You Don’t Know What Love Is

I was sort of between girlfriends then–Marthe had moved out after we’d come back from the Bahamas. We’d had that trip planned for a long time, though why she even booked it was a mystery to me since we hadn’t been getting along. I guess she thought maybe it would bring us back together, but I already had my eye on someone else.

I’d seen her around Beacon Hill a few times, then one night at a bar I saw her across the room, laughing in a way that Marthe never did, her head thrown back. When I turned back to Marthe she was reading her program from the Symphony earlier in the night. She was like that, self-contained, in an ethereal little world of her own—probably the only woman in history who’d done needlepoint while sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park.

With Rachel, as I later came to learn was the other woman’s name, everything was on the surface, there were no depths, but that’s what I was looking for just then. It wasn’t drama that was the problem with Marthe, it was tragedy. She didn’t make scenes, but when she deigned to come out of her high-WASP cocoon or from whatever century Johann Freaking Bach and his sons lived in, everything was serious. Rachel on the other hand was the first Jewish woman I ever knew who had no intellectual side whatsoever. I took her to the ballet—Billy the Kid—on our first date, trying to impress her. Afterwards she said if I ever tried to do that again she’d kill me, and she didn’t sound like she was kidding.

Somehow we got past that and after a few more dates she was prepared for me to meet her girlfriends, so I started getting the once-over from a lot of women I’d never met before. You may know the look, but only if you’ve been a piece of sirloin in a meat counter; the new boyfriend is examined with a gaze that’s part greeting, part appraisal. I think they were glad for her—I know that sounds conceited, but I just mean it completed their social circle so they didn’t have to fill it in with gay guys.

It was a change of altitude figuring out what to do with her when we were on our own though. On Friday nights we’d have a lot of catching up to do, then if there was a party Saturday night we’d go to that. I’ll say this, there was never any sitting around arguing about whether to listen to classical or jazz like Marthe and I sometimes ended up doing when we needed an excuse to go at each other.

Rachel said she’d checked me out and was satisfied. Not sure what that meant—the mutual friend I found to introduce us barely knew me, although he was the kind of guy who figured he’d plumbed the depths of your soul once he’d given you a firm handshake and looked you squarely in the eye. He was dating Rachel’s friend, so maybe he just wanted somebody to talk to on Saturday nights.

I wasn’t looking for a rebound romance, if that’s what she thought. I was just looking for a change of pace. Marthe had been the first woman I’d met in Boston, and maybe we latched on to each other because both of us were new to town and didn’t know anybody. Rachel was from the suburbs, she knew people, and they wanted to have fun together—nothing wrong with that.

I figured at some point I needed to show Rachel my domestic side, even if I didn’t think we were made for each other long term, so I offered to make her dinner at my apartment, veal I think. She acted surprised, said she was impressed, etc. went through the whole range of standard role reversal reactions—she couldn’t cook for shit, that was for sure. What does a Jewish American Princess like to make for dinner, her friend Catherine had asked me when the question of Rachel’s culinary skills first came up. I said I didn’t know, and she said “reservations.”

It hadn’t been that way with Marthe. She got home before I did, but I was expected to help out with everything, from cooking to birth control up to but not including demonstrating for the equal rights amendment. I did have to drive her to the traffic rotary where she stood out with her sign, though.

I had a second-floor apartment in the Back Bay that faced south so you got sun in the winter. I put the dinner table in the window so it was like you had a good table at the Hampshire House. Rachel bought flowers—nice touch, I said, but I’d probably kill them.

“Why?” she asked.

“I have a black thumb.”

“I thought you meant intentionally.”

“I wouldn’t hurt a flea.”

She sat down and had a glass of wine while I cooked and she began to unload on Catherine’s husband, a stockbroker who was sucking all the money he made up his nose.

“Why doesn’t she divorce him?”

“She was madly in love with him not too long ago—they’ve only been married a year,” she said. “She can’t believe she made such a mistake.”

“I guess those things happen,” I said.

“I know, it’s too bad. I feel sorry for her.”

She didn’t get up to help with the cooking—she’d brought a cheesecake for dessert, so I guess she figured she’d already done enough.

“So guess what?” she asked.

“What?”

“We’re going to be neighbors.”

“You’re kidding!” I really was surprised. She lived on the other side of Beacon Hill, and I thought she liked the distance between us.

“Nope–my father’s going to buy me a condo.”

I figured I should be enthusiastic so I said “terrific” or something like that. “Where is it?”

“On Exeter, between Newbury and Comm Ave,” she said. I did the math—five blocks away—and put the asparagus on. “Close to shopping,” she said.

“It’s a wise man who knows his daughter,” I said. “We’re about ready.”

“Can I take anything to the table?”

“Just your plate and your drink.”

She sat down and I put on one of the few records I owned that I could play at dinner without Marthe complaining.

“Well, this is nice,” Rachel said as she raised her glass.

“Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

We started to eat—Rachel wasn’t one like Marthe to starve herself all the time, and she dug in as usual.

“What is this music?” she asked.

“Chet Baker,” I said. He was singing “You Don’t Know What Love Is” at a concert in Italy.

“What’s this guy’s problem?”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s like . . . pathetic.”

“It’s a sad song.”

“You don’t know,” she sang, mockingly, “what love is! God, did his goldfish just die or what?”

I looked at her evenly, not wanting to ruin things. “I can change it if you want,” I said, and got up to put on something else.

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