One day in the mid-90s — I can’t remember which year it was, what month, or even what season — when I lived in Chicago, I was riding the El home from work, or I could have just been coming back from lunch. I usually took the train during off-peak hours, so there were no businesspeople to get between the city’s colorful characters and me. In that time of my life, I considered myself very sympathetic to the less fortunate. I showed my sympathy by listening. When it came to Chicago’s leftovers, I cared.
Some bedraggled man was sitting next to me, telling me his troubles. I nodded understandingly, occasionally interjecting advice, assent, or commiseration. The world was a hard, cruel place, and we all struggled through it together. This was a common theme of my conversations back then. I often expressed my righteousness loudly; what was the point in being a champion of the wretched if other people didn’t know?
That day on the El, my conversation caught a young woman’s attention. And then I caught her eye.
She was sitting directly across from us. Her face was long and plain, but kind, her hair stringy. She wore a hooded Mexican serape of the type that was pretty common at the time, and colorful beads. As I talked to my new poor friend, I could see her face grow beatific with admiration for me. It was time to ratchet my empathy up a notch. I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“I know, buddy,” I said. “I know.”
The guy got off the train. But the young woman was still there, looking right at me. She seemed to blush.
“You’re impressive,” she said.
“Oh, it was nothing,” I said.
“Not many people would take the time for him.”
“It’s just what I do.”
We talked for a while; the train was slow, as always. One thing that came up: She was a volunteer at Facets Multimedia, an independent film society on Fullerton Avenue. She’d be working that night. There was a Hungarian movie playing that she really liked. Or maybe it was Finnish. I knew all about the movie. Back then I worked for an “alternative” newspaper and didn’t have a TV, so I was more likely to hear about a Bresson retrospective at the Art Institute than, say, Tommy Boy.
Julia brought her lips gently down on mine. They felt small, slightly off-putting and intriguing.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve been wanting to see that one for a while.”
She had a shift tonight, she said. I should come by. She’d get me in for free. The way she looked at me, I sensed that wasn’t all I’d get. But I kept that sense buried deep. This was about a free movie, and I never turned down a freebie.
I went to the 7 PM showing. She was there, taking tickets. Her face glowed when she saw me.
“You came!” she said.
“Of course,” I said.
The movie was good. At least, I think I remember it being good. As I write this, I seem to recall a frozen tundra-scape and a struggle for survival between mortal enemies. Or a guy lost in the bowels of a bureaucratic nightmare. It’s possible that the movie could have contained both. When I got out, her shift was over. We went for a beer.
After an hour or so, we took the bus to her apartment, the basement of a three-story building with yellow bricks on a side street in Wicker Park, just off North Avenue, or possibly Division. The place smelled like patchouli. She had a cat. There were herbal tea boxes and jars of grain in the kitchen. Her albums were of the Indigo Girls genre. Dark-colored paisley scarves draped around the living room.
“I like it,” I said.
We sat on her futon and talked a little. Eventually, I moved to kiss her, opening my mouth wide, but she only drew hers into a tiny O. Her tongue barely flicked; her breath tasted sour and nutty. She looked at me with sad, loping eyes. I ran my hand through her dirty hair.
She took me into her bedroom and onto another futon, which was supported by a homemade wooden frame. Without saying a word, she lifted her shirt over her head. Her skin was pale and her breasts tiny. She sat there looking lost. Perhaps I’d felt the smallest flame of desire for her before, but it flickered out right then.
“What do you want me to do?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never done this before.”
There’s no way for me to write the dialogue that follows without sounding turgid, so I’ll summarize. Five years earlier, she’d been raped. She got pregnant and had an abortion. She hadn’t touched another man, until now.
“I should go,” I said.
We didn’t exchange another word. She was still sitting there, half-naked, when I left the room. I walked out into the night, and, I kid you not, it was misting.
If I walked past her on the street now, I probably wouldn’t recognize her. I can’t even remember her name. Who knows if she’s found peace, or greater agony, or where she lives now, or if she’s even alive at all? As far as my life is concerned, she’s still in that room with that lost hangdog look, and she always will be.
Still, the night sticks. When I left her house, I waited an hour in the rain, for the bus that would take me to the train that would take me home. That hour, that night, and most of the next day I was dazed, as though walking in a particularly ugly dream. Even now, at the oddest moments, the memory comes back. But it’s not like I did anything particularly wrong. I could have taken horrible advantage of an impossibly vulnerable person. I could have mocked her troubles, but that wasn’t in me. At worst, I extricated myself from an uncomfortable situation without causing any permanent hurt.
At the same time, I used false, knee-jerk public altruism to gain the affections of an obviously damaged woman. From the beginning, I saw that her eyes contained deep sorrow, a look that warned me: Either be this person’s friend, a true friend, or step away. Instead I ran all the way to second base before pulling myself out of the game. I guess that if this had been a unique incident, I could have written it off as a strange situation. But it wasn’t.
All my single life, but particularly in my mid-20s, I made it a habit to hook up with women who I wasn’t attracted to, who I didn’t even particularly like, because I could, because they wanted to, because it was easy, because I don’t really know why, but I did. Just out of college, while I was living in professional exile in a small Indiana town, I visited Bloomington for the night and ended up naked on a futon with an extremely unpleasant, overweight, mustachioed grad student who my friend called “The Horse.” When I was 14, I took a girl to the movies. I knew she was hopelessly in love with me, so I allowed her the privilege of jacking me off into a bucket of popcorn. At 16, while my Jewish youth group chapter was hosting a regional conference, I procured a van in the parking lot and dry-humped a cute little blond girl from Las Vegas within an inch of our mutual explosion. We then exchanged letters for six months (hers were full of lipstick smudges and misspellings) before I called, breaking her poor heart for no reason.
By the time my near-hookup with the woman on the El happened, I was an adult, if not grown-up. I should have been more discriminating, should have had more pride in myself, and respect for her. The incident illuminated the original sin of my existence. Was I really born predatory, manipulative, but ultimately a moral and emotional coward? As the Magic 8 Ball might say: Signs point to yes. I believe that we can will our life toward goodness, improve our basic behavior, and become tender lovers and responsible spouses, but our essential selves remain unchanged.
At the time, I was so ashamed of myself that I went to a psychic in whose powers several friends of mine swore, and told her of my bad habit.
“There’s nothing you can do,” she said. “It’s in your nature.”
Who we were at our worst moment is who we are forever.
And with that cheery thought, I bid you good day.