Watch out! You might get what you’re after.
Cool baby! Strange but not a stranger.
I’m an ordinary guy,
Burning down the house!
— Talking Heads
Call him “Carl.”
Many, many years ago I founded and ran my second magazine in San Francisco. In time, I sold my share out to my partner and, flush with cash for the first time in my life, decided to move to New England with my then live-in love whom I shall always think of as “The Socialite.” The Socialite’s family was one of the 500 and, although fallen on hard times, they retained their position within high Eastern society because of their illustrious name. Their family seat was in Newport, Rhode Island, and The Socialite would, years later, live there with her husband and their daughters. I think about her from time to time and saw her once five years ago. She’d turned into her mother — slim, patrician, and slightly nuts.
But this is not about her, or those white nights, or even the oh-so-social summers at Bailey’s Beach. This is about Carl, the most unwise lover I ever met. I’m telling you about him because by doing so it makes me feel less stupid about love and that’s a feeling that’s far too rare for me these days.
When the Socialite and I moved back to New England, we rented the oldest farmhouse and grounds in Litchfield, Connecticut. Litchfield is a Norman Rockwell village that is more of a Norman Rockwell village than Norman Rockwell’s village.
Our house had no street number. Our house, about a mile out of Litchfield Center, was simply called “Wolfpit Farm.” It was an immense house of some six bedrooms upstairs and two down with a parlor and dining room and large open kitchen. Attached to this large house was the original structure; a squat 17th century post-and-beam antique with two stories crammed into about 15 feet. This made each floors ceiling come in at about 6 feet four inches. People were smaller then so I assume this didn’t crowd them.
Carl, the unwise lover, was already living in this colorful but squat structure. His ceilings were 6 feet 4 inches and Carl stood 6 feet 6 inches, an updated and somewhat dazed Ichabod Crane. Every time Carl stood up in his house he had to squat down and shamble from room to room. He had to be especially careful when going through the doors of his place since they were shorter still.
His living area, much smaller than ours, shared one wall with us in the kitchen. As a result, every so often when Carl became a bit too rushed, we’d hear a thump and a muffled curse as Carl missed his stoop level going from room to room and his forehead collided with the top of the door.
This usually happened after happy hour in the Village on Fridays.
“Thump!” “Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Arrrr!”
In those days I don’t recall ever seeing Carl without a Band-Aid or a scab right in the middle of his forehead. He was permanently in recovery from beam collision.
He was also in recovery from his desire, like George Costanza, to be an architect as well as a divorce. The two were not at all unrelated, as I shall now relate.
Carl was not an architect. He was a small town school-teacher as was his high school sweet heart whom he married while in college. She too loved the idea of being an architect, but would never be one. She had some small skills in art but no concept of calculus. Together they loved each other and the idea of modern architecture. Together, upon their marriage, they determined to build one of the finest modern homes in Litchfield as a monument to their love. They both wanted a great house more than anything else in the world. More than, even, children.
In the confused thinking common to those who value things above all else in this life, the Carls ran the numbers. They found that they could, on two (maximum) salaries as small town school teachers, afford either a really great modern house of substance or children. Not both.
Carl later claimed to be sort of ambivalent about this. He wanted kids and probably wanted the great house too. His wife was not at all ambivalent when she talked to him about it. It was a house, house, house. Full stop. Period. Kids had no place in her fantasy. And what’s more, she told him, they needed to be sure.
Solution? She could get her tubes tied or Carl could get a vasectomy. They discussed it and came to the typical marital compromise. Carl conceded and would get the vasectomy. It was, his wife pointed out, much cheaper than her getting her tubes tied. After which they could be secure in their building of the finest modern home known to Litchfield in the mid 1970s.
Land was not an issue since Carl’s father owned vast acreage around the town given over to apple orchards. As a wedding present, he gave the lovebirds a prime ten acre building site and enough money to retain the architect. In those days, the bankers were still local as was Carl’s family and they secured the financing quite smoothly. The wife brought little to the marriage except the expectation of a fine house and a vasectomy.
Carl married her, they both signed for the loan, retained the architect, went on a honeymoon, and came back to their jobs as school teachers and the beginning of the building of their dream house.
Carl used Spring break that year to get and recover from his vasectomy which was, in the mid 1970s not quite the well-worn and somewhat painless procedure it is today. At bottom it was the same in effect. An incision is made in the man’s scrotum and a tube that conveys live sperm to the penis is snipped and sewed shut. You still can have good sex, but you are firing blanks. The recovery now is mostly benign. A little discomfort for a day or so and then some careful weeks and you are good to go. Back then it was slightly more painful for quite a bit longer. But Carl was doing it for a house and for love. He had not heard the phrase “Faustian Bargain,” but he’d learn.
Love, as all men and women learn, is often only for a season, but a mortgage is for 30 years. The Carls worked with their architect and even got some of their more grandiose visions incorporated into the house. A spiral staircase running the three floors made of brushed aluminum. A three story atrium of ground to roof windows in which plants that never got closer to New England than the Amazon Rain Forest would thrive in all seasons. A slate roof. Copper gutters. Open. Edgy. It was the talk of the town. And then the talk was all over town.
It seemed that one of the brawny men who came to install the slate roof and put up the copper gutters had a smooth way of talking and a very big hammer. He also had a strange attraction to Mrs. Carl. It was an attraction that was, it would seem, returned numerous times on the job site and in the apple orchard. It was, in short, a new an unexpected love for Mrs. Carl. Whatever the roofer had it was powerful since, within a month of the completion of the Most Modern Home in Litchfield, Mrs. Carl ran off with the roofer to points far west and left him with a note, a huge house, a jumbo mortgage, and one teacher’s salary with which to service it.
I won’t go into the emotional train-wreck that ensued in the wake of her betrayal and abandonment except to say it was everything you are thinking and more. I don’t know what happened to her. As far as I know nobody does. She exits stage west with a roofer with a large hammer. Fare well and God bless.
Carl had to stay behind, sell — or rather give away — the house since nobody around could be found to buy the Most Modern House in Litchfield for anything close to what it had cost to build. The 3-story atrium emptied heating oil into the New England winters like a supertanker that had been blown in two on the high seas. The slate roof, probably because one of the roofers had been distracted, had a tendency to develop a new leak onto the white shag wall-to-wall after every weekly ice-storm. It was a pale, pale elephant of a dream and Carl was going down with it.
He sold and took about a $75,000 loss. His family had been local for generations so bankruptcy was not discussed. His father was too upset with losing 10 acres of land to people from out of town to help Carl with his folly for at least a year.
So Carl took the hit and moved from owning the house of the Most Modern and High Ceilings in Litchfield to renting the house of the Most Antique and Low ceilings in Litchfield. If it was Friday it was: “Thump!” “Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Arrrr!”
But, in spite of it all, Carl still believed that somewhere out there in the world love was waiting for him.
And he set out to find it.
I don’t know when the idea to travel around the world with a smile, shoeshine and rucksack occurred to Carl, but once it did he set about planning for it ruthlessly. I imagine he thought that finding love was a matter of Brownian Motion — if you just ramble around enough you’re bound to bump into the right thing. He failed to see how rare real love is and how easily it is discarded once obtained. Romantics tend to love not others, but romance itself. And when the “romance” fades they can’t move to a higher, deeper love, but only on to the next incident in a long chain of catastrophe tarted up into cheap opera. Like Carl’s wife, they’re off moving on to the next big adventure. Their perfect defense is that they don’t have to taste the fruits of their desertion.
Carl determined to learn, at least, this lesson. The key, he thought, is in motion that takes you far away. And the farthest away you could get, he reasoned, was to go around until you got back where you started. He made meticulous arrangements for a year long voyage. Got the addresses and contacts from friends and family to their friends and families in at least 15 countries. Got the books. Got the maps. He even dated a local travel agent to get some advice and discounts. He was honest about this and she didn’t mind, love ’em and ticket ’em was her motto.
Having lived in Litchfield all his life, Carl had a lot of friends and we invited over 250 to his send-off party at Wolfpit Farm. It was a superb bash with a lot of toasts to maps and globes and the start of a great life adventure. The last guests left at dawn with Carl in an airport limo we’d all chipped in to get him. It got to Kennedy International and the sendoff continued. In those innocent days it went on until the final boarding call was made and Carl kissed and hugged everyone and took the evening plane to London, the first stop on Carl’s Round-the-World Tour. Bon Voyage!
About ten days later, The Socialite had gone to New York to see her mother and I was alone at Wolfpit Farm. I came down from my studio and into the kitchen around sunset to make a cup of coffee and consider the evening cheese and fruit plate. I was bustling about in the kitchen when, suddenly, “Thump!” “Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Arrrr!”
Carl was back and before I could even begin to think what that could mean he was knocking on my door.
We sat down for coffee and he filled me in on the miracle that had happened to him.
His plane had landed at Gatwick and he’d gotten to his small hotel in Kensington early in the morning. That day had been spent on the tube and on buses just taking in the sights and sounds and smells of the familiar yet always strange city of London. At around six in the evening, exhausted from the trip and the day, he made his way back to his hotel and went into the small pub next door. He took a pint and sat down at one of the tables and looked about. Sitting at the next table was a gamine and gorgeous woman who smiled at him. He smiled back and said “Hi.”
“You’re a Yank,” she observed and picked up her beer and sat down next to him.
Two days later, they admitted to each other they were in love. Four days later they were even more in love. A day after that they’d determined they would marry and live in the Norman Rockwell village of Litchfield happily ever after. There were some visa and other diplomatic issues so Carl agreed to come back first so he could get a place ready for them.
“This place won’t do,” he said. “We’ll need at least three bedrooms.”
“For sure. She’s got two daughters by her first marriage.”
“Don’t you think all this is, ah, a little sudden?”
“Sure. But when you’ve found the real thing, why wait for your life to begin? You have to grab love when it comes along.”
And so it was written and so it was done.
The house was found and Carl rented and furnished it. In time the woman came with her two daughters — who were very cute but tended to have some problems with discipline. The woman was not really a hit with the village and the family who were, to say the least, suspicious of her motives even though she was invariably polite, amusing and charming. All in all, they settled in well enough.
Somewhere about this time, I’d gotten my first important magazine job in New York City and I’d given up my rambling place at Wolfpit Farm. I spoke to Carl on the phone, and always received a glowing report on how happy the four of them were, and it was only a question of time before they’d take the final step and get married. But the calls tailed off as the calls do, and for a number of months I heard little from Carl but wished him well in his new life. He deserved a little happiness.
I was in my garden duplex on East 86th street when his call came.
“Hey, I’ve got a favor to ask.”
“You in trouble, Carl?” With Carl it was always best to ask that first.
“Not at all, not at all. We’re going to get married very soon now.”
“Great news,” I said, knowing through the grapevine that there had been some unexplained delay in the marriage plans.
“And, there’s better news,” Carl said. “We’re going to have children.”
“Oh?” Thinking of the vasectomy Carl had gotten at age 23 in order to ‘finance’ the Most Modern House in Litchfield. “Don’t you already have her two girls?”
“She wants to have one that’s ours, ours alone. I’ve looked into it and it is possible to reverse a vasectomy. They just go in and sew the tubes back together. Once that’s done she says she’ll be ready for the wedding.”
I had a few thoughts about there possibly being a more ulterior motive for a woman who was not a natural born American wanting to have a child with him, but I kept them to myself. You never liked to disappoint Carl when he was in one of his believing moods.
“The only problem is that money’s tight and the operation is expensive. I can afford it but not the hospital stay afterward and the doctor says I can’t take a three hour car trip for at least three days after the operation. I want to know if I can recuperate at your place. I won’t take up any space and I won’t be any trouble.”
“Sure,” I said. After all, how much trouble could it be? We confirmed times and dates and I assured him I’d be home to help him out as soon as the hospital released him.
“Do you want me to come pick you up?”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll just take a cab. It only about 20 blocks.”
The day came and I left work early in order to be there for Carl. The Socialite wasn’t pleased but she said she could put up with it.
At about four in the afternoon, my doorbell rang. I went to the building entrance and greeted…. a taxi driver.
“You Van der Loin? Get out here. You’re pal’s all messed up and I ain’t gonna be cleaning out my cab. It’s gonna take two of us.”
What I saw in the back of the taxi gave new meaning to the phrase “pillow-biter.” Carl was essentially immobilized in a hospital smock and perched on a pile of purloined pillows. It is hard to imagine how a man can sit in a cab and not sit down, but Carl was managing this feat of levitation. What he could not manage was movement. The jouncing ride over the Manhattan potholes had frozen him in a sitting, but not sitting position. A sphere of bandaging beneath his waist was the reason.
In those days, long before the more bizarre realms of body modification that have been achieved in this blighted era, you would not have thought it possible for a normal man’s scrotum to swell to the size of a grapefruit, but that was what Carl, in his quest for perfect love, was sporting.
The cabby and I carried him, very gingerly, into my duplex and deposited him, oh so gently, on the large sofa that was to be the center of his realm for the next three days. I’ve never known a deeper sense of empathy nor a deeper gratitude that I was not the man I beheld. I’d like to say I felt his pain, but the truth was that here was a pain I never wanted to feel.
He rolled onto his back and lay there, forehead bathed in sweat, gazing blankly at the ceiling. I paid off the cabby, who was only too glad to be rid of this fare and he was off.
Carl, pale — very pale — glanced down at his bandaged nether regions. “Ice,” he croaked. “Lots and lots of crushed ice.”
Getting and fetching and crushing ice for Carl’s reverse vasectomy was to be my role for most of the next few days. I told him right up front that there would be no application service. He’d have to do some things for himself.
The Socialite was kind to Carl and even kinder to me. There were no “I-told-you-so’s” spoken, but her long suffering looks were all it took for me to get the message.
Three days later, Carl, still tender said some profound thank you’s and hobbled off to the cab that would take him to the train and back into the arms of his soon-to-be-loving wife.
We shook hands at the curb and he got, still with a lot of care, into the cab.
I never saw him again.
But I did hear, a few months later, what happened next.
Carl recovered from the ordeal of the reverse vasectomy. In a week or two it didn’t hurt and full sexual function had returned. Sadly, since the operation then was much more crude than it is today, the sperm function did not return. There would be love making but no baby making.
It didn’t take long for the English woman to decide that she was not going to get everything that she wanted from Carl after all. The wedding was called off, and she announced that she and her daughters were going back to England. Carl was not invited.
He was a good sport about it. He bought their tickets, helped them pack, and even ironed some blouses for the girls just before he drove them to Kennedy to say farewell. He still loved this little artificial family. It was his family even as it was blowing him off.
They parted at the plane and Carl drove back to his now empty three-bedroom house in Litchfield.
As Carl came up the last hill and into the little valley where the house was, he noticed a plume of smoke rising over the trees. When he got over the hill he saw the trucks of the Litchfield Fire Department pouring water onto the smoldering ruins of his house.
Later it was determined that the cause of the fire was an iron that was left plugged in and had fallen, probably when someone slammed the door, into a hamper of clothes.
After that, the years rolled on and the city came to claim me and I lost track of Carl. I still don’t know what happened to him, but I like to think that somehow he got a third chance to love and that he took it, and that he was, maybe, wiser at last.
All it would have taken was one good woman.