In the Beholder’s Eyes

It’s not what we see — but how what we see makes us feel. ( Inspired by a New York love story)

Many years ago, when New York was home, and Chuck Schumer was still a state assemblyman, my friend Doris, who lived just two doors down the hall, invited me over to meet one of her oldest friends. Terry, a dedicated I.C.U. nurse, was at the brink of a major decision and needed an extra set of ears. Diego, my neighbor’s sheepdog pup, was licking Terry’s toes as she patiently waited for our attention. I was curious, very curious to hear more about what Doris called Terry’s Five Year Plan.

Introductions over, Terry paused to find the right key, Diego climbed on the couch, and Doris retreated to the kitchen to gather some ginger spice cookies, while her friend kept nodding at me. Terry started off with the classic guessing game, asking me how old I thought she was. The best strategy I’d found was to deduct at least five years from whatever you really thought. Cutting too many years would only raise suspicions. So I guessed 30, and Terry was pleased and told me that everybody seemed to think she was younger than she really was. She went on about Dove soap and not frowning, and then told me she was actually 35, just like Doris, who was engaged to an off-off-off Broadway actor who brought her flowers and walked Diego all the time. Everyone on the floor liked him, and we all could see that they were a great match. Terry noticed, too.

Then, with the matter of her age now on the table, Terry listed various reasons why being single just wasn’t so much fun any more. And then she stroked Diego’s back, and studied Doris’s expression carefully and then mine, and announced that she was ready to roll out her plan.

Terry saw no point in mentioning how many boyfriends had come and gone over the years, and called herself a true veteran in the pursuit of loving companionship. She looked at the framed photo of Doris, her fiancé, and their four-pawed charge — and her strain became apparent. She told us that she’d tried to be open-minded and dated men who didn’t always meet her high standards. Although she didn’t share her list of suitable characteristics, she assured us that she’d bent backward to make things work. Sounded like two cardiologists, one parasitologist, and at least one litigator– no wedding china.

I did my best to console her, and brought up a recent break-up that had left me in a dither, and she listened politely, and then returned to her plan. It was really simple: 1) she had no intention of just settling and 2) she wanted to marry a prince. By prince, she smiled and explained that she wanted to be blissfully wed to an extremely debonair fellow who would draw immediate notice each time he entered a room. Everyone would turn around to see who had claimed her heart and sigh deeply. No other credentials – just the ability to drop jaws.

Terry told us that she’d waited so long, put up with so many disappointments, and was determined to save herself for the most handsome bachelor in Manhattan. Doris started bringing up personal qualities that she thought might be equally desirable – but Terry dismissed them. A good listener? No, she didn’t need that. Nothing was quite as important as finding a case of raging good looks… She could imagine the immediate attention she’d draw each time she walked into a party with her matchless specimen. The unbearable grace of his company and the shock waves it would send across Thanksgiving dinners – No, if he didn’t listen, no harm in that – anyone could listen.

I, in my mid-20’s, and less experienced in these matters, stroked Diego, and then jumped in and suggested that good looks can over-ripen and spoil, and her gorgeous beau could end up in the middle lane in a few years. And it wouldn’t be enjoyable to be married to a has-been with few commendable traits. Doris agreed emphatically and mentioned an endocrinologist they both knew who was once the best looking doctor at their hospital, but had since withered under the stress of dealing with troublesome patients and a long commute. Doris had photos from a picnic where he caught every eye.

Terry didn’t hear a word of what we said. Or if she did, she wasn’t interested and stuck to her policy of holding out for prime appearance. After Diego found the biscuit I’d hidden in my pocket, I thanked Doris for the cookies, and told Terry that she deserved nothing but the best. “Invite me to the wedding,” I shouted as I headed down the hall to my empty apartment.

Not more than six months later, Doris left a note under my door inviting me to come by the next day, after dinner. Terry found him – and he was coming over to meet her friends. I cancelled a dinner date and anxiously awaited the opportunity to meet a prince.

Every handsome man who strolled past me on the way to work made me pause – maybe, he’s the one who Terry charmed. All I’d heard about him in the elevator that morning, as Diego was hunting in my blazer pocket for his favorite biscuits, was that he was a history professor. No doubt, he’d be dressed in double-vented tweed, his pocket filled with a leather notebook with Terry’s love notes tumbling out. They’d have beautiful children I was sure, and they’d fill their Riverside Drive apartment with rare books and a harpsichord.

Dinner was two slices of Ray’s cheese and olive pizza — I nearly burned my lips because I was too rushed to blow. And then I wondered what if he’d turn out to be vain, his life over-crowded with women sewing his buttons, baking him brownies, sending him stanzas. What could be worse? Poor Terry!

When I arrived at the apartment, Diego had already pulled up a chair. Doris said that Terry had called to say that Marty would be arriving late. Marty? Maybe everyone else called him Martin, so Terry carved out her domain with a punchy nickname. No doubt he was late because of a last minute meeting with his publisher to finalize the latest edits. Terry would be just a little late, too, but was on her way. When she walked in, it was clear in a glance that her long wait was over. She’d stuck to her five year plan and it worked. The glow – she had it. She radiated, and Diego kept jumping on her lap bewitched by her love-filled magic.

Now we all waited together and smiled. Marty, we learned, taught Contemporary European History – he wrote his thesis about the different ways that Norwegian women prepare oatmeal. Sources of heat and different pot styles were compared in the context of a changing environment. Maybe it wasn’t just oatmeal but also … and then we could hear his voice rising up through the intercom. “Terry – 3A? Is that what you said?”

Diego started jumping and Terry caught her breath as if she could see him crossing the moat and coming closer and closer. “Wait, Martykins — I’ll buzz you in.” And she turned to us – to inform us in the most thoroughly lovesick way – that Marty was on his way up to the apartment. Could someone move Diego off the couch to make room for Martykins.

Are more details really necessary? Can you guess that Marty was not at all what Terry believed him to be. Oh, that whiny voice, the seat of his pants drooped, he needed a new barber.

He held out his hand to us and shook hands very firmly. Terry smiled and checked our faces – Didn’t I tell you?

She did, and Doris and I briefly ran off to her bedroom to shake off our giggles. Then we returned to find them in a romantic embrace that finished their sentences. His hair was a bit straggly – for some of us – and his pockets bulged with plastic bags that may have once carried sandwiches. I likely sat next to him on the IRT many times without ever noticing him. But Terry found her prince — that much she knew.