“I sat on the edge of the bed naked,” Adriana told me, “amused by Jeff staring at me. I uncrossed my legs and got wet watching him glued to his chair wide-eyed, like a helpless kid.” She scanned me for the slightest hint of stimulation as I took in her chiseled face, bare midriff and well-defined abs. Her eyes drilled into me leaving me speechless.

“We met in a bar on Bleecker Street,” she said. “I’m on my third gin and tonic – at least I think it was my third – guys clustered around me, lighting me up, not with the gin they kept buying me, but by how they undressed me with their eyes.”

“Were there other women in the bar with you?” I asked.

“I just remember the guys,” she answered. “Jeff stood out from the NYU students, almost freaky with his matted hair and a threadbare tank top. He told me he was working high steel on a building in the Hudson Yards and pulled out a selfie. The image of him half-naked on a crossbeam, sunlight bouncing off his deltoids and rippled biceps, turned me on. Then he showed me more shots of him on a motorcycle. ‘It’s an 800 cc Harley,’ he said, ‘but if you ride with me, your tits’ll get wind burned.’ ‘800 cc’s is the smallest size Harley’s come in,’ I shot back laughing at him. ‘I’ve got two helmets,’ he said as he moved closer to me.”

“On my first ride with him, my heart jumped to my throat, and I gripped his chest as he flew into tight turns and dove into sudden dips in the roadway. I breathed a little easier when he stopped at Pine Creek Valley. ‘The most romantic spot in the Endless Mountains,’ he said as we gazed at the mountains that looked more like sand dunes to me. We had supper at a biker friendly inn that had the same smell as the bars my father worked in when I was a kid. Later, doing a slow strip before him, I asked him what he was looking for. ‘A swag like you,’ he answered.”

“What’s a swag?” I asked Adriana.

“It’s someone bold, ballsy. I suppose there’s no accounting for taste.” Her face hardened, and her eyes grew feral as she stared at me. “So I just swagged into him,” she added with a smirk, mistaking my compassion for sympathy.

“Are you sure it’s Jeff who has bad taste?” I countered.

For Adriana, sex with Jeff is like brain candy that gives her a fleeting escape from inner torment. Can I make it safe enough for her to slip out of her armor-plated shell, find a thought, a feeling, a physical sensation that leads her to what she’s running from deep inside? As I ponder Adriana, my thoughts turn to Mollie years ago when I first discovered she was taking me seriously. We were having dinner in the River Café. Seeing her upturned hands, the tenderness in her eyes as she gazed at me, I realized she was terribly – I could never have called it love back then – fond of me. Reflexively I quipped, “I feel like Groucho Marx, dear girl. Can’t possibly see myself joining a country club that would have me.” Mollie’s face swelled with sadness. “You’re a hard nut,’ she murmured, “really nobody’s nut. Will anyone ever crack you?”

Today, even after fifteen devoted, often turbulent years spent mostly delighted with each other, a part of me is still astonished that Mollie wants to be with me. Will I ever succeed in shepherding Adriana to feel as astonished as me, with a proper lover, in less time than it’s taken me?

“I call it the consistent factor,” she said. “It happens with every guy I’ve ever been with. At first, I deluded myself that I could count on Jeff. I let him talk me into moving out of the NYU dorm into his apartment in Bed Stuy. I should have guessed the real reason he asked me to move in with him was to help him pay the rent. I know his family owns a profitable construction business. He could make real money with them, but he’s been fighting his father for years and refuses to have anything to do with him. Now I work extra shifts bartending to cover the rent and barely have time to do the reading for my child ed courses at NYU. When he’s not working, he drinks too much beer and whines about his family. He does it deliberately to get a rise out of me, calls it poking the bear. Then he wants to fuck and cuddle. Last night I screamed at him.”

After Adriana left, I thought of how much more accomplished than Jeff I can be at poking the bear. My preferred way of doing it is with sarcastic comments and half-baked metaphors about Mollie’s family, especially her older brother Scott and his wife Vivien who everyone agrees is a loathsome shrew. Everyone except Mollie whose limitless patience with Vivien’s sullenness is a mystery to everyone. “Scott is really married to Katarina in The Taming of the Shrew,” I told Mollie with smug, superiority. “But instead of being a respectable Petruchio, he plays Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, with his head in the clouds, or up his ass as it were. But the most fascinating character in the Shrew is Katerina’s sister, happy, cheerful, compliant Bianca. Like you, the consummate diplomat, soul of discretion, invariably sanguine. What an accomplishment playing Bianca, arguably the only saint-like creature in the family, indeed in the West Village.” This time Mollie said nothing and just turned away from me. A few days later, she changed her email address from (Catie is the name of our beautiful chocolate Labrador) to her nondescript, business email address.

It’s been almost three years since I unleashed my harangue on Mollie. Sometimes I still see the hurt in her eyes. The Gottman Research Institute proposes that it takes at least five kindnesses to make up for every hurt lovers inflict on each other. For the generous woman whose politeness and exquisite kindness flow so intuitively that they serve to calm everyone around her, who despite my dimwitted provocations still manages to stay with me, I’ve learned it’s much closer to fifty.

“I’ve got no kid stories,” Adriana said. “No bubbly family vacations, adorable pets, or favorite teachers. I remember giving a flower to a strange lady when I was in kindergarten. Once I heard a grade-school teacher tell my aunt, Nina, I needed attention. Other than that, it’s a void. Nina and her husband Sam told me I was about a year old when my mother left. She had a cocaine problem and went into rehab. She now lives in Illinois. I never speak to her. If she were here right now, I wouldn’t recognize her. Nina told me my father had PTSD from when he was with the special forces in Iraq. He left me with Nina and Sam and their three older boys right after my mother left. Whenever Nina wasn’t around, they’d chase after me, pin me down and take turns dry humping me. Sometimes they’d stick their fingers inside me. I never cried when they did it because I knew it bothered them that I didn’t. Today, whenever I hear women my age talk about sex, the way they describe it doesn’t sound normal to me.

“I was eight years old when my father came back. At first, I was excited to see him because he wanted me to live with him and his second wife, Denise. It lasted about a year and a half. I mostly kept out of their way because they screamed and hit each other when my father drank too much beer. At night, I listened to them screaming, then crying and moaning as they fucked. My father kept a collection of porn magazines hidden under his bed, and I sneaked looks at the men and women fucking and doing 69’s. It excited me to see how they grabbed hold of each other. Once my father found me in their bedroom sniffing his cologne. It was called Sex. He didn’t realize it, but I knew what it was and what to do with it.

“One day, I came home from school and found Nina and Sam waiting for me. From the way they looked at me, I knew something bad had happened, but I can’t remember exactly what they told me. Much later, I was able to remember some of it. Apparently, my father shot and killed Denise and then asphyxiated himself in his car in the garage with the motor running.”

“A nightmare for you,” I said.

“Not really, more like a scene from an old movie. I remember their words when they told me, but no feeling comes with the words. After my father died, I went back to live with Nina and Sam. By then Nina’s boys had left for college, and she was working full-time. Sam worked construction but spent a lot of time at home when the weather was bad. He liked hanging out with me, and I wanted to please him. One day he entered the bathroom when I was getting out of the shower and moved up close to me. When I saw how hungry he looked, I blurted out that I loved how my father used to touch me. He couldn’t tell I made it up. At first, he did it with his fingers, then I soon got my period, and we started fucking. I’d wake up in the morning without him, my panties beside me. It lasted until I left for NYU. Nina must have known but never said anything.”

Later that night, long after Adriana had gone, lying in bed with Mollie snug beside me, I dreamt of a little cat with the same calico hair as Adriana. I first noticed her pressing her nose against a window of the cabin we rent every summer in the Hudson Valley. The look of her, which was so determined to stare at us, moved me to feed her every morning all through the summer. But I never let her in because I was allergic to cats. We returned to the city in the fall and I assumed the woman who owned the cabin would keep feeding her. When we returned in the spring, I found tiny footprints outside the house that ended in a small plot under the porch. I woke up from that dream sobbing for little Calico.

The psychoanalytic literature on dream interpretation is awash with terms like projective identification and metacommunication between therapist and patient. But the meaning of my dream would be a no brainer for any five-year-old. Adriana was telling me that beneath her relentlessly piercing eyes and granite face, a little girl, trapped outside in the cold yearns to be warm and safe on the inside like Calico.

“What’s the story with your cat?” Adriana asked as she entered. “She either scurries behind the sofa or sits on the dining room table and puts out these grating meows that get on my nerves.”

“When she was a kitten, she bit my finger,” I answered. “It got seriously infected, and I spent the night at NYU Langone on an antibiotic drip. They told me I could have lost my finger. That was three years ago. I lay out food for her every day as Dunbar did for Two Socks in Dances with Wolves. Now she moves close to me but still doesn’t trust me enough to take food from my hand. Dunbar did better with Two Socks.”

“Why’d you keep her?”

“I knew she was terrified beneath her fierceness, the second I laid eyes on her. I named her Ursula because of her grating meows. Ursula is the Latin name for She-Bear. Saint Ursula was a virgin princess in the 4th century who was martyred by the Huns while on a pilgrimage.”

“So, she ended up a martyr,” Adriana answered. “I’ll bet nobody was dumb enough to poke her while she was alive.”

“A safe bet,” I said with a smile. “What gets stirred up in you when Ursula puts out those grating meows?”  

“I’m not sure,” she said as her face softened.

“If you put words on what you’re feeling right now, what would they say?” 

“There are no words,” she answered as her eyes welled up with tears.

“I have five other cats,” I said. “Ursula hangs out in the living room, always at a distance, or hides in the closet. Her safest place is on the windowsill under the plants where she can doze safely in the afternoon sun. The other cats are probably napping in the next room as we speak. I keep six cats here in this apartment where I work. My wife Mollie and I have two Labradors who live with us in the West Village. Philomena, one of the other cats, likes to lie next to Ursula on the rug in the bathroom. Sometimes I watch her stretched out beside Philomena with her eyes closed. If I listen carefully, I can hear her purring.”

Before Adriana left, I introduced her to the other cats and gave her time to touch and fondle them as they nuzzled her legs.

At the start of our next session, I said, “You’ve taught me a lot in the time we’ve worked together. You sealed yourself off from everybody: the people who failed to love you, the ones who betrayed you and those you expect to fail and betray you now. It started years ago. A beautiful little girl who journeyed to her father and lived in his shadow, trying to learn about the things that interested him for the brief time they were together. After he left her, she was so hungry for companionship she charmed Sam and did everything she could to please him, including making up stories about her and her father she knew would excite him. But no matter how hard she tried, no one saw her – her mother, father, Sam, Nina, and now Jeff. They left her outside looking in. It was all forced upon her, this beautiful, clever girl always yearning to be inside.”

“People con you all the time,” Adriana said. “They make you feel they care about you but don’t, either because they’re too weak or don’t give a damn.”

“I wonder if there’s something you can use, deep inside, to manage the pain that wells up when someone betrays you?”

“I’m interviewing for a teaching job at the Dalton School. It’s pretty exclusive. I’m surprised they want to talk to me.”

“You dared to ask for the interview and got it. So something good can happen if you don’t just accept what’s handed to you.”

“I told Jeff I need to be in my own place but it’s hard for me to let go of him.”

“A while back you mentioned a consistent factor in your life, this thing that drags you into living the same story over and over again with every guy you’ve been with. Ever thought of creating a different story? Instead of trying to figure out what it is inside you that pulls you in, try asking: What kind of person do I get to be when I’m with Jeff? With other guys? Do I like myself better as I spend more time with them? Do they inspire me?”

“A strange way to think about it.”

“Yes, many of us just accept and make do with what’s handed to us. We never think to question it, let ourselves wander into something different, create a better story for ourselves.”

What possible reason would Adriana have to create a better story as she moves through the landscape of her life? A landscape shadowed by ghosts of a lost mother, a father who never saw her, an uninvolved caretaker aunt, and her trickster-predator husband? A life punctuated with gin, sex, and stifled yawns the morning after. How deeply Adriana cuts into me. Like her, I never knew my father and have spent my entire life living with a few muddled sketches of him reluctantly supplied by my mother. “His name’s Nick Cinnelli,” she told me. “He’s from a big Italian family near Trenton. We had a few one-night stands in the sixties.” Back then there was no genetic testing for paternity so, the way she tells it, the whole Cinnelli clan – Nick, his older brother, and seven sisters – were all too pleased to believe he wasn’t my father. “A few phone calls were made,” she said as her eyes darted away from me. “We agreed on a small cash settlement. After that we let the whole thing drop.” That’s all I got from her. And whenever the subject of my father came up, my grandmother clammed up like a sphinx. It always gnawed away at me that there had been more to the story.  

In the late eighties, just after I’d earned a fellowship for my first year in graduate school, I drove out to Trenton in my shiny new Volkswagen Fastback paid for in cash from my fellowship and found Nick Cinnelli tending bar in a Holiday Inn. When I announced who I was, he jerked back on his heels and for a second I thought he was gonna send the bottles cascading off the back bar. Once he regained his composure, he mumbled a few words about how he and my mother had met a few times back in the sixties. When I asked him for more details, he abruptly moved to another customer who approached the bar. I can still feel the chill that cut through me as he turned away from me. Without a word, I hopped off my barstool and walked out of that Holiday Inn. Driving back to Philadelphia, lulled by the new-leather smell of my Volkswagen, I wondered for a moment how a stone-faced half-mute like Nick Cinnelli could ever be my father. Today I still see him slouching behind that bar and imagine the activity in his prefrontal cortex as being marginally higher than that of a moron.

Last year I was mildly shocked to learn from that I don’t have a single Italian gene in my body. I’m really half European Jewish, a quarter French and the rest Scotch-Irish. I say mildly because for as far back as I can remember I’ve had a strange affinity for Jews.

In graduate school, my friend Ben Schuster invited me to lunch at The Ambassador, back then a prominent kosher restaurant just off the Temple University campus in Philadelphia. When Ben asked if I preferred the boiled or baked gefilte fish, the waiter chimed in like an old yenta, “He wants the baked!” As that bearded old waiter inside curls smiled down on me, I knew I had no choice in the matter. And the baked turned out to be delicious.

I’ve always been moved by the knowledge that Sigmund Freud’s mother called him “My golden Sigi.” She’d shush up his brothers and sisters and serve him his meals in his room so they couldn’t distract him from his studies. And when he was a kid, Steven Spielberg’s parents gave him free reign to play with his super eight in the backyard. Those lucky Jewish boys grew up feeling everything in the world – good and bad – was theirs for the taking.

Years ago in psychoanalytic training, I remember announcing proudly to some other Jews in a seminar that if Freud hadn’t been a good Yeshiva boy and learned to ask the same question in five different ways, he could never have invented psychoanalysis.

And there’s my admiration for those lower east side Jews, escapees from the holocaust and pogroms, who created uplifting stories in their Broadway musicals about people living sad, oppressed lives who strive for something better. The composers and lyricists who created those musicals had this remarkable ability to mine their unconscious for unstoried material and create new stories or landscapes of consciousness for the heroes and heroines in their stories who dared to live their lives differently. But they were really writing about themselves, daring for something better in their own lives disguised as their protagonists. And I’m doing the same with Adriana, daring her to create a new landscape of consciousness for her life as I strive to do with Mollie.

Years ago in the River Café, I’d already fallen in love with Mollie, long before she did with me. She was right: I am a hard nut to crack, which I abundantly demonstrated last weekend in Woodbury Commons as Mollie stared intently at two Max Mara dresses, a floral vine applique, and black satin blazer.

“Which one should I choose?” she asked in great consternation.

“The floral vine applique blends bewitchingly with your skin tone,” I answered with aplomb, “but the black satin blazer has a bit more cleavage. Each perfect for a brainy, senior cloud architect at I.B.M.” Without further discussion, I scooped up the dresses. At the sales counter, I smiled at her seductively.  

“Max Mara aficionado indeed,” she remarked as we left the store, “the lengths you’ll go to just to dress and undress me.” Then she suddenly spotted Levi’s Outlet. “But first we shop for your designer clothing,” she added with a facetious grin. Reluctantly, I let her drag me into the store. 

That night with Molly fast asleep and our two Labradors, Catie and Eric, dozing peacefully on their vintage Lake Wobegone blanket, I wrote Mollie a poem entitled Woodbury Commons:

She startles me in the fitting room with Levi’s shirts.

Long-sleeved ones meant for you, she tells me,

with a wink and a well-meaning grin as I frown.

I model each to please her, all four of them:

A green khaki cotton with clouded silver buttons,

a dark somber blue that perfectly matches my mood,

a light-hearted ivory I’d never’ve even glanced at,

and a bright red-orange that actually pleases me.

By now I realize she’s on to something.

You’ve found my look! I tell her as she grins,

her knowing grin, the one that helps me be,

that earnest grin which breathes life into me.

When I finished the poem, I gazed at Mollie, her cheeks soft and childlike, lips slightly parted, breathing peacefully in the predawn light; amazed even now that she still wants to be with me. I cannot wish more than this for Adriana.

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