Washington, D.C., a wet night in April, the month of fools. Bonnie, who is seated with her lover at the table in her lover’s wife’s dining room, is so involved in looking at the objects around her that she does not hear what her lover is saying. Instead, she looks at the furniture as if she’d never seen it before. This table, its top rippling with age. Those chairs, with their intricately woven back splats. That tall chest, flamed and bonneted and priceless, she recalls, were it not for a crippled leg. What are these things, really? And what are they trying to tell her? Across the table Jerry is gathering strength, and Bonnie has turned inward in defense, leaving her blankest, broadest, dullest features to blunt the attack. Jerry rises from the table. She follows him to the living room, and as they settle themselves comfortably in front of the fire she wonders about the Oriental rug, the slavish boggle-eyed china dogs squatting amongst the books on the shelves. From the dawn of consciousness human beings have valued beautiful things and used them to convey messages of social status and moral worth. You are what you own. Isn’t that it? And as she seats herself reluctantly next to her lover on her lover’s wife’s sofa, Bonnie at last hears what these things have been trying to tell her: A loving heart is not enough.
She has come to this house many times over the last seven years. Indeed, virtually every time Katherine leaves town they have taken advantage of her absence to come here, a welcome change of scene. Their usual venue is a hotel room for Bonnie lives on the wrong side of the park in a neighborhood so dangerous Jerry dares not venture over. Almost every Saturday, they meet in a hotel room—and sometimes they come here. And until six months ago—for that long period when their relationship was relatively serene—Bonnie never really noticed Katherine’s things, let alone their undelivered messages. But, six months ago, Jerry asked Bonnie to help him leave Katherine. They sat in a restaurant and he cried and he asked her to marry him. She loved him so much she agreed at once, and then she cried too. People at the other tables stared at them.
They have continued to meet in hotel rooms for the last six months, but increasingly the talk has turned to what their lives will be like after Jerry leaves Katherine and marries Bonnie. In Bonnie’s mind this life is sparsely furnished. Milieu is not her strong point. Of course Jerry will have to live in nice neighborhoods, but she has not imagined the details of their apartment in San Francisco (Pacific Heights) or their country house (Napa). They will have to be beautiful of course. And some details she has assumed: Jerry will have to have a pool. Unimaginable for him to do without. She will have a small table under a grape arbor, lavender wood dappled with shadows. He will have to have dining rooms that open onto expansive views—of the Bay in their one location, of a vineyard in their other. These will be rooms for Jerry, who loves food and wine and values the widest and farthest-reaching vistas. Bonnie has not thought of them as her rooms because she cares very little about eating and drinking and what she sees outside her windows. She doesn’t even care how her rooms are furnished. But in the last six months she has become aware of just how much Jerry cares about such things. Later on the night that he cried in the restaurant, he asked her if they could have their sofas upholstered in the same dark green fabric as this sofa on which they are now sitting. When he went on to wonder if they could afford a good Oriental, she wondered too but was reluctant to ask why a mere rug was so important to him, let alone upholstery. It seemed clear to her that theirs, in reality, would be a marriage with a good many unfurnished nooks. Not that she wouldn’t try to accommodate his desires. While he gazes peacefully at the neighboring vineyard, she will go to IKEA. While he swims in the heated pool (it has to be heated, doesn’t it?) she will leaf through catalogs from Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn. As for food (dinner tonight comes from the carry-out bin at Sutton Place Gourmet, the wine from the cellar downstairs) Bonnie knows she is not a cook at heart. But what are the deli sections of grocery stores for? Sofas, rugs, pools, vistas, food: insignificant problems for the loving heart that has failed to recognize its own inadequacy for years and years and years. Katherine has not gone out of town much in the last few months as she and Jerry fight the battles that mark the end of their marriage, but this morning she left to visit her daughter in New York, and tonight Bonnie is back on the domestic scene, back in a setting that suddenly resonates with the obvious.
Jerry is beginning to speak in earnest now. A fattish man with sweat gathering on his bald pate, he has the bumbling, self-deprecating manner of someone who knows he is better than most people and must therefore act really nice in order to remain universally liked. Soon he will be sweating freely and talking about his thoughts and feelings. He has been in therapy on and off for thirty years and is accustomed to rearranging the world in words. The only child of a shrew, he early on hypothesized a loving mother who really cared about what he had to say and afterwards looked long and hard for the ideal wife—only to find himself inexplicably trapped in marriage with a version of his mother. The tragedy of his marriage, he has repeatedly explained, is that Katherine never really listens to what he has to say.
It occurs to Bonnie that they are twenty years too old to be having this conversation, but, nevertheless, she will soon tune into Jerry’s words, which she knows will only be a repetition of what the things are telling her. She realizes that she will never know exactly what they are, these things. Chippendale or Federal? Meissen or Imari? But she hears their message: “It’s not that he doesn’t love you. You are very charming and much more accommodating than Katherine, with whom you share certain features. For example, you both went to the same Seven Sisters college. (In fact, that is where you met Jerry, at a local alumnae gathering.) You are just as bright as Katherine. You too are an only child. But here all similarity ends, for you are the only child of a high-school math teacher from a small city in the Middle West, and Katherine is the only child of a partner in the biggest brokerage firm on Wall Street, a brilliant man, long dead, who made millions and collected all of us ages ago when great things were cheap. Yes, Katherine is rich, and you are penniless, a Hagar to her Sarah. Marriage is a bourgeois institution, and love is a currency in which you hold no coin. Katherine owns her husband. Get ready for a long hike in the desert.”
Thus Bonnie hears from the things what she did not want to hear before, and she must at last tune in to what Jerry is saying. When she does, she discovers that she has perceived his inadequacies at the very moment he is busily explaining hers. “Gut-wrenching. It’s been gut-wrenching.” Yes, here is the heart of the matter. “I don’t know why it’s been so hard for me. It’s not that I don’t love you. But I’m a very congenial guy. My friends are really important to me, and what would they say, what would my best friends say, if I left my wife for you?”
“I thought you were leaving her to discover your true self?” She remembers his tears in the restaurant six months ago. “You begged me to help you leave her. You begged me to marry you. And you insisted you were leaving her to find yourself.”
“I know that’s what I said, and I think I really believed it at the time. But, really, I’d be leaving her for you. Or that’s what everybody would think. And how could I explain leaving all this,” he gestures broadly, “for nothing? I’ve called some of my oldest friends, and no one told me I’d be doing the right thing. No one said you were beautiful or brilliant, and everybody knows you’re penniless. I asked Herb, ‘Herb,’ I said, ‘do you think she’s good enough for me?’ And he was wonderful. He’s a gentleman of the old school, Herb is. They don’t make them like that anymore. ‘Good enough for you—or for me!’ he said. Wasn’t that something? Breeding shows. But of course he didn’t mean it. If I left Katherine for you he’d be like everybody else. They wouldn’t say anything, but they’d all be wondering how I could be so stupid.”
He glances at her now and sees that she is calm. He may as well continue. Without voicing anything detrimental to himself he will make sure she understands that he has no choice. That way she won’t be embittered, and they can continue on the old terms, the old satisfactory terms. Bonnie sees him thinking this. That he can have her on his own terms. “It isn’t that I haven’t suffered. This is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I know I’ve gotten spoiled over the years. Katherine has her failings, but she’s an awfully good cook, and I’ve grown accustomed to the best. These days I can’t even trust famous restaurants. I go to places that really should know better, and the olive oil is terrible. I simply can’t bear it. I know you want to laugh, but that’s why we’d never make a go of it. I’d leave Katherine, and then you’d never buy the best olive oil. You just don’t care, and I’m not blaming you, Bonnie, really I’m not. I know you’ve had a tough time, not having any money and having to work and all,” he smiles. He loves her after all, his poor little match girl. It is her helplessness that appeals to him, she sees, her defenselessness. “But food is one of those things where the world of experience counts, and even though it isn’t your fault, you just haven’t been fortunate enough to have that kind of experience. You can’t know how bad McDonald’s is unless you’ve eaten at Chez Panisse.”
“Well, I know you have, literally. I took you there. But really you are still back in small-town America. You’ve never traveled. You’ve never grown. You like canned green peas. You eat pizza—and even Big Macs. You praised the mashed potatoes at Boston Market. You know you did. You will eat anything. You even think it’s a virtue. But really you just don’t understand good food. I’m afraid that’s what it comes down to.”
This hits home. “I’ve lived in D.C. for twenty years. I have eaten at Chez Panisse. I went there on my own, with some friends at a conference. The mashed potatoes are good at Boston Market.” Too late it occurs to her that she has been put on the defensive.
“The secret to cooking, Katherine says, is to buy the best ingredients. You know you never do that.”
“I’ve never thought it was worth the money.” Her heart lurches: I am penniless.
“You never buy the best of anything,” Jerry insists. And while he continues on, repeating much of what he has already said several times over, Bonnie wonders why she has never before noticed that he looks just like Harpo Marx. A Harpo Marx who can’t shut up. What’s wrong with me? she wonders. Why didn’t I see this before?
“The bottom line is we could never entertain properly, and I would lose all my friends. And,” he is determined to be fair, “I would have to make more money.”
“I suppose so.” It is—or it should be—such a sore point that she sounds unconvinced in order not to hurt his feelings. She notices how it has become an unconscious habit with her, not hurting his feelings: I was kind to him, she thinks. I believed him. I wanted to believe him. I loved him. I loved him. Didn’t I?
“I’ve got $75,000 in an IRA, and I’d get half this house. It’s worth five million. Katherine says I’d get nothing because she bought it with her money, and I admit the antiques are hers and hers alone. But I really do think she’d have to give me half the house. So, that’s two and a half million. Invested that means, say, $200,000 a year. I made $17,000 last year, and it really isn’t fair to expect me to make more.” He is a lawyer specializing in historic preservation. “Being married to Katherine has meant I could do good, and I can’t stop doing good just to marry you. If you only had something. But you don’t. So there’s no use crying over spilt milk. Now, I know you have a job, a job writing about old buildings of all things, a job at which you earn all of $60,000 a year. So—add it up. Let’s say I make $30,000 next year. How could we get along on—what? $400,000? How could we do it? What would our lives amount to? Can you imagine how we’d have to live? We have to face it: My friends wouldn’t like me anymore. I know you think that if they’re really my friends they’d stick with me no matter what. But it’s not true. They would shun me. And they’d laugh at me because I was stupid enough to leave the mother of my children for someone without a penny to her name.”
Bonnie tunes him out. He wanted to marry her at one point, she is pretty sure. And then he added up the costs. But this demonstration goes beyond a change of heart. Jerry is having fun. He is happy to be creating a drama in which he is the star, and she sees that his performance can go on night after night for years and years. As it has already been going on for years and years, thanks to her civilized stupidity. In fact, he is now saying, “It’s not that I want to break up with you,” and he means it. On his terms they can go on for years and years. For years and years, night after night, they can have a meal and then settle down to a thorough discussion of why she’s not good enough for him. And then they can have sex. He probably has equally thorough discussions with Katherine about why she deserves to be left. But the sex isn’t very good. Or it doesn’t happen. And they can go on doing this for years and years and years, night after night after night. He is really enjoying himself, she sees, and tunes back in to find that he has circled around to his beginning. “You have no idea how hard all of this has been for me. Really, really gut-wrenching.” Bonnie has a vision of a twisting intestine full of foie gras and chicken stuffed with a mushroom duxelle, all sloshing around in a sea of wine that’s too good for her. The princess and the pea rolled into one, he continues, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
You are a man who lives on his wife’s money. You are repulsive, she thinks. But she does not say this out loud. “You know, I think I’d better be going,” she says instead. “It’s getting late. Thanks for dinner,” she says and is out the door before he can interrupt his monologue, readjust, and reply.
A month later Bonnie goes out for dinner with Mary, a budding romance novelist. They leave the Ethiopian restaurant—their favorite—and out of the corner of her eye Bonnie sees Jerry sitting in his car across the street. She says nothing to Mary because Jerry’s behavior is too weird for even a romance novelist to credit. In the last three weeks she has seen him virtually every day, sitting in his car outside her apartment or walking by her office just as she leaves. Harpo Marx hanging around the National Trust for Historic Preservation or lurking behind the fountain at Dupont Circle.
Back at home, the phone rings, and even before she answers she knows it’s Jerry. “Look, I know you don’t love me anymore. I think you haven’t really loved me for a long time. And I can understand why you don’t. I really can. But why don’t we just sit down and talk about it? There’s so much I want to say to you.”
“Stop parking in front of my apartment. Stop walking by my office. Stop spying on me. Stop calling me. I don’t want to talk to you. Talk to your shrink.” It occurs to her that she is talking to Jerry.
“I made a mistake.”
“You think you made a mistake because you didn’t get exactly what you wanted.” Me along with Katherine’s money. “You think you can if you try again. But you can’t.”
“I love you.”
“Please, please leave me alone. Don’t call me. Don’t try to see me. Leave me alone. It’s over.”
“Don’t think you can hide from me. I saw you having dinner with Mary. Should you really be eating out? Who’s paying for it? Aren’t you afraid of putting on weight? I thought you looked a little heavier. That’s very dangerous. Don’t get fat. You’re too old for anyone to want you except me, and even I won’t love you if you get fat. You know, you shouldn’t be so proud. You’re all alone. You have nothing. You’ve never gone anywhere I haven’t taken you. What do you expect to do, stay in your bedroom and read novels for the rest of your life? Sometimes you don’t even read. I know when you’re watching television because you don’t bother to turn on the lights. Just think! Your life is so boring you have nothing to do but watch television. If you weren’t so proud we could work something out. I’m the best thing you’ve ever had, and your feelings are hurt because I didn’t want to marry you. Did you catch that? I’m not even saying I don’t want to marry you. If we could just sit down and talk things over, who knows what I might want to do? All I’m saying is I think we need to sit down and talk.”
Bonnie says goodnight, hangs up, and moves her bed to the study at the back of the apartment. Now if Jerry wants to find out if her light is on he’ll have to walk down her alley, a place so dangerous he’s likely to get shot, and good riddance. It is utterly incomprehensible to her that not much more than a month ago she loved this man. Well, to be truthful, six months ago. She loved him until he cried in the restaurant when he asked her to marry him, and then she began not to love him anymore. She doesn’t know why. Is it that food and tears and love just don’t mix? But it wasn’t that she thought she loved him and was mistaken. She actually loved him. What in the world is wrong with her?
The next weekend, after fifteen more sightings of Jerry, in his car in front of her apartment, on the corner in front of the Trust, on the traffic median in the middle of Dupont Circle, Bonnie drives across the park to run errands. Stopped at the light on Connecticut Avenue, she sees a familiar gray Volvo slide by, but by the time she parks in the grocery-store lot, it’s completely slipped her mind, and as she pushes her grocery cart into the fruit and vegetable section she is shocked to see Jerry standing before her with a red plastic market basket in his hand, a basket in which lie—she cannot think it insignificant—three boxes of Cheerios.
“Imagine meeting you here,” he says with false joviality. “Katherine is out of town so I’m batching it.”
“Go away and leave me alone.”
He pays no attention to her but continues talking about what his children are doing and his latest case, which is saving some Civil War battlefield from development. Has she ever heard of that battle? he asks her, and without thinking, mesmerized by the horror of Jerry, she says no, and he begins to tell her in great detail the story of the Civil War, standing there in front of the fruits and vegetables clutching his red plastic basket of Cheerios. He is a fat man gone thin over the course of a month, a man whose food no longer nourishes him. His skin is gray, his eyes glitter, his voice trembles, and his hands shake. He holds the basket in one hand and plucks at his throat with the other. “I’ve got to go,” she says. “Goodbye.” She picks up a prepackaged bag of salad, a head of cabbage, some apples, and a bunch of grapes, then moves quickly into dairy products without looking behind. Cheddar cheese, whole milk, brown eggs, orange juice. She is around the bend and into the next aisle before he has the chance to catch up. Trash bags, toilet paper, laundry detergent. She is about to round the bend into the next aisle when it occurs to her that he may not be following her as the plow follows the ox. She looks behind her in the aisle she has just left, and he is not there. Nor is he in the next aisle—until she is midway along, and then he materializes in front of her, Harpo Marx smiling at her as his hand blindly gropes for a can on the shelf, seizes it, and drops it into his red basket: a can of yellow corn.
Bonnie pushes her cart past him, skips the next aisle (coffee, spices), and is about to turn into the next when she notices that by looking into the long mirror that hangs above the meat counter she can see what aisle he is in. Nothing at first. Then she sees him one aisle over, peeking around the corner to see where she’s gotten to. His smile is gone; his mouth is a grim slit. And she stares at her own face reflected amidst the flanks and legs and shoulders of what were once living creatures, and she understands that he is stalking his prey.
It comes to her as a surprise, what stalking really means, a significance lost and forgotten in all those repetitions on the television news. Jerry is stalking his prey. Nutritious Bonnie, succulent Bonnie, yummy, yummy Bonnie. Bonnie the tasty fool.
She abandons the cart and makes a run for it. She’s almost out the front door when he comes up from behind and seizes her arm. “What I want you to know,” his tone is filled with sorrow, heavy, heavy sorrow, “what I want you to know is that there’s something wrong with my heart. And I have prostate cancer.”
She pulls out of his grasp. “I’m sorry to hear that, Jerry, but you and I are a thing of the past. Leave me alone. Don’t call me. Don’t follow me. Leave me alone. It’s over.”
She turns away and refuses to look back until she is safe in her car. He is standing just outside the doors of the Safeway still holding his red plastic basket. A store clerk is heading toward him. He has set off an alarm. She locks her doors and drives to another grocery store, checking in the rearview mirror to make sure he isn’t following her. Surely that is the last of him. She is pleased with herself for resorting to neither sarcasm nor kindness. By the time she returns home with her groceries, he has left three messages on her answering machine wondering when they can get together and talk. She sits down and stares at the answering machine, willing the messages to go away.
And it suddenly occurs to her that the messages will never go away but she can. She can simply quit her job and move somewhere else—because she has no beautiful house, no rare tables, no intricate chairs, no Oriental rugs, no bonneted chests, no beautifully upholstered sofas, no china dogs squatting in amongst the books, no books for that matter, no Chippendale, no Federal, no Meissen, no Imari, no friends, no lovers, no children, no future. She can go anywhere. A not-unhappy thought. For if she is the stalker’s prey, nutritious, succulent, and yummy Bonnie, she is also fast-running Bonnie. And rather than a long hike across the desert she sees herself entering a green wilderness, quivering leaves above, shivering ferns below, grass that bends to her speed, glimmers of sunlight on her supple hide, the ripple of a near-by stream in her softly drooping ears, the fragrance of pine cones in the air, and she is wild and free and swift of hoof, stripped to the essence and ready to outrun the wind.
Ten years later we find Bonnie, now aged sixty, far from Washington, D.C., sitting in a restaurant in Palo Alto, California. Well, not quite a restaurant, for it is only scheduled to open as a restaurant two weeks from now, a week after her review comes out. It’s early afternoon and Bonnie sits alone. A young man races to and fro, setting before her plate after plate of succulent delicacies, while back in the kitchen the cook huddles nervously over his stove. Bonnie stares at the dish that has just been set before her. A recognizable haunch. Does it still shiver with fear? Judgment is in the offing, her own, of course, and thoroughly professional, and yet, although she is an atheist, Bonnie says a Hail Mary and crosses herself before she uncaps her pen, draws her notebook closer to the plate, picks up her knife and fork, and digs in.
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