Such a Perfect Day
"I still love you," I said.
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Christina was in her first semester of medical school at NYU when we met. I swept the library floors twice a week for extra money and she was invariably the last to leave.
At the time, I was planning to be a writer, but wasn't doing much about it. I wrote a few sentences each evening and spent a lot of time watching the Knicks and contemplating the meaning of life. Christina thought it was romantic, at least in the beginning. We would sit for hours in my studio apartment on 50th Street and talk about our ambitions. We had a lot of sex.
Christina was a serious student, though, and medical school requires a great deal of dedication. She studied every evening, five hour stretches, and days would pass when I'd hear nothing. At first I didn't mind. I thought I needed the free time to get my own work done, told myself that Christina was a distraction. But I usually ended up going to Grady's on Tenth Avenue. I ate two, sometimes three burgers in a night. I began to gain weight.
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I missed her and often went to the library simply to see her study. She hated this, but I managed to keep quiet while she worked. I would stare at Christina's crinkled brow and watch her scribble notes. She had beautiful handwriting and I loved the way her elbow bounced when she wrote.
She pressured me to show her my latest story. She was somehow still under the impression that I was writing. I put her off, said I was working on something big, it would take a while before it was ready. I had nothing to write about, though. I was empty.
Christina noticed I was packing it on. "Why don't you get out more," she suggested. I tried taking long walks. But I got bored. There is no television outside. I compromised by hiking to a bar with a T.V. and Buffalo wings.
For her, I spent one weekend trying to lose weight. I drank a single Slim Fast shake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They were delicious. The next day, I drank eleven.
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Christina sat on my apartment floor one night. My place was spare in those days, I couldn't afford a couch. She ate Chinese food out of a carton. Her face was lit by candles because I hadn't paid my electric bill.
"Tod? Are you still thinking about law school?" she asked.
I had never thought about it. She only mentioned law school because it was a well worn path to success in her mind. Two of her cousins were lawyers at big firms in the city, worked twelve or fifteen hour days, made good money.
"I just want you to show some ambition," Christina said. "Before it's too late."
I had my whole life in front of me. How could it be too late? And besides, I had her.
Her jaw worked up and down as she chewed her chicken with cashew nuts. The dimple on her left cheek stood out whenever she swallowed. I loved the way she wiped her face: she would close her eyes, like it was a dirty, but necessary job.
"Whenever I'm with you, Christina, my troubles disappear. You're all I need."
She raised her eyebrows.
"Pass me the spare ribs," she said.
I followed Christina to class. It was a Monday. I kept my distance, just enjoyed watching her hair flop up and down. The large lecture hall was crowded, but I managed to find a seat at the back. The professor's voice and the scratching of pens were the only sounds. I must have dozed off and begun snoring. When I awoke Christina was shaking me. People stared. She did that thing I like: grabbed a clump of her hair. How I loved her.
What the hell did I think I was doing? she wanted to know. Didn't I have better things to do with my time? "Look at those clothes you're wearing," she said and touched them.
My jeans had tiny holes at the knees and I wore a red, stained sweatshirt and sneakers.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked. "Do you think you need professional help?"
I didn't think so. I just wanted to be with her. It made me feel good. It made it okay that I wasn't doing anything else worthwhile.
Christina didn't return my phone calls for three days. I figured she was busy with school work. But when I did get through, she said she was in the middle of something and would have to get back to me. That ticked me off. What could be more important than a phone call from your love?
I tried to wait her out. I paid my electric bill. I bought every episode of "Dobie Gillis" from a specialty mail order catalog and spent two days watching them. I spent a day playing solitaire: I gave myself five dollars for every card I won like they do in Vegas. I finished ahead by twenty-five bucks and considered this quite an achievement. But what's an accomplishment if you have no one to share it. I needed Christina.
I called a few times and left more serious messages: "Christina, if I don't hear from you soon, it could be trouble between us... " and "My patience is wearing thin with this little game, my love..." I lived off Slim Fast shakes, pizza and beer. I put on ten pounds in each of the first two weeks of Christina's absence. That at least gave me an excuse to go to the Salvation Army for new clothes.
I didn't shower or shave for two days beforehand because I wanted to look as forlorn as possible. I put on my torn jeans, red sweatshirt and sneakers. The woman at the center grabbed my shoulder like we were old college buddies and smiled. She offered me her bologna sandwich (which I took) and escorted me into the back where they keep the "big and tall" clothes. I picked out a pair of baggy brown corduroys, a white sweatshirt and a blue baseball cap. The woman insisted I shower before leaving. I was happy to oblige.
I called Christina and told her all about my exploits at the Army. She didn't pick up the phone, of course. Her machine allowed messages of only a minute and I was forced to call back seven times in order to get the whole story in. I pictured Christina playing them. She would laugh. She would flop onto her couch, hug a pillow to her chest and call me. All would be forgiven.
I tossed and turned all night waiting for the call. Maybe something was really wrong. I cleared the pizza boxes and Slim Fast containers from the center of my living room and began to pace. Maybe Christina didn't share my passion. But we had so much. I knew her favorite place to be kissed. She knew about the night I vomited on my college president's front porch. We were ideal for each other, I had no doubt about it.
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There was a day we spent one week after we'd begun dating. It was fall, a Saturday. I surprised her by arriving at her apartment at nine in the morning with flowers and all the ingredients for strawberry pancakes. After breakfast we went to Prospect Park. We watched softball and then took a stroll. We stopped at a pond and threw rocks into the water. Christina leaned against a tree. She held a green leaf in her hand, tore it gently at the stem. I put my hand against her cheek and kissed her. It was our first. I told her my plan. I was going to write novels. Short stories were for the unambitious. I would write a masterpiece, I just knew I had it in me. Money didn't matter. Only dedication. She kissed me so hard she bit down and tore the skin on my lower lip.
"It was a perfect day," she said as we parted in the evening. "I really think you're special."
Three months later, where were we? I examined myself in the mirror. I didn't look too good. I had a tangled black beard that made me look like a bum. My white sweatshirt already had a pizza stain on it. And I had packed about two hundred and thirty pounds onto my five foot, nine and a half inch frame. Wasn't love supposed to transcend physical appearance, though? I would have loved HER, that's what I told myself.
I composed a song. It wasn't much, but I thought it really expressed my feelings. The last stanza read: the sun, the bread, the water, the blade -- fly above, juggling pins -- blur and clink, a liquid hope -- clear, a rainbow -- what is it? -- It's you. I read it to her answering machine in the afternoon. I figured she would have to call now. My balls were hanging out there, for Christ's sake. I had said, in not so many words, "I love you." I never thought I would say that, frankly, but I couldn't think of what else to call what I was feeling. I had been with a number of women -- not that I'm anything to look at -- but had never put myself out there like that.
She didn't call that day and by night time I was freaking. My face began to break out in a cherry red rash.
I decided to go to her place and find out, once and for all, what the hell was going on. I began to make a ham sandwich in case I got hungry on the way. There was a soft knock on the door.
She stood in the doorway with a grim look. I tried to hug her, but she pushed me aside.
"You smell terrible," she said.
"Christina..." I was choked up. She was wearing the wool sweater that I had given her for her birthday.
"I'll make this quick," she said.
I bit into my sandwich and sat on the floor. I don't know what I expected her to say. I knew we were having problems. I thought we would work it out. That's what lovers do.
"I don't want you to call me anymore," she said.
"What?" A piece of ham fell onto the floor.
"You're a dreamer," she said. "I just can't be around you anymore. You're a slob. You're fat."
"I love you, Christina." That's all I could think to say.
"You don't know what love is, you selfish prick."
"But we're perfect for each other."
"That's what you think? Perfect? Man, it's all in your head. Perfection? Jesus. Don't you know anything?"
Who was this standing in front of me? I was stunned into silence. I felt a little spit dribble down my chin.
"Take a fucking shower," she said. Didn't even close the door on her way out.
* * *
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Maybe Christina had a point, I thought after three weeks of sulking. Love isn't about perfection. It exists in a flawed world. Those who fail to see this are doomed to misery.
I started running every day and cut out Slim Fast altogether. I began to eat fruit. And I decided to write a novel. I was going to prove to Christina that I understood love.
The novel took me two years. I forced myself to write four hours a night. I managed to hold down two dish washing jobs, earned just enough for rent and food and left time for little else. I was twenty-five when I began and thought when the book was done, Christina would be mine.
* * *
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The book was a love story, although all of the novel's action took place in one day. Christina was the heroine, a pharmacist, a lonely suburban woman who fantasized about finding perfect love. She rejected everyone who tried to get close to her because she thought all any of them wanted was to possess her, like a trophy. She wanted a man drunk on his desire for something inaccessible within her. He would fuck her every evening like a wild animal. Words would be unnecessary between Christina and her love. He could be a mute. That was preferable, in fact.
Tod, a hulking, dim fireman, fell in love with her. He stood on her porch after three margaritas and declared his passion:
"I'm being honest," Tod said. "I can get laid any night. For you... I want to dim the lights, play Lou Reed. I want to kiss your cheek, kiss you everywhere, watch your face as the pleasure ebbs and flows. What will your lips do? Will they clench or purse? Will your eyes be closed? I want to force them open with my tongue, make you watch me. It isn't enough for me to fuck you, Christina. I want to love you."
Christina saw that Tod was not for her. He wanted to possess her like all the others. She went into her house and closed the door on Tod. But this brief encounter on her porch had allowed Christina to glimpse her own true nature and it depressed her. She was living in a fantasy. She would never transcend her mundane little world. She would not find perfect love.
Christina took a bottle of sleeping pills out of the medicine cabinet and ground them in a fine powder. She dissolved the drugs in a tall glass of water and drank them in one glorious, self-indulgent act. She died in bed, arms and legs spread eagled. She imagined that she died for love.
In the morning, poor Tod pounded on the door. When Christina did not answer, he broke it down in burly fireman fashion. He found her lying prone in bed, eyes fixed. He gently kissed her cheek and rubbed her bluish skin. He saw immediately what must have happened: she had been overwhelmed by her passion for him. Tod tucked the body under the blanket and crawled in next to her. He made love to Christina, fulfilling the promises he had made the night before.
Christina's ghost, watching from above, was disgusted. She attempted to pry the rugged fireman off her stiff body. But ghosts, like words, are powerless in the face of flesh and blood. She tried to escape the room, but the walls repelled her. When she covered her face, she saw through her hands. When she closed her eyes, she saw through her eyelids.
Tod fucked Christina's corpse until noon. When he was finished, he rolled over, lit a cigarette and sighed. It was the first sound he had uttered all morning.
Tod imagined he was incapable of feeling a purer passion than he was feeling in that moment. His love was perfect, like a circle, impenetrable. It existed, after all, in his own mind. Tod had miraculously achieved what Christina had sought. I intended for this to be ironic.
Christina's ghost touched an odd indentation on the fireman's nose. Tod suddenly swatted the air above his face. The corpse was attracting flies, he thought. It was time to go.
* * *
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I tried to find a buyer for the novel, but no one wanted any part of it. One agent called it the most depressing thing he'd ever read. He wondered about my sanity.
But I hadn't written it for the public and I was sure I was sane. The novel had been like therapy, that's what I convinced myself. I was down to 165 pounds and I was toned.
I called Christina. Blood rushed into my head and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to talk when she answered. But I hoped my love for her would enable me to speak: the words would flow steamy and hot like molten lava. AT&T answered the phone. The number I was calling had been changed. The new number was unlisted.
I went to her old apartment. Victor Lino, a balding man with large biceps, answered the door. He said he knew nothing about the former tenant. I began to cry. I fell on his doorstep and wailed. I pounded the floor with my fists. I kicked a bag of garbage down the stairs. Victor called the police.
Alan Marcellino arrested me. One of the best breaks I ever got. He was tall and resembled Robert Redford, only Italian and not so good looking. He put me behind bars and told me I'd have to spend the night there. But he was sympathetic. He listened.
I said I had lost something, maybe the most precious thing in the world. A true love. Her name was Christina.
The next morning Alan let me out. He told me not to pitch any more fits on the doorsteps of strangers. He said he had once lost a true love. He understood. He winked and handed me a piece of paper: it was Christina's new phone number and address. Alan patted me on the back. I hugged him and promised to send an autographed copy of my novel. I ran out of the precinct.
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It was January. I waited outside her apartment in the cold until she came home from work. It was our first contact in two years. I showed her my manuscript and the dedication inside: "To C, My Love." She laughed, tucked it under her arm and said she was late for a dentist's appointment. She looked good.
The first week of waiting was the easiest. The book was three hundred pages and it would take her at least five days. I occupied myself by cleaning. I dusted on the first day. I moved the couch, bent to my knees and scrubbed the grime out of the hard wood floor with a brush. On the second, I removed each book from the shelf and straightened its cover. By Saturday there was nothing left to clean. Two years of dirt, gone.
I looked at the phone. It would be easy to call, it wouldn't mean anything. Hey, how's it going, sweetie? No. Too soon.
I went jogging one evening. I stopped at a small grocery store a mile from home, walked around the frozen goods section. I stared at a pint of Ben & Jerry's Wavy Gravy for fifteen minutes.
I rushed home to check my answering machine. The red light was flickering. I felt my face flush with excitement. One call. I put my finger on the button to play the message, but stopped. I wanted to clean up first. I took a shower.
I stood in front of the machine, naked, dripping. I pressed play. It was a message from Sprint. They wanted to know if I was interested in switching from my current long distance carrier. Apparently, they used fiber optic cables for service "clear as a bell."
I shivered. Man, it was fucking cold all of a sudden.
I rummaged through my closet for something to wear. Found my old white sweatshirt.
Maybe just give her a ring, I thought, see how she's doing with the novel. Maybe she has questions or she's overwhelmed, afraid to call, confused by the welling of two years of emotion. I hung up after one ring. I didn't want to pressure her. Maybe she was really going over it with a fine tooth comb. I blended myself a strawberry Slim Fast and went to sleep.
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I woke at six in the morning, sweating. I blended another shake and started pacing around my apartment. Well, what would it really hurt? I thought. Just a little phone call. Just to see. It was my life, after all.
I got her machine.
"It's... Tod... Just wanted to see... well... call me."
I finally admitted that I was desperate. Didn't she see that I understood, finally? I really did love her. Didn't two years of my life dedicated to HER prove that? Jesus!
I waited outside her apartment one night, but she didn't come home. I decided that she was probably working nights. Doctors do that.
You wouldn't think a person could gain fifty pounds so quickly. I thought, just a Slim Fast in the morning to get me going. But the shakes acted like a tonic; they brought back all the memories of Christina that I had been suppressing for two years. I was up to ten shakes a day after a week.
I went to Grady's. The place looked the same, except they had added a big screen T.V. I tried to suffocate my sorrow in grease. One night I sat on the same stool for six hours and managed to eat seven hamburgers. That shot my food budget for a week and I knew I'd have to increase my Slim Fast intake. I told the bartender all about my problem and he laughed. "Women..." he said.
I called Christina's machine three or four times a day.
"I still love you," I said.
I finally caught Christina outside her apartment one night. I carried my walkman. I wanted her to listen to my favorite Lou Reed tune. It could be our song if she would just hear it once. I thought we could spend the night listening and talking about my book.
She was with a man, tall and muscular with a grey moustache. She asked him to wait inside for her.
"I don't know what's happened to you," she said. "It's sad. Really. Tod, what..."
"Please Christina..." I could see the moustache poking through the curtain upstairs.
"Don't," Christina said. "Why are you coming around after all these years? Tod, what have you been thinking?"
"Did you read my book?" I was determined to play all my cards. I had come this far.
"Yeah, I read parts. I don't know why, either."
"You read it? Really? Did you... ? I love you."
"You love ME? Is that what that story is supposed to prove? Oh, Tod. Promise me you'll get some help. Please."
"But what did you think? The book..."
"It was gross," she said. "I couldn't believe it. It wasn't believable. It disgusted me."
"Don't you... I love you..."
"What? -- did you think that horrible thing would make me love you? Tod. Jesus. That story. God. If anything, that book proves you don't know shit. It's just like you to spend two years doing something like that... For love? I haven't thought about you in... I don't know how long. I'm a doctor. What the hell have you been thinking?"
"Maybe we could just go somewhere and talk," I said. I tried to hand her the walkman with the Lou Reed.
She put her finger on my chest. "Now I'm going to call the police," she said. "Get the fuck away from me." She started up the stairs.
I hung around for a few moments. I watched her walk into the apartment. I wanted to remember. It was going to be the last time I would ever see her.
I gained seventy-eight pounds. I couldn't stop listening to Lou Reed. The song I wanted Christina to listen to was Perfect Day, written in 1972. My favorite line: "When I was with her, I thought I was someone else. Someone good."
I wasn't, of course.
One day I got a phone call from Larry Gardner, an editor at "Be Your Best Publishing." Alan Marcellino had sent him my novel. Larry thought the book "sucked." But he saw something. Had I ever considered writing self-help? There was something in my writing, he said. I understood human nature. I would be a natural.
I locked myself in my apartment, drank Slim-Fast and let it pour out. I didn't shower or shave. I was determined. Others wouldn't have to suffer the way I had. I wore my white sweatshirt. It would be the last time, but it helped me remember. I wrote down everything I had learned from Christina. I thought about the wonderful times we spent together. I remembered the sex. And it didn't add up to perfection. Or love. That was a lesson. People had to learn that. I thought I knew what love was, thought I could smell it, see it, touch it. But I couldn't. You can't. It's like an electron. The minute you look or grasp, it vanishes.
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I finished the book in two weeks and rushed over to Larry's office on Sixth Avenue. He said he was busy, but I forced him to read the manuscript. He couldn't put it down.
"We're going to make a lot of money," he said. He wiped a tear. "A lot of money."
I burned my sweatshirt and threw away my blender. I started jogging again.
My first self-help sold a million copies and was a best seller for 14 weeks. "A Love Supreme."
I moved to a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. I bought a Mercedes. My mother started bragging about me to her friends. George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner, called me for advice on trades and his love life.
Last month my doorman stopped me and asked for an autograph. He held out a copy of my second book, "Touched by Tenderness." He grabbed my shoulder and said, "Man... no one knows more about love than you. How'd you get so fucking smart?"
"Wait for my next book," I said and patted him on the head. "It's an autobiography."
"I can't wait," he said.
| ||I still think about Christina once in a while. But sometimes you have to move on in life. My new girlfriend is Japanese. She's smart and artistic. She paints watercolors and sings to me in the evenings. She's in her third year of medical school. |
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