“William, I didn’t know you were an art fiend!”
William turned his head and saw Doris coming towards him. He didn’t know her well. They worked at the same place but in different departments on different floors. She had come three years before, two after William had arrived. He met her rarely, but she always seemed pleasant and sensible. He knew she was married from her ring, but that was the extent of his knowledge of her life outside of work. He never thought of her.
“An incorrigible one,” he answered, smiling. “What do you think of the exhibit?” They talked and wound up seeing the rest of the exhibit together. When they exited, Doris asked, “Is there any decent place to eat around here that you know of?” Even though it was an odd hour, 3 pm, they had a light meal at a small, nearby diner. They both talked appreciatively and intelligently about the exhibit.
As they were getting ready to depart, Doris spoke hesitantly for the first time: “I should explain my imposing upon you like this, virtually dragging you to dine with me.” She lowered her voice. “My marriage is coming apart. I do not expect it will last long.” She fiddled with her wedding ring as she said this. “I tell you this because I have enjoyed our conversation and I don’t want you to think you should not ask me out sometime if you want to.” At this point her face colored. Her manner was nervous rather than flirtatious. William was nonplussed, but he did not show it.
“I would like to,” he said, and they made arrangements to meet the coming Saturday evening for an Eric Rohmer film and dinner afterwards.
William thought long and hard as he walked the eleven blocks to his apartment. He had never had a girlfriend in high school, and his only love had been his college sweetheart. They had been immediately attracted to each other freshman year when they worked on a play together. They had married upon graduation. Two and a half years and two miscarriages later, she had left him for another man. “I was fond of you, William,” she had told him. “I still am fond of you. Very. But now I know what real love is and I do not want to spend the rest of my life with someone for whom I can only feel fondness. I love George and want to be with him forever.”
Though it sounded like a movie script, it nevertheless devastated William. He was not angry, only terribly sad. Since then he had closed himself up, vowing never to love again, never to become vulnerable again. He had had a number of affairs since his divorce, all quite casual, at least on his side. Withal, he was not a cruel man, or at least did not want to be. That is why he pondered over what to do about Doris.
While he was not particularly attracted to her physically, he liked her personality. Doris did not strike him as superficial, as the sort who would become involved romantically in a casual way. If he was going to try to become involved with her, and she responded, it would not be something casual for her. So he thought it should not be for him, either. He had arranged to see her again because it would have been impolite not to. But they both had a good time on Saturday, amiably, even humorously, disagreeing over the import of the film, and discovering they both liked science fiction and opera. They parted platonically.
They slept together on their third meeting. William, whose marriage had ended eight years before, decided that he was now willing to risk something more serious. By this time, Doris and her husband had separated and agreed to divorce. Doris was surprised when William initiated lovemaking, but also flattered. After that night, what had been a pleasant, if ripening, friendship, turned into utter infatuation for both of them. They spent every evening and night together after work, and virtually the entire weekend. It was total immersion While before they had mostly spoken of common interests, now they spoke almost exclusively about themselves.
The infatuation faded for Doris after a bit more than a week. She had been married longer than William, and it had been preceded by two serious, long-term romances. She had more experience of love and realized relatively soon that she did not truly love William and never would. She felt terrible for more than one reason. The first was that she had become a type, a woman who had been caught on the rebound after her husband had proved unfaithful. She had pursued William because of meeting him by chance in the art gallery and because he was presentable and civilized. It was a classic case, and she hated the idea that she was a type or a classic case. Secondly, she liked William and thought highly of him. (She knew nothing of his casual affairs; only that his wife had left him.) If she were forty rather than thirty, she might have contentedly taken William as a husband, but, while she still felt intensely hurt by her husband’s infidelity, she was by means desperate. No, she would not marry William, and she had to end the affair. But she wanted to let him down as easily as she could.
Her plan was to let him decompress, so to speak, before she ended things, to reduce the temperature; in short, to have their relationship descend into banality. Maybe, Doris fantasized, William would so tire of it that he would end it before she got around to doing so. Without actually acting cooler towards him, she steered their conversations into office gossip—something utterly new for them—and into domestic topics she knew were of no interest to him, like clothing and furniture. To her chagrin, she found this de-romanticization did not work. For William, this more domestic phase of their relationship seemed a natural evolution. His infatuation for Doris did not cease and even allowed him to indulge her gossip and domestic preoccupations without dimming at all the romantic aura that, for him, still surrounded her.
The office’s holiday party was fast approaching, always a big affair, and this gave Doris another idea. After three eggnogs (Doris drank rarely), she got up the courage to break off dancing with William and begin dancing with someone else. Doris was intoxicated enough to have the courage to do this, but not so intoxicated as to forget her careful plan. She deliberately chose someone who was not a coworker but a guest, a total stranger. She started to dance with the stranger very late, when most people were too drunk to notice what she did. Without being too obvious, she pressed herself against the stranger as they danced, but enough so that anyone paying close attention to her, as she knew William would be, would notice. After the dance, the stranger held onto her wrist and slurringly began to proposition her. She smiled and turned her back to where William was standing, listened to her dance partner for some time, and finally left him with a smile and without a word went back to William, who was too stunned to say anything.”It’s late. Shall we go?” said Doris brightly.
All the way back to her apartment she blithely chattered about the party and gossipped about the people there. When they arrived at her place she said, “I could sleep for days. Go home, William. Come here whenever you want tomorrow and we’ll go dine someplace.
The next day they wound up in a café for a late lunch or early dinner. William was still very quiet. After their meal was served, Doris steeled herself and spoke: “I apologize for my performance yesterday. I am ashamed of myself. William, it was my way of trying to end things. I don’t care anything for that man I danced with. I did it to get you angry and make it easier for us to break up. No, I want to be completely honest. I detest these—my—subterfuges. I wanted to make it easier for me to break up with you”
“But why? I thought things were going so well. I love you.”
“You caught me on the rebound, William. I am a classic case. No, I pursued you, which makes it worse. Please believe me: I am so very sorry to hurt you, but . . .”
William interrupted. “You are fond of me but realize you do not love me.” William said this with such world-weariness that for a moment Doris was struck dumb. The reader will forgive, I hope, my not continuing with this scene which was, for both of them (though unequally), sad and painful. A week afterwards, William summarized it in a poem. It was the first poem he had ever written, perhaps not a good one, and he never wrote another. He entitled it “Leave-taking.”
She said her good-bye to me in a café.
Her hand touched my shoulder and then slipped away.
A tear was in her eye when she left that day.
It did not prevent her from going away.
He meant to send it some day, years in the future, to Doris. He never did.