the buns he made for her. They come outside to the car, turn on the ignition. There is practically no sound. Iva kisses him, takes the bag of buns and leaves.
Max practically does not sleep that night. He calls the mechanic who tells him he will make an exception for him and to bring in the car. He hunts in the yellow pages and finds a tow. The mechanic maintains he will not have an answer before two o’ clock. Max has all his gear at his feet and not sure what his next move is. At two, the mechanic calls and tells him it is the solenoid. Since this is Friday, he will not be able to get a new one before Monday. Max gets on the phone. He needs a car badly. Almost every car rental place is out of cars. He finally locates one on 26th and Michigan. But now he has to get Bernard his neighbor to drive him. Bernard does though he is in the middle of a project.he is writing. .
Digger Hill, the social worker is eating his eggs and grits. He looks at Max.. In between sips of coffee and bites he interjects. “Rumor is that you’re getting to be a big spender, that you bought Iva an entire opera series for the coming year. What does Lefty your son and Muriel your artist daughter think now that you are putting together your estate plan? I hear they worry that you are going in the direction of cutting them out for Iva. Just a rumor of course.”
Max is munching on his whole wheat toast on which is spread cream cheese. He sips his decaf before replying. “Rumors have a way of inserting themselves disastrously in the spokes of the wheels impeding the direction of flow. When you think about it, our lives are full of flat tires and flying monkey wrenches. Calm yourselves. The difficulty I wrestle with has been that Iva is not the predictable partner you think she should be.”
Digger smiles. “Funny. But I bumped into Lefty and Muriel last week. If you want to know the real truth they insisted, the analogy between you & Iva is not Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. Rather it is Heloise and Abelard. Only you are Heloise. She is Abelard. She is the monk. You are the nun waiting. Waiting. She is content with her work. She is barely aware of you but absorbs your concern for her. Relishes your yearnings. Nourishes herself on your painful need for her. She knows you are easily satisfied with a few glances, a now and then crumb from her.”
Max eyes widen. His voice is coming from deep within. It reaches to all the corners of the restaurant. He is not appealing to anyone. He is laying out the facts. “This is a woman who walks from Hyde Park to North Avenue along the lake every morning of the weekday in every weather, every season. She looks everywhere for performers who can get up on her stage, exhibit on her walls and not only perform but do it in exciting, unpredictable, unforeseen, stimulating ways using voice, music, instruments, dance, color, form. She will go anywhere to find these people and does. Not only that, when she is impressed enough, she will get the money they need, get the visas they require staying until the wee morning hours to reach embassies on the other side of the world to get them. Many of these unusual people are unknown in these parts and often barely surviving from where they come. She writes successful grants for the money to support any artist who targets her imagination. Invariably the money comes through because of her own resourcefulness. She reaches into the worse schools to get kids on the verge of hopelessness to come to her museum.
They laugh at him for going on. Just like his poetry. Long after it should have come to a halt. They claim he should have been a preacher. Max smiles. “Funny you should say that. My wife used to say the same thing.”
Digger is conscientious politically. He cannot stand that the Republicans might take over the Congress. MoveOn asks him to help man the phone banks calling western Pennsylvania and locally. They want to get Joe Sestak in the U.S. Senate instead of this guy Toomey, a Wall Street puppet. Locally he has a hard time stomaching Giannoulis who is running for the Senate without once proving himself anywhere near the level of the Senate. At the same time, this Republican, Kirk, has been in the House for 18 years is a Bush factoid having voted against increasing the period for uemployment insurance six times and lowering the minimum wage at least five times. He tries to convince Iva. Her priorities are elsewhere.
“I’m going to Korea in a few days to review their performance programs. Do not even think of it. You have all day to entertain yourself. Good luck. I have my obligations and too often they do not coincide with yours.”
When she returns, she remains incommunicado. He finally sees her on the lake front walking to work. She has this firm, world class speed walk. He manages to run alongside her climbing the pedestrian bridge. She is aloof while listening intently to her walkman as she trudges. Though it is a cool day he feels the perspiration accumulating under his sweat shirt because of the effort. His breathing tells him he is no match for her. He manages to ask her about the food he left. No she did not see the buns, the brussel sprouts, broccoli, fallafal, the fruits he had spent a good part of the afternoon shopping, making and the latest edition of the New York Times he left for her the previous night. She maintains she got home too late to look. He says nothing but wonders since the door man said she was in but did not respond to his call to her room. And it was not all that late.
His wondering persists at breakfast. This is a woman who on numerous occasions maintains she loves him and is enormously grateful for the wonderful buns and food. How they sustain her like nothing else particularly since she has no time for preparing any of it herself. This not picking up the food has happened more than once in the past several months. It is bad enough not to pick up the food. What is roiling him is the lack of concern which seems to seep out of her in many directions. There is nothing she does that morning which shows love or even consideration she has expressed on numerous occasions.. So he finally sends her an email:
Dear Lenny, A number of times in the past little while, you have not picked up the food bags. I did not know of it till later. Something lackadaisical about it. From now on, if you have any desire for the buns, vegetables, etc. let me know. I will get them to you when possible. Otherwise I will assume you do not want or do not want to be bothered with any of it. You are often switching around your messages telling me I have forgotten this or that, when in fact I am increasingly concerned it is you who has. I am enough of a Don Quixote not to believe you are manipulative. But my confidence in the past has been shaken by all kinds of people I have admired. But no one I have admired as much as I have you. Love,
He waits days. There is no response.