By Karen Petersen
I first met Alain through one of those dating services that used an algorithm to match people up. The site said we were 95% compatible. Wow. All my years of loneliness suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore. My dream companion had appeared at last. He was French, but had lived in New York for a long time.
His online messages were witty and erudite, and while he was older than me, he still looked very dapper in his photo. Soon we exchanged phone numbers and we would call each other daily, and talk for hours.
It was inevitable that we’d meet.
After one call, he mentioned that he was having a small soiree at his house, where he would cook and some musician friends would come over and perform Cole Porter songs. This sounded so civilized and wonderful that I accepted eagerly. My heart soared. What a man.
I spent the day trying my best to look amazing and in the late afternoon took the LIRR train in to Penn Station. A few years earlier, I’d rented my NYC apartment and moved informally to my aging mother’s home out on Eastern Long Island to care for her. However, with my Ivy League background and globe-trotting lifestyle I’d found I was a fish out of water in a town that was decidedly the Un-Hamptons.
So a trip to the city for whatever reason was always welcome, even if it did take an hour and a half.
It was a brutally hot day in late July, and Alain lived on the lower East Side. Even the quick subway express train wasn’t quick enough to escape the putrid smells that lurked underground, not to mention the various straphangers’ acrid armpits that radiated around them like a force field in the crowded car.
I staggered out from that subterranean grimy wretchedness into a tropical humidity and instantly began to sweat. At least out on the Long Island shore there was the southerly breezes that blew in off of Great South Bay to cool things down. However, this was something else again. This was a three showers a day kind of humid heat in a big, dirty city.
As I got closer and closer to his building, I felt almost ill, from both the heat and my increasing nervousness. Would this finally be love at last? It felt like it but would Lady Love play yet another cruel joke on me?
His building was just off a side street and I stopped to try and compose myself. My heart was pounding. I did some deep breathing and began to calm down.
I turned the corner and walked on.
There was a tall, overweight man outside Alain’s building in a filthy coverall, his long greasy white hair and face dripping with sweat. I went past him into a rundown lobby where I found a guy drunk on the floor who looked up at me and said in a slur, “What apartment do you want? I’m the doorman.”
“I’m looking for Alain’s place. I think it’s on the 4th floor.” I replied hesitantly. “Is there an elevator?”
He giggled and said, “No. But Alain is right there.”
“Where?” I looked around and saw no one.
“”Outside! You walked right past him.” he replied.
My heart sank. The guy outside had been a bum, I thought. What the hell had happened to the dapper gentleman from the Internet? I just stood there and tried to pull myself together. Clearly he hadn’t recognized me so I could just leave and vanish forever.
But maybe something had happened and I was seeing him on the absolute worst day of his life. Our conversations had been so lovely that I had to give this a chance, if only out of curiosity.
So I called out, “Alain, Alain!” and the man turned around.
“I’m Patricia,” I said, doing my best to smile cheerfully.
He started to walk toward me and I saw that he had a very bad limp. Why had he not mentioned this, I wondered? We certainly would never be able to go hiking and he seemed disabled.
“Did you hurt yourself?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I’ve had this for years. An old motorcycle accident.”
I suddenly felt incredibly tense, as if I was made of concrete. This was something I felt he should have mentioned, especially when I’d told him on the phone about my bad car accident that had left me with frequent, excruciating migraines. I, too, was disabled, but with another kind of limitation. What a pair.
“Sorry I didn’t see you. I’m waiting for a friend who is bringing several large salads. I’ve made everything else and he is due here any minute.”
We stood there in an awkward silence. I could normally talk with anyone but between his appearance and the limp I found myself completely tongue-tied.
A cab pulled up and his friend got out. Alain took two big salad bowls from him and we all climbed up four very steep flights of stairs.
But it was worth it. Alain’s apartment took up half a floor and was multi-windowed, art-filled, and rent-controlled. What a find.
Near the piano, there were a number of interesting looking people milling around a large buffet table filled with the most delicious-looking food.
Well, maybe I could make this work, I thought, looking around for Alain but he’d disappeared.
I lingered over the food, hoping he would appear and as the musicians sat down and began to play I caught a glimpse of him in the kitchen.
He’d showered and changed and looked much more like the man I’d met online and begun to fall in love with. “You clean up nicely,” I said, approaching him with a grin.
He smiled and handed me a glass of champagne. “Let’s drink to our meeting at last. You are very lovely.”
I blushed and began to relax. The wonderful food, the champagne, the apartment, this worldly new man in front of me all felt like the dream I’d always wanted to come true.
So what if he had a limp? There would be so many things we could share together, I thought. We both aren’t young any more and good food, concerts, travel and entertaining would be more than enough!
The champagne and romantic music was starting to go to my head a bit. I could see that Alain was looking at me.
“Have you met my dog, Chloe?” he asked suddenly. “She’s a little cocker spaniel.” Chloe was in the far corner of the kitchen, sleeping in a small bed by the window. She looked like a sweet dog.
“She’s adorable,” I replied. “Where do you walk her?”
“In the park. There’s a group of us from the neighborhood who go daily,” he said, pausing, “...which brings me to something I need to tell you.”
I looked at him quizzically. I wanted to flirt with him but could see he was serious.
He touched my arm gently and said with the greatest of care, “I’ve met someone. Her name is Margaret.”
I found myself woodenly smiling and trying to act as if what he’d just said was perfectly normal rather than a massively paralyzing body blow. I found myself unable to think. I was stunned into emptiness. I was a hollow shell, a prop, a buffoon dressed up in nice make up and fine clothes, pushed onto a stage where a bucket of shit emptied on me while the audience laughed uproariously.
But then I thought, I must compose myself. All I have is my dignity. Why not tell me this over the phone you bastard? Why bring me into the city for this grotesque humiliation??
He looked at me with a strange smile. “It was just a few days ago. We met at the dog park and she lives on the next block.”
That’s men for you, I thought in disgust. Convenience trumps all. I wanted to slap him.
“She’ll be here soon,” he said. “She’s at a rehearsal. She plays the oboe in an orchestra.”
Oh bully for her, I thought. “That’s nice.” I struggled to hide my deep disappointment and hurt. We had shared so much on the phone and in our writings to one another. I just couldn’t make sense of it. Did he find me unattractive and was too polite to tell me? Was this something he’d made up on the spot?? It just seemed inconceivable.
“Well, your friendship would mean a lot to me,” I said, not believing those placating words were coming out of my mouth, but I needed to rescue something good from this horror. In my heart, I knew I’d fallen in love with him, and the thought of not knowing him at all was too much to bear.
“Yes, of course,” he said, giving me a hug. “Absolutely. You are a terrific woman.”
Chloe began to bark as the door opened and there was a rather plain looking woman carrying an instrument case. Margaret. Alain rushed over to kiss her demurely on her rather impassive cheek. She was barely through the hall but, for Alain, everyone else was already invisible.
Alain deserved a woman (like me) who would openly love him back, I thought resentfully. Instead he’d picked this cold, distant woman who was just like his late mother! I wondered if he was into punishment. She didn’t look like a dominatrix but she was certainly remote enough emotionally.
I loathed her already.
I couldn’t stand watching this bizarre display any more, and looked at him wordlessly miming that it was too hot and that I was leaving. I would call him. He waved goodbye casually and turned his attention back to Margaret.
Going down the five flights of stairs felt like the Bataan Death March. I wanted to weep hysterically but somehow I couldn’t. I’d turned to stone.
After the forlorn train ride back to Long Island, I couldn’t wait to get into my childhood bed and escape into sleep. As I walked in the door my mother eagerly asked, “How was it?” and I brushed her off with a frown and vanished into my room where I sobbed myself into oblivion.
The next year and a half I would see Alain for lunch or dinner in the city and we would talk the way friends do. These were visits tinged with pain for me but it was always so nice to see him that I didn’t care. He would have musical soirees at his apartment once in a while, and Margaret would be present but she was always so very cold to him that I couldn’t stand watching their perverse dynamic and would always leave early.
He owned an apartment building in Paris where he maintained his own apartment and he and Margaret would go there frequently. It annoyed me that she didn’t speak French. Alain reveled in the way she tortured him emotionally, and had legally made her his partner, rather than marry her, which I didn’t quite understand. I found, after he told me he had done this, that I absolutely hated her as a result. She had everything I’d always wanted from this world and I had nothing, no love, no money, no life. I was stuck on Long Island caring for an aging mother who was slowly losing her mind.
As my mother got older and frailer I found that the financial worries were beginning to take their toll on me. One year I was in the ER three times from stress and in the ICU once when I got a pulmonary embolism. I was lucky to be alive.
I found that as I ran the numbers projected over the next five years we would always come up short. So my mother agreed to go live with my sister in Portland so that I could put the house up for sale now and split the proceeds with my sister as our inheritance. With the house on the market, I began to look around the country for a state that would have a home that I could afford. I knew I needed to still have enough money left over for taxes and other expenses which were sure to come in the next 30 years or so as I myself aged.
I found I liked the dry heat and decided to look around New Mexico, which had recently gone through a (brief) housing bust. I found a wonderful home on the outskirts of Santa Fe, which if you ignored Cerrillos Road itself, had great restaurants and cultural events, in addition to a decent airport. The only problem was that I was $20,000 short. I just couldn’t manage it.
During this time Alain and Margaret were enjoying the kind of life I’d so desperately yearned for. I began to feel I had nowhere to go. I met Alain for lunch one day and told him everything that was happening and how depressed I was. I felt I had no chance at peace and a stress free life.
He looked at me and said slowly, “I will give you the $20,000. If you can afford to pay me back one day then do so.”
I was thunderstruck. The cynic in me whispered that he knew he was buying off my broken heart but I also knew that even if that was true he was genuinely trying to help me, and that he cared enough to make this amazing offer. I was overwhelmed, and I accepted.
The Long Island house soon went under contract so I put in an offer on the Santa Fe house. Alain came through with a bank check for $20,000, my deposit, and my offer was accepted.
I said goodbye to everyone I knew in New York, and it was a strange, distant time, almost like I was dying and people were already removing themselves from my life. Even Alain was rather distant, and I think on some level he was relieved to be rid of me at last.
So I moved West and settled into a peaceful life. A few years into my new home I heard from a mutual friend that Margaret had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and that as she disintegrated Alain would carry her up those four flights of steep stairs several times a day. As her grim disease progressed, my friend told me that Alain had invested in a complicated electronic ceiling harness which would allow her to eat, void her bowls, and move somewhat, and that he spent all his time caring for her.
I cannot imagine the suffering both of them endured as the months passed and the end neared.
I finally saw in an Internet search that she’d died. One night I just had a feeling that she was gone and found a small obituary written by one of her colleagues in the orchestra. That was it. I wanted to write Alain something but it felt awkward, especially since the money he had given me had been put into the house.
He never asked me for the money back and I never spoke to him again. I hear through the grapevine that he now has a new girlfriend, a retired teacher, and that he is happy. That is good news. As for me, I look up at the big, beautiful Western sky each and every day in contentment, and realize that although Alain couldn't save Margaret, he saved me.
Adventurer, photojournalist and writer, Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Most recently, her poetry was published in The Manzano Mountain Review and Pilgrimage Magazine in the USA, Orbis in the UK, and The Wild Word in Berlin. Her poems and short stories have also appeared in A New Ulster in Northern Ireland and The Bosphorus Review in Istanbul. In 2015, she read "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" at the Yeats Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the KGB Bar in NYC. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and teaches English Composition at NNMC.