The Elusive Taint of Perfection
I’ve never traveled to St. Ives but I have in fact met a man with seven wives. Isn’t that the way the riddle goes? And though this particular man had one cat, he had neither sacks nor kits. What he did have was a prodigious ego and a huge repertoire of killer stories. As he described himself, “I may not have class, but I do have style! Whoa!”
I met Ronnie on a dating website and answered his ad because he used the word “cogent“ in his note to me. After seeing many posts with misspellings and typos, or simply with boring litanies of each man’s purported interests, I had to sit up when I saw that word. I answered Ronnie’s ad, we met for coffee and the rest was dating history.
An avid book collector and trader, we would pore through the stacks at all the local Goodwill stores looking for volumes that he had an interest in or could resell. It was an enjoyable way to spend my afternoons after many men on the site promised sensual escapades or walks on the beach. Ronnie was different.
Ronnie was a cab driver. He took pride in his car and in being “first up” at the Hilton. Whenever I needed a ride, all I had to do was call his private number and he would appear with a big grin on his handsome face waiting to whisk me away.
He was a bigger-than-life man, secure in his corpulence. He smoked huge cigars and told the aforementioned killer stories whenever there was a momentary gap in our conversations. “Did I ever tell you about the time I treated ten teenage boys to a Yankees game?” or “Did you hear the one about how I adopted my cat Betsy from a crazy person on Craigslist?” Some might have thought Ronnie tedious and self-centered but I preferred to think he had a real zest for life.
On one evening, after we’d finished searching the shelves at our local second-hand store, Ronnie and I were relaxing at his apartment. He had put on a Coleman Hawkins recording just a little too loudly, as he was wont to do, and we vibed to the sweet sound of the sax while Ronnie shouted to be heard over Hawk. “Did I ever tell you about the time I spent as a volunteer fire fighter?,” he asked, not wanting an answer but merely using the question as a segue for his story. “I was living in Santa Barbara with my third wife – that was Gina – and I guess I decided life was too serene. I wanted to get out and save some lives so I went down and joined the fire department. Unbelievable, right?”
The story went on. The saxman went on. And I couldn’t help but smile. Here was a middle-aged man who took such glee in his own exploits that he had to share them enthusiastically and often. Here was a man, one might say, who had something to prove. The stories were entertaining but they were also sad. Ronnie was constantly needing to prove himself. I only learned this gradually and after hearing and analyzing a prodigious assortment of his exploits. All of his stories featured himself in the hero role. I didn’t know what was real and what might be purely apocryphal. To be sure, Ronnie enjoyed hearing them as much as I did. And he kept them coming.
And the thing was, Ronnie adored women. I wouldn’t have trusted him as far as I could throw him, but life with him was a spectacle. He treated me to lavish dinners and weekend trips to the coast or to the deserts of Eastern Oregon. He regaled me with stories and songs of love, with flowers and with promises made in passion but kept in friendship. Don’t get me wrong. He had a lot of issues. He was not Mr. Right. But I had fun with him and fun is often in short supply when one is a woman of a certain age looking to meet eligible men.
His living room had a massive grandfather clock that chimed every hour and half-hour and a sprawling gold-upholstered settee that made me want to lie down and eat peeled grapes (which Ronnie once accommodated). He had a state-of-the-art sound system for listening to his beloved jazz records. In time, I came to learn it was all an illusion. The furniture was rented and he scrambled each week to make the payments out of his up-and-down income as a cabbie. The dinners and the trips were done on borrowed funds. He wanted so badly to be that man of means who had the world by the tail.
Ronnie had loans out all over town and spent his off-work hours driving around repaying them in little dribs and drabs, just enough to keep his chits afloat. I know because he borrowed money from me too and paid it back in small irregular sums every day or two. When he’d finally repaid me in full, he made me call him a man of his word. This was very important to him. I got the feeling that it was a matter of some debate depending on who you talked to.
Ronnie was a tornado passing through my life and, at the time, I welcomed the stormy diversion. He was loud, emphatic and easily impressed with the creature comforts. Underneath it all, he was a sweet man who wanted to be liked. And I liked him. I guess that was the basis of our friendship.
Once, at a time when the leaves were starting to turn and the days were long, Ronnie suggested that we take an impromptu road trip to Florence, Oregon, to partake of the casino and enjoy the Fall color along the way. I packed snacks and drinks in a cooler, provided some relevant AAA maps and guidebooks, and set off to pick up Ronnie at his townhome. When I arrived there, his drapes were pulled shut and I couldn’t hear any music coming from inside so I got out of the car and knocked on the door. He answered after two or three knocks and told me he had changed his mind about the trip. He no longer wanted to go. There was no reason given, just the general impression from his uncharacteristically quiet voice and the sad look on his face that something bad had happened. He didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t convince him to change his mind so I got back into my car and set off alone. When I returned three days later, there were no messages from Ronnie. He hadn’t phoned or come by. I tried calling him but there was no answer, just an automatic rerouting to his voicemail. Puzzling, for sure.
I continued to try to reach him until I finally got the message after several days that he was purposefully incommunicado. The party was over. I just figured he’d met someone else and that our affair was at an end after six months or so of noise and carousing. The possibility of something being seriously wrong never crossed my mind. Ronnie was emotional and likely to end a relationship in as messy a way as he had lived it. I guess I always knew the day would come. So I moved on.
I took a writing class, adopted a dog and started seeing another man, Dennis Chang. Dennis was more sophisticated and more reserved than Ronnie. He lived his life in a careful, thought-out manner. We took a few really nice trips and went out for coffee or meals at least twice a week. With Dennis, life was orderly and dare I say it – ordinary – after the chaos that was Ronnie. There was a cultural aspect, I thought, to what was a fairly significant incompatibility between us. Just once I would have liked to see him do something spontaneous, but it never happened. As a traditionally Chinese man, he lived his life with a guarded sense of balance at play. Harmony and order were important to him in a way that I could neither understand nor embrace. Our relationship fizzled out in time, not with a bang but with a whisper. He was probably bothered by my impulsiveness and I was, quite simply, bored to tears. He was a good man but not the right man for me.
After Dennis, I tried again on and off to contact Ronnie but without success. I wondered if he’d packed up and moved away. I tried to forget about him. Still, there seemed something unfinished in our relationship, an aspect that was left dangling. One day we were fine and the next day he was gone, up in a puff of cigar smoke.
I had gone into Goodwill one day to find some travel books on the Mexican Riviera as I’d planned a cruise with a writing buddy of mine, and I glimpsed a friendly face in the stacks. I couldn’t put a name to the face but there was something familiar in the stance, the affect.
“You don’t recognize me, do you? It’s me, Ronnie.”
He had lost perhaps a hundred pounds and wore his hair long with a beard.
“I knew you were somebody I knew,” I stammered. “But you look so different than you did a year ago when I last saw you.”
“I had a heart attack,” he said. “I’ve had to change the whole way I live. No more elaborate meals. No more salt. No more cigars. I’m a real bore.”
“Are you okay now?” I sputtered, not sure what to say.
He assured me that he was okay physically, but there was something missing in the aura of joy that he’d once exuded. He was a changed man. I could see it plain as day.
We hugged. He promised to call me, though I knew he never would.
Then it all made sense. He must have been sick when he broke off our relationship. He didn’t want to share that fact, didn’t want to be the subject of what he would have interpreted as my pity. He just went away on his own to suffer, like a wounded animal. Now he was different, chastened, and he thought the new man not worthy of my love and admiration. It was true, I did feel sorry for him. And that was the last thing he would have wanted.
I went home saddened.
It was at about that time that I reconnected with Dennis and drifted back into a relationship with him. If the first time had seemed distant and somehow impersonal, the second go-round was a real eye-opener. It hadn’t occurred to me that we spent all of our evenings at my place, never his. When we went by his house, it was just so he could pick up some belongings or feed his dog. I always waited in the car.
Then, on one occasion, we went by his house after work to pick up his binoculars en route to the beach. He paused and then invited me inside. I knew this represented a new stage in the relationship. He was trusting me to go into his home.
I took a breath and followed him in. What I saw were not the accoutrements of a secret life or a messy frat house scene as I’d imagined. It was surreal. Everywhere I looked Dennis had plastic bins stacked and organized containing a wide array of belongings from paperclips to old newspapers to hamburger wrappers. There were grease-stained paper bags all neatly folded, soiled plastic dishes and utensils stacked high, rubber bands, old batteries, and empty tubes from paper towels and toilet tissue. It turned out he saved literally everything he’d ever touched, all neatly ordered and labeled. The mess was enormous, towering, and crowding in on the narrow walkways that remained throughout the house. He didn’t look at me as we made our way among the bins and piles, whether out of shame or because he needed to watch where he was going.
The fact that Dennis was a full-on hoarder took me aback. I can tolerate my share of kinks but somehow this struck me as more than neurotic. It all made me wonder what he did with the people in his life. Did he store their bodies in the crawlspace? I tried not to react too strongly. I could tell he was waiting and feeling vulnerable to my response. Surprisingly, he was able to locate the binoculars straight away and we made our way out of the claustrophobic setting and back to the car for our trip.
Nothing was ever said. He never asked me what I thought about the scene and I never ventured an opinion. It was the beginning of the end for us. We drifted apart and I saw less and less of him until he ultimately moved back to Arizona where he’d come from.
In the meantime, I continued to think about Ronnie.
Everyone, by a certain age, carries a lot of baggage. I include myself in this supposition. After the brief glow of youth, no one remains unblemished. Everyone is flawed, everyone is damaged. I was not going to find Mr. Right because he didn’t exist in my compromised world. I had been tearing through life looking for some type of perfection that wasn’t there. Where I should have been seeking a kindred spirit, I was searching for a straw man.
I allowed my membership in the online dating service to lapse. If I was to find a partner in life, I would find him in some more prosaic setting, perhaps groping among the avocados at the grocery store or walking his dog in an Oregon downpour. There would be no romantic epiphany. No magic. Just an ordinary meeting of two impaired souls on solid ground. Still, I liked my odds. It meant I didn’t have to feign faultlessness either. I needn’t lose those final ten pounds. I didn’t have to worry about whether my clothes or my car were good enough. I didn’t need to hide the fact that I liked cats or that I’d never really graduated from college. Instead, I was free to be myself, in all my quirky, imperfect glory.