I was euphoric. I had a date with Nellie. Ostensibly, it was just a friendly dinner, but in my mind it was the opening for a love affair to begin.
One of my sketches of Nellie, whom I loved in the winter of 2018-2019
All weekend, I was dizzy for her, burning for her, obsessed with her. I had not been so entranced with a woman since my passion for Mary Ann in 2003, the passion whose collapse had driven me into psychiatric treatment. The difference was that the Mary Ann passion had been mainly romantic and the Nellie passion was mainly erotic. I wanted Nellie not on some high and noble plane but on the most carnal, sexual plane. I liked Nellie, admired her, enjoyed her company. But above all I wanted to fuck her.
I knew all the reasons I should not try to get Nellie into bed. I was married, and Melinda had always been faithful to me. It would hurt Melinda if I had an affair. Having just been fired, Nellie was economically vulnerable. I would be exploiting her if, at the same time I was offering to help her career, I propositioned her for sex. Nellie was much younger than I was, and ought to be with someone her own age. She had a steady boyfriend who fit that description, and it would be wrong of me to try to break them up. And she was bipolar, prone to depression and suicidality. If I confused and destabilized her with an affair, I could make her worse.
But oh, that kid. I craved her. This was a clear opportunity. Yes, I was exploiting her, but why not apply every lever I could get? I might never get the chance again. I had passed up opportunities in my early life and regretted it. This time I would not make that mistake. And yes, Nellie was young, but that was why I wanted her. If we had sex and it went well, she might consent to have a child with me. Melinda could never give me a child to replace Martha, but Nellie could. I had hoped for that with Stevie and let her go without ever trying. I would not make that mistake again either. And yes, Nellie was bipolar, but I knew from experience that bipolarity makes people randy. If she had a sexual appetite like mine, that would be something to take advantage of too.
Mainly, I had learned through my research into Martha that love is life. Her love for Aleksei had been life to her, and she had died rather than be torn away from it. To vindicate her I had to pursue my love wherever it went—not because it was sane but precisely because it was insane. I was manic now, I knew, and manic people don’t reason well. But as a point of Mad Pride I would be true to my mania. My hunger for Nellie was the hunger of life seeking to live, to breathe free, not to be bound by the desiccation of age and moral restrictions. Life makes its own morality. Whatever it takes to be alive and spread life is the right thing to do.
There was another thing. All my life I had been good and all it had gotten me was one dead daughter. Maybe it was time to be bad. Besides, anything a grieving father does to cope with his grief is excusable. I wanted to fuck Nellie to make up for the child I lost. So it was excusable.
And yet. And yet I loved Melinda, and at our wedding thirty-one years earlier, before Nellie was born, I had promised to be true to her. Before the weekend was over, I found myself praying to the Virgin Mary for chastity, the way I had prayed back in 2003 when I was wracked with desire for my friend Mary Ann. I even prayed that Nellie would reject me, just so I could remain true to my wife.
Before our dinner happened, I almost got fired at work. For legal reasons, I’m not at liberty to say why, other than to say my mania was involved. Even so, I refused to get treated for my mania. No one was going to take it away—not MedEquate; not Dr. with her medications; not Facebook with its algorithms and calling of the cops. Everywhere Big Brother was sending the thought police to try to shut me down. But like Martha I was a patriot of madness, and I would pursue my madness wherever it led.
Nellie and I met Tuesday night in Grand Central Station at the information booth topped by an ornate clock. We sat down to dinner at Cipriani Dolci, a fancy Italian restaurant inside Grand Central, where we had a view of the station floor with its rushing commuters and the great blue ceiling and its constellations of electric lights. I chose the restaurant for convenience and also to impress her. But she impressed me. As she sat down, she took off her blue-gray coat and revealed a stunning dress, flowers against a black background, cut low on the shoulders to show off her milky skin, the hem short to reveal her skinny legs in dark hose. Her tattooed, scarred forearms were bare. She dazzled me as if she were a shimmering mirage of red curls, hazel eyes, lush lips. Sometimes when manic I get the feeling that my senses are overflowing, that there is more going on before me than my eyes and ears and nose can take in. I felt that way when I saw her that night.
For nine months, I had pursued beauty as the purpose of my life, the purpose I had found to replace Martha. Now the abstract concept of beauty had narrowed to one concrete woman: Nellie. She was the beauty I adored. Yet I had already made up my mind not to try to get her into bed. I only wanted to be in her presence and let her know how beautiful she was.
We drank Pinot Grigio out of a bottle kept chilled at our table in a bucket of ice and we talked. I told her openly about my hypersexuality and my desire for her. I said frankly that I was attracted to her, that she had drawn me like a magnet, but that I knew we wouldn’t act on it because I was married and she had a boyfriend. She accepted this, and, without saying that she reciprocated the desire, she agreed that our commitments to other people had to keep us apart.
We had one of the best dinners I’d ever had, even though I hardly noticed the food. For two hours, we talked about our lives and shared bipolar war stories, and I got to watch her fidget, which she said she did because she had mild ADHD on top of bipolar disorder. I told her she looked like the 1930s actress Joan Blondell, whom she’d never heard of, but when I showed her a picture on her phone she said, “Oh, yeah. Totally.” She told me she had her own bouts of hypersexuality, when she had slept indiscriminately with men who picked her up in bars. I wished I had been one of those men. But as Bette Davis says in Now, Voyager, let’s don’t ask for the moon; we have the stars.
When we parted I tried to kiss her on the lips, but she turned her head to present her cheek and I kissed that. I went home with my groin dissatisfied but my conscience clear. Once again, I had avoided physical adultery despite my strong desire for it. Maybe Nellie and I would see each other again; I hoped so. In the meantime, she had become my eighth unattainable.
As it turned out, over a month passed before I saw Nellie again. I was busy. My job was still in jeopardy, and various people were telling me to get treated for my mania, including Melinda. She had heard about my desire for Nellie, and took it pretty well. She had been married to me a long time and knew about my periodic cravings for other women, and knew that these never actually became affairs. So she wasn’t too worried about that. But she was worried about me and thought I should report everything to my psychiatrist.
I resisted everyone who said such things. I thought they were all agents of Big Brother, policing my thoughts and trying to suppress my holy madness. My madness was holy because it was all I had left of Martha, the patron saint of madness, who had died rather than allow Columbia University or Silver Hill or Dr. Abrams or any other institution to take away her insanity. I would not take more drugs; I would take fewer, and finally none. I would show the world that the mad should be allowed to live free in their madness.
After a few days of thinking this way, I had what I called a “come to Jesus” moment. After a sleepless night, I got out of bed in the early morning with a stark realization: I was still manic. And my mania was still impairing my judgment and making me prone to bad, even bizarre decisions. Even if MedEquate let me keep my job, there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t make more bad decisions, and if I did, they would surely fire me then. My mania was real, and it was a real danger to my ability to make a living. Treatment with psychotropic medication was the only real way of reducing that danger.
It didn’t matter which way I looked at it. Maybe, despite my inveighing against the psychiatric model, I did have a mental illness and needed medicine to treat it. Or maybe, as my views preached, psychiatrists just use medicine to control mad people so they conform to society. Either way, I needed medicine. If I was sick, I needed it, and if I wanted to keep my job, I had to conform to society, so I needed it.
That day, Friday, December 14, I called Dr. . Two months after my last dose of risperidone, she put me back on the drug and raised my dose of lithium. I calmed down immediately. My work situation was resolved in short order.
And what about Martha? Had I advanced her cause at all? According to my current way of thinking, Martha had died because she was unwilling to compromise to meet society’s standards for mental health. She wasn’t allowed to be open about being bipolar, so she died in loyalty to her bipolarity. Now I was participating in society’s insistence that bipolar people hide themselves, lie about themselves. I had betrayed Martha. Yet I knew no other way to act and still be faithful to Melinda, who needed me to earn a living to support her. To protect Melinda and myself, I had to be a traitor to Martha.
Almost as soon as my work situation was resolved, I started wondering when I could contact Nellie. I told Melinda about this, and she seemed stricken. She feared that after all I would have an affair with Nellie. But Melinda didn’t forbid me to contact my angel. So one night in January when I couldn’t sleep, I sent Nellie an email, asking her out for another dinner.
By then I was in love with her. I couldn’t help it. Nellie was the brightest ray of light in my dim world, the first strong breath of fresh air since Martha had died. Melinda loved me but in her sanity couldn’t understand me; I loved Melinda, but I had learned just about all there was to learn about her. Nellie was my only hope for someone who could understand me, someone I could spend years learning about, a new and growing center of mutual affection. It wasn’t just sex, you see. I probably would never have sex with her. But in a dark and bitter world of loss and ugliness, she was the possibility of something better.
Nellie wrote back and agreed to dinner. I was ecstatic. On Wednesday, January 23, we met again at the clock in Grand Central. Again, she wore her blue-gray coat, short around her slim hips. We ate this time at another fancy restaurant, New York Central, situated next to Grand Central in the Grand Hyatt Hotel, with dim, romantic lighting and a view of evening traffic on Forty-Second Street. I chose the spot because it would impress her and, if things went well, it would be easy to retire from dinner to a room in the hotel.
Underneath her coat, Nellie wore a leopard-print top with cap sleeves so I could see the roses tattooed on her upper left arm, black jeans so I could admire her slender legs. Over another bottle of Pinot Grigio, another pair of entrees I paid no attention to, I heard more of her life story, found out about a soldier in Korea with post-traumatic stress disorder whom she had almost married before her current boyfriend. “Who was your first love?” she asked. I had to search back forty-one years to find the girl, told Nellie that story. I asked what kind of music she liked; she said the Decemberists. She asked what kind I liked, and I was embarrassed to have to reach back to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
At that time, as part of my efforts to love life and pursue beauty, I was thinking of visiting Paris for the first time in the spring. I told her that, and she said she’d never been to Paris—had never been to Europe. It was madness, but I wanted to invite her to come with me. But of course the question would be—what as? And it could only be as my mistress. I wouldn’t pay for her to come along just as a friend. I couldn’t stand traveling with her and not fucking her. So I said nothing, because I still believed she didn’t want to be my mistress.
Or did she? Why was she accepting these expensive dinners from me, when she knew I was attracted to her? Was it for mentorship in her writing career? I had already given her some of that, connecting her with contacts of mine in the publishing industry to help her find work. I talked with her now about her fiction writing, and she promised to send me a short story of hers. But what else did she want out of me? “I really like you,” I told her, and she said, “I like you too, I like talking with you.” At the end of the dinner, in her short blue-gray coat, she said hopefully, “We’ll see each other again.” She looked a little worried that we wouldn’t. I assured her we would, and we hugged again, closer and longer than last time, my lips grazing her cheek.
Did she want me? Was she just after good conversation, nice dinners, mentorship, or something more? Maybe she was more mixed up than I gave her credit for. Maybe she would want me if I came right out and offered.
That night I couldn’t sleep, my head and my groin full of Nellie. I was back where I had been that weekend in December before my first date with her, trying to decide whether to try to have an affair. I longed for her, ached for her, thought perhaps I had a chance with her. If I proposed sex, she might say yes, and if she said yes, we could have sex. But I knew it would be morally wrong. It would be a betrayal of Melinda, a betrayal even of Nellie. I had grown to care about her, and I wanted to keep her safe from the predations of an old lecher like me. I wanted her to do so much better than be my mistress.
I called my friend Eddie in DC to talk things over, and he was alarmed. He advised me to break things off immediately, not even to try for another dinner. I ignored him. I was already thinking well past the next dinner. I checked the Grand Hyatt online to find out how much a room would cost, in case I could persuade Nellie to go upstairs with me after the next dinner. I Googled for advice on how to conceal airline ticket costs from your wife, in case I wanted to take Nellie to Paris.
Despite all that, I kept remembering Melinda. In the middle of the night one Friday, while coming back to bed on her way back from the bathroom, she fell and screamed in pain. I got up and ran to her in the dark, helped her to her knees, hugged her. I realized how profoundly guilty I would have been if I had been out sleeping with Nellie when Melinda fell in the dark and needed me. I couldn’t betray her that way. As I had before, I prayed for chastity, even if it only came by Nellie’s rejecting me.
In the end, I decided on a middle path between having an affair and never seeing Nellie again. I would try to see her and tell her again how I felt, and I would ask her if she felt the same way. If she said no, I would know an affair was impossible, and could stop fantasizing about one. But if she said yes—what then? Then I would say that despite our mutual desire, we had to remain chaste. I would walk away from an affair. Maybe we would kiss goodbye, and I could live on that for the rest of my life.
That was my plan. All I had to was arrange another dinner with her. This turned out to be harder than I thought. On Monday, February 4, I texted her—the first real text I’d ever sent—asking her to dinner Wednesday. She didn’t respond right away, and on Tuesday morning I called her. She said she was busy that week and was going out of town that weekend—but, she said, “I’ll totally hit you back” on her return.
I was devastated. I was sure she was blowing me off, that I’d never hear from her again. I fell into a deep depression, the worst since fall 2016. As one day led to another and she didn’t “totally hit me back,” life seemed wretched and hopeless. Work was almost intolerable. For a few days, I felt better by rededicating myself to beauty, but then a profound anxiety overtook me, almost worse than the depression. The pettiest things at work terrified me. Dread shook me every morning as I rode the train into work. On the train home from work, I started feeling dread for the next day.
And then Nellie hit me back. On February 26, three weeks since our last contact, my darling emailed me, saying she’d been sick with the flu and was working nights now, but that soon she was starting a daytime job and then dinner would be possible.
Again, I was walking on clouds, picking at stars. Nellie hadn’t forgotten. She hadn’t been blowing me off. She cared. I got another short story published around that time, “Three Nights to Marriage” in the Bangalore Review, and even that seemed minor compared to Nellie’s caring about me.
Another three weeks passed, during which my mood was turbulent. One minute I was writing love poems to Nellie that I didn’t send, or listening to Decemberist songs she had recommended, or playing that song from Annie Get Your Gun about how falling in love is wonderful, basking in Nellie’s affection from afar. The next I was back to believing she would never write me again, that she would never get that daytime job, feeling plagued with anxiety at work and longing for death, to the point that I abandoned my last stand against psychiatry and allowed my shrink to put me back on to fight the anxiety. I was now back on all the drugs I had fought so hard to get free from the year before.
At last, on March 20, the first day of spring, Nellie set a date: dinner in six days. For six days, I reeled in delirious anticipation. She was all I thought about. I felt the lift of her, an elevation above the mundane world, at the possibility that she could love me. I got a haircut just for her. I noticed hairs in my nose that made me look old and trimmed them. I still looked old, but felt like a boy.
On March 26, we met at the clock again, walked through the Grand Central passageway to New York Central, took the same table as last time. She wore a black sweater over a black tank, blue jeans. Because I knew the hard question I would be bringing up, my mood was more somber than usual. I suggested we drink hard liquor instead of Pinot Grigio this time, and we did, Scotch for me, gin and tonic for her. We talked about our fiction. She had sent me a short story, which I had critiqued, and she had rewritten it in response to my critique, and I told her now how much I liked the new version. I talked to her about a short story I had written on the last few months, with a character based on her. She asked to see it, and I promised to send it to her.
Then I could wait no longer. I reminded her of what I’d told her in December about my attraction to her, and informed her that it had never gone away. “Actually, I’m crazy about you,” I said. She was, I told her, beautiful, exciting, talented, smart, a good writer, kind-hearted, devoted to social causes. I knew I was married and she was in a committed relationship, but I desired her. “Do you feel anything like that for me?” I asked.
She looked ashen and didn’t answer directly. She said she was committed to her boyfriend. I said, “But if you didn’t have your boyfriend—how would you feel then?”
She squirmed in her seat. “It makes me uncomfortable to think that way because of how I feel about my boyfriend,” she said. “And then too you’re my father’s age.”
The restaurant grew darker and harsher, with a chill settling over our table. I felt myself starting to wake from the dream of Nellie that had lasted since November. So that was it. She didn’t want me. Even if she didn’t have a boyfriend, I was too old for her. I tried to recover as gracefully as possible—told her I had expected that to be her answer, but that I had to hear it from her in person. I suggested we could still be friends, and she agreed. We finished our dinners, talking awkwardly where once we had talked easily. We parted with the usual hug and protestations of how we would see each other soon, but I knew it had become highly unlikely. She had known about my attraction to her since December, and she hadn’t minded, because I had never forced her to choose. She could enjoy my company and accept nice dinners and get help with her writing career without worrying too much about whether I wanted more. Now she had been made to take a stand, and I could tell she had begun to worry.
The rest happened quickly. That night, as promised, I sent her my short story, which told the story of my recent mania and included a character based on her. In the story, Joe, the character based on me, lusts after her character in much the way I had lusted after her, and, like me, ends up not having an affair. I sent Nellie the story because I thought her character was luminously painted as beautiful and enchanting, and I thought she would be flattered. Also, I wanted her to see how powerfully I had desired her, in case that might, after all, inspire her to reciprocate.
I could have sent her much more writing. As of now, the count of my literary productions about Nellie is fourteen—two short stories, two essays, nine poems, and this memoir. That’s in addition to my seven drawings of her. But I thought that story would be enough.
It was, but not in the way I had hoped. Days passed with no response from her, days when I feared she was ghosting me—that she would never respond again. (Ghosting was a term I had learned from Nellie. She taught it to me in exchange for my teaching her objective correlative.) My suicidal impulses returned. On Friday at work, during a fire drill, I learned that a stairwell behind the legal department led to a terrace on the sixteenth floor, and from that terrace I could jump to my death anytime. No need to wait till 3:00 the way I had to with VU46. It was the brightest point of my day.
At last, on Sunday, March 31, she emailed me. It turned out she waited so long to respond because my story had offended and disturbed her. She was offended because she thought that I portrayed her as being poorer than she was, which perhaps I had, and that I suggested she was the kind of woman who would have sex for career or financial advantage. Actually, I had put that thought only in the head of my alter ego, Joe, and only because he had hoped it was true because it might give him an edge. But I could see why Nellie missed this fine point.
She was disturbed because she saw how fundamentally sexual my interest in her had always been. Joe’s thoughts were much more lustful on the page than I had ever been outwardly with her. When I write fiction, I try to write truthfully, and Joe displayed every base quality I possess and try to hide in person.
Having seen who I really am, Nellie decided that she was no longer comfortable having dinners with me. “It’s not fair to my boyfriend,” she wrote. “It’s not fair to your wife.” I wrote back to her, arguing that Joe was much more villainous than I am, which of course was false; he was precisely as villainous as I am. She wasn’t persuaded. She still thought the dinners were “not appropriate,” using that contemporary phrase for sexually immoral.
Early in the morning of Monday, April 1—April Fool’s Day, fittingly—I sent her an email asking if we could communicate in any way besides dinners. In the afternoon, while I was at work, she responded, saying we shouldn’t communicate except via social media. The idea of viewing pictures of her cavorting with her boyfriend on Instagram but not being able to meet her in person repelled me. When I got home, I emailed back, telling her we shouldn’t be on social media either; a clean break would be better. Since this was goodbye, I told her what she meant to me.
I said she was the first breath of fresh air since Martha died, the living personification of beauty. I told her I was in love with her but my love had no future. I had tried to be friends with her, but it was a bad idea, and she was right to reject it. “With what I feel for you, we can’t be friends,” I wrote. “I would always be pretending an equanimity about you that isn’t real.” I wished her all the happiness in the world that she could find. For the first and last time, I signed the email, “Love, George.”
It was a crazy email that would probably disturb her even more. I didn’t care. It was my last chance to express what I felt and I had nothing to lose. I didn’t expect her to write back and she didn’t. Nevertheless, for the next few days I checked my inbox several times a day, looking for a response. Eventually I stopped looking.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.