BY SUSAN SUFFES
The journey of ten thousand miles, it is said, begins with one step. I would have been happy to relinquish many of my frequent flyer miles if I had been more aware of where I was going.
But when you’re in your early twenties and on the kind of quick rebound Serena Williams might appreciate, you think differently. I had recently come back from a Midwest breakup with a long-distance boyfriend. Several gallons of ice cream later, I was still feeling empty. It was springtime, and the idea of getting through the approaching summer on my own wasn’t something I wanted to do.
It turned out that I wasn’t alone, but not in a way I expected.
I met Ben at a party in an old, grand building in what was then a decrepit neighborhood. “When I see an attractive woman I always want to meet her,” was his opening line. Corny and calculated though it was, it caught my attention. Plus I thought he was appealing, too. About 5’9” and thin, with dark brown eyes and matching curly hair, Ben was in his mid-30s and lived in the building. When I asked him what he did for a living his answer was impressive.
“I’m two doctors for the price of one,” he informed me. “I’m a M.D. with a Ph.D. I’m on staff and I teach,” he said, naming a very well-known hospital.
“Well, “ I joked, “I hope you’re not intimidated by my B.A. in English and my irreplaceable position as the assistant to two senior editors.”
After the party he invited me to his apartment where he offered me a glass of wine. As he was getting it, I looked around and saw a couple of used wine glasses and guessed that he was an indifferent housekeeper. Then I noticed a cream-colored note on a side table. It was unfolded and I read, ‘and I really want to see you again’ and a woman’s name before I realized the contents were none of my business. Besides I was there and she wasn’t.
I agreed to see Ben a few days later for his idea of a real first date. He would pick me up and we would go running.
I didn’t run. Everywhere I went I wore high heels. My Achilles tendons were so shortened I could barely walk in flat shoes. No matter. The double doctor asked me out. Obviously, I had street value.
After he picked me up we went back to his neighborhood so that we could jog around the blocks. He took off, leaving me winded and not a little worried about the drug deals going down on the street corners. By the time I caught up with him he was grinning at both my slow legs and rapid heartbeat.
We climbed to his top floor apartment, an additional aerobic workout I could have done without. Once there he removed a chunk of baked ham from the refrigerator and cut a few thick slices. Then, pointing to the crock of mustard on the kitchen table, he suggested topping what turned out to be dinner with it.
Did I think about this later as I rubbed my sore calves with Ben-Gay? Did I realize that this guy wasn’t making much, if any, of an effort?
No. Instead, I waited a month for him to call and a pattern formed. Occasionally I stayed over at his place. We never went to movie or a meal. And still I hung in, waiting for what I didn’t know.
Suddenly, everything changed. He had three weeks vacation. Did I want to go with him on a camping trip?
Did I want to spend my entire two weeks vacation with someone I barely knew? The idea of being asked was so compelling I tamped down the feelings of awfulness creeping in. Who did he ask before me? Was I a fallback companion? And then there was the equipment to buy, including an air mattress, special shoes, lots of socks and other stuff.
Did I experience a bump in self-esteem once I agreed to go? Hardly. My courage stemmed from a tainted source: Being “wanted” overrode commonsense.
“I don’t drive,” I pointed out to him. “It isn’t fair,” I protested, “for you to drive all the way.” He didn’t care. He had done it before. “Okay,” I countered, “I’ve never gone camping in my life.” I didn’t add that I had never wanted to.
This did not seem to bother him either.
On the Saturday in August we were leaving, a powerful storm hit the entire Eastern seaboard. We left anyway. Somehow we made it to Maine where we, and the car, were booked on a ferry. The storm hadn’t lessened up. In fact, it seemed worse, with fog as heavy as my mood. When, I wondered, would the good time begin?
We walked around the town but the waterfront, and its many attractions, seemed sad and lost in the endless downpour. The separate umbrellas we carried didn’t help.
Finally, we were able to board the ferry. We found our room, a small space with twin beds, and went to check out the buffet. I had informed Ben of yet another flaw: I was a terrible sailor. When I was seventeen, and on a high school graduation cruise, I became seasick before the ship passed the Statue of Liberty. Columbus was not as happy as I was to see San Salvador. Ben reassured me. “Don’t worry, “ he said, “ After all, I am a doctor.”
Just in case, to ward off any impending seasickness, I took an over-the-counter pill and ate dinner. When I awoke the next morning, the ship had stopped but I, it seemed, was still moving. I swallowed two more pills but my stomach was having none of them—or anything else. I started to heave.
Ben told me I’d feel better once we were ashore and asked if I wanted any breakfast. My answer was stifled by the next round of vomiting, which he took as a “No,” as he left the cabin.
Two weeks of bliss-less travel followed. In addition to side trips that included a tour of a fish processing plant, we sought out suitable campsites (our job), put up and took down the tent (his job), blew up air mattresses (my job), cooked (his job), cleaned up (my job), and dealt with the rain, the cold, and especially each other.
Food was the only respite. One large chicken equaled a dinner. Whole packages of hot dogs disappeared along with six packs of beer. Bushes were stripped of raspberries after we devoured huge lobsters. I knew I was really desperate when I started making donut sandwiches as a short, and very tasty, diversion. (Take a plain donut. Cut it in half. Spread one side with crunchy-style peanut butter and the other side with raspberry jam. Smush together. Enjoy.)
Unfortunately, even stretching meal times out, there were many endless hours to fill. It was awful. We had nothing to talk about and, in a rare oversight, I had neglected to bring anything to read.
And what about Ben? I can’t speak for him since I hardly knew him. Small hints about his character did, however, arise from time to time. For example, there was that high self-opinion. One day he stated that he deserved more vacation time than I did: “My job is more demanding, and more important, than yours.”
No argument there; after all, he helped sick people. He worked killer hours and the stress was probably intense. Still, his cold put-down shut me out. In the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t as good as he was.
Then there were his boasts about other women he was seeing. Why none of those more worthy specimens—models! heiresses!—were with him I did not ask.
And then he told me that when he met a woman he really liked, he double-dated with a psychiatrist friend and his wife. “That way he can check her out,” he said.
Finding my voice for a moment, I replied, “But don’t your feelings matter more? And wouldn’t you know if something was wrong with her? After all, you are a doctor.”
Somehow the time passed. I can’t recall an honest laugh or a shared moment that made things better. Finally, he drove me to the airport and then left on the rest of his vacation.
A few weeks later he called. “Could I borrow your air mattress?” he wanted to know.
I hated myself for saying OK, but it was a chance to see him again and maybe figure out why I wanted to do so.
He came to my apartment, chatted for a few minutes, took the air mattress and left. I never heard from him again.
Several years later, I spotted him on the street. Ben didn’t see me—no surprise there—but now I viewed him differently. While he looked pretty much the same, he didn’t appear either as accomplished or smart to me. Of course, I was older and further along in my career and not as easily impressed as I once was. And I had figured out what I wouldn’t put up with.
It occurred to me that maybe Ben had been on a rebound, too. It was possible that he didn’t want to spend his summer alone and, like me, hadn’t been anywhere ready to put the time and effort and most of all himself into a relationship. If so, our ways of dealing with our disappointments left us hungry. Was he a cruel companion? Absolutely. Was I a willing victim? Sad to say, yes I was.
I wonder if Ben still goes camping. If he does, I hope he remembers the recipe for donut sandwiches.
Susan Suffes is the owner of Your Book is My Business, Inc, an editorial and writing service. She is the co-author of the books :The Serotonin Solution" with Judith Wurtman, Ph.D. and "Instant Relief" with Peggy Brill, P.T. Her story “Look Away a Little Bit” was published in Midstream magazine.