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NO COOKIES FOR GERARD
"Do you want a cookie?" I said to the wide-eyed twentysomething young woman who looked back at me.
And with those five words began my frustrating, bittersweet one-sided love affair that never should have been with Carol. She was actually just six months past her 21st birthday; I was all of 20 and, like most 20-year-olds, felt I had just met "her," the woman of my dreams, the woman I was going to marry, the woman I would always love.
I had seen her around the campus, her compact yet buxom figure walking with determined strides to classes, to coffee, to wherever. She always flashed me a big, welcoming smile, encouraging me to think that she wanted to meet me, to talk with me, to be part of my life. I'd seen her everywhere, till soon, she was like the posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, pursuing me endlessly, in my dreams if not my waking life, as I wondered, "Who is that girl?"
But I eventually became the pursuer not the pursued, chasing her over the next decade, like some real-life Lieutenant Gerard, always thinking that, "This time, I'll get her, this time she'll be mine." It was a harmless obsession, I told myself. But did Ahab ever get much good from that whale?
Our meeting came about through a mistake. She tossed me that smile one day on campus, and I was determined to know who this will-of-the-wisp was. I ran after her, introducing myself. She told me her name and that she was an anthropology student here from Chicago. I walked with her, we talked; she laughed; I laughed. It was bliss.
Four days later, I saw her again at the library. She gave me that big Colgate smile, her round brown eyes as alluring as the flame to a fledgling pyromaniac. Encouraged, I offered her a homemade cookie my mother had given me.
"Do you want a cookie?" I said, not realizing that those were the first words I would say to her – for she was not the she I had met just days before but her twin sister ("They look alike, they sound alike, you can lose your mind when cousins are two of a kind"). It was a charming mistake; I was Fred and she was Ginger, and our romance, in my eyes, had just begun.
Alas, it was never to be. I chased her through boyfriend after boyfriend – the sarcastic one who played tennis with her and dined well on her father's credit cards; the emotionally abusive one whom I suspected hit her occasionally; the smarmy intellectual one who was oh-so-superior to everyone and eventually faced sexual harassment charges at work.
Through it all, I was the "good friend," the Watson to her Holmes, "the one fixed point in a changing age," who would console her, comfort her, but never "date" her. The man who knew too much but was never good enough. We'd go out to dinner, I'd make her laugh, and she'd make me cry with a longing that was never to be fulfilled.
I once even called her my "foul-weather friend." It was my joke because she'd always be ready to advise me, psychoanalyze me, and sympathize with me when I had a problem with a girlfriend, or with my family, or with my life.
"You're so punishing to yourself," she said to me once. Not as punishing as she was to me.
Oh, how you broke my heart. "I'll never marry a non-Jew," she had said at 21 to me, the non-Jew. So definite, so sure of herself. And, of course, a decade or so later, she married a non-Jew, an agreeable fellow who never registered on my radar as anything beyond being a nice, sweet guy. She pleaded with me to go to the wedding, and like some sucker who lost a bet, I turned up, smiling, and danced with her for the first and only time.
It ended, as these things do, mundanely and unromantically. We had kept in touch over the years, but it was always me who did the work, calling her, setting up the meetings, insisting that we meet. She had another life now, apart from me, with two darling children. When we actually met, it was always the same connection, though my passion had long since cooled and hers –well, how can you cool something that was never hot?
I finally got tired of calling her, after she had canceled yet-another scheduled meeting. "You call me when you want to meet," I had said with frustration. Six months later, I still hadn't heard from her.
So, goodbye to all that. To the love, to the pursuit, to the fiction that she really ever gave a damn.
Yet to be human is to hope, and I still have that picture in my head, of the time she went away to Paris to get over another failed relationship. Of when she came back, and I was there waiting for her at Newark airport. She ran to me, embraced me, and kissed me, oh so tenderly. "I hoped you would be here," she had said so happily, so completely. "I knew you'd be here." Somewhere, in some other life, perhaps, we'll meet again, and this time, she'll take the cookie and see that I was the best man after all.
July 14, 2008