Love & Other
Terminal Diseases

The Deep Woods (part two)

("The Deep Woods" parts one and two were published in sequential 2004 issues of Pindeldyboz, a literary magazine which alas has ceased publishing and is no longer available online.)

After the Hungarian had departed Cassie's life with half her furniture and a gorgeous new suit, there ensued the social-worker phase of Cassie's love-life. She proceeded to bring home an assortment of stray cats--from public-spirited lawyers to bureaucrats from the Internal Revenue Service--all of whom seemed characterized by terminal paralysis of the sexual ego. Cassie struggled valiantly to make each of them feel like a stallion at a stud farm, but though she was successful from their point of view, each experience left her more disappointed than the last. She became adept at the art of avoiding second encounters.

Finally, Cassie entered the "married man" phase of her life. It seemed to promise more rewards than the others. Married men were safe. They understood that pleasure should be mutual, and they knew how to accomplish it (or at least they were willing to try). They scrupulously avoided, for reasons of their own, making demands. They were also clean and careful. Which only meant that if everything were done right, you were left feeling lonelier than before.

So when Johnny Moonbeam streaked across her night sky like a blazing comet one July in the middle of her thirty-eighth year, as she perched on her favorite bar stool at her local Rutgers University hangout, Cassie was ready for something different. She took one look at him--the curly, dark hair, etched with grey, the tall, bony frame, carried with dignity and even a certain subtle swagger, the broad shoulders, the intense but mysterious brown eyes, and the sensuous lips that were always half-smiling--and thought: o mi god, this is the kind of man of whom presidents are made. She started a conversation and before an hour was out she was in love. She would have taken him back to her apartment that very evening had he asked, but he didn't. He got her phone number and called her the next day for lunch.

At that luncheon, Cassie found it difficult to keep her mouth closed. So intent was she on convincing John that she was an experienced woman of the world, whose affections were not to be messed with, thank you, that she chatted on and on about the men who had threaded through her life. But eventually, over baked stuffed flounder and a chilled white Bordeaux, she learned to both her enthrallment and her consternation that Johnny Moonbeam was a man with a past. He'd had several professions--college professor, actor, banker--and was now a producer of highly regarded television spots. He was in New Brunswick teaching a one-semester seminar in the art of filmed commercials. More significantly from Cassie's point of view, he'd been married no less than four times. Though he described these wives as having richly varied backgrounds--from Hawaii to Morocco and from Academia to Advertising--to Cassie they all sounded like Hollywood starlets. His last girlfriend, a promising young ballet dancer from the Big Apple, had been barely twenty-four years old. When Cassie had given him to understand--rather defensively to be sure--that she regarded her live-in relationship with Istvan as, "rather like a second marriage, don't you know," Johnny had replied: "Oh, well, if you count those..." and trailed off, leaving Cassandra not only moonstruck and sexually excited but utterly in awe. 0 mi god, she thought, stuffing in the last morsel of pecan pie, I'm not even in this guy's league.

He invited her to dinner at his place in Manhattan that weekend. He prepared pheasant Madeira and eggplants stuffed with oysters, while Cassie looked on, all her offers to help being politely refused. Before the meal was half over her feet were in Johnny Moonbeam's lap, under the table, where he gave her a foot massage as they polished off their victuals. Before they had finished their second bottle of wine they had adjourned to the Moonbed.

Ah, if Friday nights of her married life had only been like this! The unusual feature of Johnny Moonbeam, was that he cared about her pleasure! Almost more, so it seemed, than his own. If there was a neurotic aspect to that need to satisfy, it was certainly not obvious to Cassandra. Given her recent history as Nurse Ames of the Sexual Rescue Squad, she had come to this evening programmed to use her skills to satisfy Johnny, but Mr. Moonbeam had other ideas. When Johnny Moonbeam made love, Johnny Moonbeam was in control. He took no time at all to discover that her plum-sized breasts were the key to unlocking the gale force of her libido, and he used that knowledge like a chef uses the correct motion to stir a souffle. Cassie found herself gasping in ecstasy long before he entered her. And when he did penetrate her swollen flesh at last, she found herself exclaiming: "Oh, Johnny, I don't even mind! I don't even mind that I'm the five hundred and twelfth!"

Strictly speaking, of course, she did mind. She minded a great deal.

She would sit at home, on evenings when he did not call, and fret. At work she would find herself distractedly writing his name in giant, looping letters on a yellow legal pad (surrounded by clumps of drawn daisies) when she was supposed to be listening to some whippersnapper district attorney insulting her client in court, and then--in quite as brisk and unpremeditated a fashion--crossing it out again with severe, flashing strokes that almost scored the paper. She found herself giving voice to strange thoughts under odd circumstances. "Erection!" she muttered once, under her breath. "Sustained!" shouted the judge. "The prosecutor will stop badgering the plaintiff!" And Cassie went back to drawing moonbeams on her pad, and crossing them out.

"I want you to know that this cannot be forever," he had said, that first night, after his exotic lovemaking had trip-hammered her heart into docility. "You do understand, don't you?"

"Of course!" she had exclaimed. "How could you have thought otherwise? I'm a pretty independent lady, don't you know."

In truth, Cassie understood nothing. With her heart like a careening fire engine and her brain like cream of wheat, she was not in a position to understand. If he had told her that she must recite the Magna Charta at midnight while chained to a tree, she would have nodded and never asked why.

Even so--despite her misgivings about the number of "floozies" in his life (as she came, sometimes, to think of them) and her agita when it was more than a day since he'd called--that first night began a marvelous period in her life. Despite his unwillingness to commit himself, he was tender, loving, and generous with his time when he was with her. He brought her wine. He sent her flowers. They would fix dinner together, or go to jazz concerts, or spend long, post-coital hours giggling and snuggling. They would play Trivial Pursuit, which he always won. (She castigated herself silently for the darting thought of how appropriate it was for him to be an expert at "trivial pursuit".) They would play five-card stud, which she always won, poker being the only thing her father was ever good at. (And that was appropriate too, of course, since Cassie's father had bluffed Cassie's mother into believing he was hot stuff.) Each time she raked in her earnings, however, Cassandra quivered with doubt about whether she ought to have permitted herself to win.

Ah, how relentless the sharpened knives of the unconscious! Cassie would be stretched out on the bed in Johnny Moonbeam's apartment in a royal flush of excitement when something would sting the back of her neck without warning, and a voice would reverberate: "Where was he on Tuesday when I called until 3 a.m.?" But of course she could never tell him she had called until 3 a.m.!

And soon, as the clear glass pane of her happiness became smudged with blurring doubt, her behavior changed. Each time they parted, she would kiss him too much, hug him too hard. Though she observed the growing frown, she couldn't seem to stop. Each time she bussed herself home through the star-studded night, she castigated herself for being clinging. But the next time they saw each other she would bury her head in his chest and sob: "Oh, Johnny, please don't send me away!" And she would watch his adorable dimples flatten into a blank mask.

The flowers stopped. And the dinners. No more did he call laughingly from some Manhattan television set where he was directing a commercial, to tell her how a famous star had just blown a line. They saw each other once a week, unpredictably, and finally, not even that.

So when, in early October, Johnny asked her for a weekend at his cabin near Sag Harbor, a house she did not even know until that moment existed, she was ecstatic. They succumbed to passion the moment they arrived, on the living room floor, in breathless haste. They built a fire in the fireplace and he prepared quail in fines herbes sauce, with wild rice and truffles. "I have so enjoyed being with you, Cassandra," he said as they clinked glasses after dinner. "That's why it makes me sad that I'm leaving for the Coast on Tuesday. Hollywood. I knew they'd get me sooner or later. It's been a lovely period for me. In any case, I wanted our goodbye to be something special."

And it was. For even through her heartbreak (or because of it! what secrets hide at the core of the libido!) Cassie experienced heights of erotic pleasure she'd scarcely known existed, dizzying episodes in which her body seemed to melt and flow into the surrounding scenery, the most dazzling of which, of course, was that Sunday afternoon among the leaves.

Afterwards, she tried writing a poem:

"He was kind, he was wise; He brushed teardrops from her eyes..."

But it was no use. She wasn't a poet. She wasn't a writer of any kind. She was a lawyer. Wasn't that, after all, enough? Perhaps, but how to litigate love?

It was harder than before to keep her heart in her work but, somehow, she managed. The criminals she defended did not go to jail more frequently, but her paperwork suffered. Her supervisor in the Public Defender's office counseled her weekly over coffee in the cafeteria near the Criminal Court building.

Whiskey dulled the pain. Eventually she regained her stool at the corner bar she'd stopped frequenting altogether during the months she had known Johnny Moonbeam. And--as always happens--her work-life finally resumed its dedicated, selfless character. There was a never-ending stream of indigent, beleaguered and unfortunate souls in the world--the outcasts, the pariahs--who needed defending. And armed with her law degree, her high energy, and her passion for justice, Cassie would defend them.

Occasionally--when loneliness or sexual fever or the need to please seemed to well up uncontrollably--she brought home men to share her bed. But they always left with an impression that there was something odd about her. None of them liked the incline; the only two who consented to stay the night complained of cricks in their necks the next morning. So eventually she got rid of it, tugging the rug out and standing the plywood plank in one corner of her bedroom. No one seemed to understand the leaves either, and made it plain when she would blow them like dandelion seeds all over the bed with a fan. So she got rid of the leaves. But the poster stayed, year in, year out, though it grew faded and yellowed and tattered at the edges, and the first tabs of scotch tape gave way and needed to be replaced by fresh swatches. Who, after all, would give her a hard time about a poster of trees, even if it was only the tops of trees? And she kept it as a reminder of a perfect, vanished time.