WE MET IN Tribeca; our first date setting the stage for everything that was great between us. The conversation was open and intimate, unlike typical first-date small talk. It was akin to a third or fourth date when you know that time is going to be invested in this person, so you go a bit in-depth and open yourself up for a closer look, less afraid of the imperfections they may see. His firsthand experiences mirrored much of what I had only dreamed about at university.
“Yeah, divorce is rough but I came out of it better than most I guess . . . Funny, your escape was the rain, mine was the streets, which just made things worse at home,” said Tony. “You know, Jules, if you truly love the smell of the earth after a good rainfall, then you must love Costa Rica. I just got back from there surfing with my brother. The rain forest is amazing. Man, we saw animals unlike anything in the Bronx Zoo. This is our third time there. Have you ever been?”
“No, but I saw a PBS documentary on it last year. It’s on my list of must-go-to places,” I said.
“Ah, you’ll love it. I’ll take you,” said Tony, to my ears not sounding like an empty gesture but like a heartfelt desire. “It’s the best place to get lost and get found in, next to certain parts of Africa. Last year I went to sub-Saharan Africa for a photo shoot and ended up staying a few weeks working with the famine relief to deliver food and vaccines. You?”
“No. I haven’t been to the continent yet, but I am an avid supporter of Feed the Children. Okay, avid is a little strong. I have supported, would like to do more, and really want to impress you, but it’s kinda hard because you have done everything,” I said.
“Not true. I’ve never fallen in love,” he said, completing the sentence with a wink, at which we both erupted in laughter. “I can’t believe I just said that to you. Did it work? Are you swooning? You are, come on . . . smooth.”
With as much seductive sarcasm as I could muster, I replied, “Oh yeah, something is seriously rising”—half covering my mouth with my hand to cough out the words—“and it’s not the flag in Pamplona but the—” At which we both laughed. “Seriously, don’t you ever get tired of the nomadic life and just want a place to call home?”
“On the real, I guess you could say I am a wanderer of sorts. There’s so much to explore, and I plan to do all of it,” he said. “Besides, being transitory is actually comforting for me. My mom was inconsistent after the divorce, so I learned early on not to get too attached to things or hit the self-destruct button when things get so comfortable that I lose perspective. You learn to adapt. One day you’ll reach for it and nothing is there, you know?”
I thought I knew but in truth I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I watched the words leave his mouth, heard them in my right ear, and by the time they got to the left I had paraphrased them into an immaculate tale of Scheherazade convincing myself that I was the answer to his wondering.
Every so often the maître d’ came over to make sure that “their Tony” was happy, as would friends and neighborhood locals who, like him, considered the Odeon their personal kitchen. I was fascinated watching as he effortlessly transitioned from one to the other; each time never forgetting that I was there and making certain to include me in the conversation or cut a dialogue short when a dim-witted model creature was blatantly trying to blink me invisible.
“I could get used to you at my side, Ms. Sinclair,” said Tony.
Officially, he was choosing me. This Sadie Hawkins–esque mentality I reasoned was one of the rare places that Venus and Mars weren’t actually so far apart. It’s just that women and men approach love and idol worship far differently. As a woman, I acknowledge that I am preconditioned to wait to be selected for the moment “he” will announce to the gallery that I am the most beautiful one in the room. For their part, men—no matter their size, shape, or credit score—seem conditioned to believe that everything they survey is rightfully theirs, be it women or cattle; it is all property, one and the same. The only difference is that cattle can’t hold them or build them up when the world around starts to disintegrate. It takes some time before they are ready to hear this truth and fold into a specific woman. I would be foolish to think that I was the first for Tony in this space, but I do believe that I am the most genuine he has encountered, and that in itself could be a frightening proposition over time.
In little to no time we came to know each other’s mannerisms so well that the graze of a brow would be a signal to depart, a shortened laugh meant he wanted rescue from an impossibly boring conversation. His hand in the small of my back said, “I’m proud you’re mine.” Before Tony, I never laughed so much about anything or took myself so lightly. For a while playing Lois Lane to his Superman was enough. But, as much as we were in harmony, there were hiccups that I didn’t question, to a great extent because I trusted the strength of our union, until the moments that started as flint sparks erupted into four-alarm fires.
“What are you talking about, Tony? Don’t break that! I told you last week that I was meeting Shawn for dinner. I even asked if you wanted to come. Why would I do that if I had something to hide? Why?! Whatever, I guess your boy Jay’s word on what he thought he saw is more important than mine.”
His quiet moments, the dark ones that were not about waking up late on a Sunday, having coffee, and silently dissecting the paper in bed together—National Geographic and Sports Illustrated for him, Arts and Style sections of The New York Times for me—were the worst.
“Hey, didn’t you hear me calling you? What’s wrong? How long have you been sitting here? It’s past three o’clock,” I’d say.
Being at dinner and catching a gaze between him and the waitress, never enough for our friends to notice but just enough for me to feel devalued. My initial thought was always to go quiet and not overreact, but words often found me when we were alone.
“Tell you what, next time I see lipstick anywhere on your person I will be certain not to fall back on the convention of us. You should know better.”
Before long I found myself asking him questions I already knew the answers to, only to have him lie to me or avoid the response completely. More nights than I care to admit, I would leave his place in tears and vowing never again. Angrier than necessary at myself for always choosing the wrong corner to try to hail a cab. Tribeca is a bitch late at night. And every time we hit a wall he would find a way to reach in and take hold of my heart again. Maybe if I didn’t love him as intensely as I did, it would have been easier to make a break sooner.
“Love isn’t perfect, Jules. It’s not the fairy tale you have worked out in your head. I am trying hard to be that man for you, baby, but you have to ride this out with me. I need to know that you will be there.”
I was there through everything, even as the tests got harder and harder. I was there when his brother Nathaniel died as they were riding (racing) back from the Hamptons on their bikes. I was there when he said that the recreational white powder was just a temporary situation to take the edge off and was nothing to worry about. I was there long enough to become the enemy so that everything I did to comfort him only infuriated him. I was there for the yelling, the crying, the apologies, and I truly tried to understand it and rationalize that it was not him, that he was under great pressure. To my heart’s ache I was there when Angie’s body held the comfort he needed.
That’s the thing about giving a set of keys to your lover; eventually he or she will use them at an unexpected moment. Ours was on a Saturday—October 9, 1996, to be exact, when I received a call from the Conrad Hotel Group in London to join their firm. Tony was the one who gave me the inside information to apply, so it seemed only natural that when they called and offered me the position on a day that was free of any expectations, I would rush to him to talk everything over. And boy, was there a lot to figure out. Could his job be done from London in order to be with me or at least could he split the time since the flight is only five and a half hours across the Atlantic? Should I keep my apartment in NYC or move my things into his? If I were to give up my place, did he want us to get the London flat as a couple with both of our names on the lease? The package they offered sounded good, but what should I counter with? Was the expense package sufficient? Tony held the answers to my future.
• • •
In hindsight it’s odd because I sensed my world was crashing before my eyes took in the full scene, but dismissed it. Maybe it was the eternity that it seemed to take traveling from uptown or the uncertainty of what it would mean for us growing to the next level. On entering the main level of his place I smelled a fragrance (freesia and lemon—awful combination if ever there was) that was at once familiar but not readily identifiable. I called his name and immediately upon seeing his form coming down the stairs, I dove right in with my news. I must have been talking a mile a minute while trying to find a chilled bottle of champagne because I didn’t initially notice the look on his face or the marks on his back. It was only when I held him again that I felt them accompanied by the unusual warmth of his mouth and that scent (freesia and lemon) in the fold of his neck. This time I didn’t need to ask questions. His face was in my hands, so there was no place for his eyes to run in an attempt to escape mine. The story they told me was far more than I could bear, and it was right then that I understood for the first time what real loss was. It was the first moment that I felt I could truly empathize with his losing Nathaniel earlier in the year. I had lost him and unlike the times before, we both knew that I could not take him back, even though I still loved him, and that an ocean between us was the only answer.
It must have been the absence of screaming and dramatics or the unusually long quiet between us, but she called his name and suddenly everything made sense. She was always too eager about any developments about us. I erroneously had become far too open and comfortable in the certainty of Tony and Jules, so I disclosed freely.
“AN-Tony, is she gone?”
Well, so much for a long quiet. Somewhere between the first and second landing I met Angie and she met the champagne bottle in my hand. Damn shame actually now that I think about it—Pierre Jouët rosé was my favorite champagne. I haven’t had it since 1996. All the things that I could not do to him I did to her. Each blow landed only intensified the fury inside. In that moment I understood how someone could take a life, and I would have if he had not grabbed me. I remember him holding me tightly, rocking back and forth. His tears falling down my shoulder, and all I could do was collapse into his arms and mourn us. How odd the whole experience was. When I awoke, we were in the same spot on the floor and in the same cradle position that I so loved to be in with him. Being “in the pocket” is how he always referred to it. I was glad that he didn’t wake when I left, for there was nothing else to be said except that I wished we could go back in time and meet all over again, but this time we would be smarter and not hurt each other.
Tony once said, “J, it hurts sometimes to see myself in your eyes. You believe me to be the kind of man that I only aspire to be but fear I will never live up to.” Maybe that is why I instinctively held his face in the kitchen, so that he could see my soul and all that he’d destroyed, because in some strange way I knew that it was the only way to reach him. I needed Tony to see what a living death looked like.
I accepted the offer and left for London within the week. My phone met an unfortunate end somewhere along the West Side Highway. Smashing it was the only way I could stop his calls from coming through and my temptation to allow explanation. My office was no longer safe, because he camped out there now in order to explain, so I resigned effective immediately. I left my apartment as is, had my intern forward my clothing, and went to a hotel because I didn’t know which of our friends to trust. I walked a lot above Twenty-first Street in the hopes that the city would heal me as it had many times before. But this time she failed me. On the plane I thought of my mother’s warning about being mindful of what details one confides in girlfriends about their relationships because instead of celebrating your happiness one will be contemplating how to get what and who you have.
“Baby, watch yourself and these little fast girls you call friends. They aren’t happy for you. You better wise up and see who is trying to get what you got.”
“Cora, please. My girls are not like that,” I said boastfully. “Women today are not like they were back in your day. Besides, Tony would never.”
“I prefer when you call me Mommy. Those are the times that I know you really hear the words I am saying to you,” said Cora.
“And what if I wanted to stop, hear less. What about then, Cora,” I asked, intentionally snarky.
“Nasty little thing you can be sometimes, Julesea. I don’t know who you get it from—definitely not from me,” said Cora. “Everybody knows the Dutch are extremely civilized people.”