Steven in Love

First published in Panorama, The Journal of Travel, Place, and Nature  Issue 10  Winter 2023

He began typing. Sloppily at first, the words advancing in broad choppy strokes across the blank page. Relax. Just let it happen. And Steven allowed his feverish mind to wander, observed how it gradually focused its purposeful lens on large and small details, all the while gathering speed. Soon his fingertips danced across the keyboard, which clattered harmoniously to his imaginings. Lost in the wake of his rapture, he began to hum a favorite tune, recalling how and why it happened, this delightful nuptial enterprise.

His divorce from Eleanor completed, finding himself a free man, Steven Matterly felt once more the desire for romance. Averse to dating sites—he thought them a grand folly—he returned one afternoon, to scanning the Personals of a literary magazine, and to one particular ad whose elegant bold face type called out to him.

“Beautiful New England Dame, thirtyish, fit, bright, sensual, seeks Tall, Dark and Northampton Gent for company and pleasure. Are we a match? Tell me about yourself. I’ll read every word. If you’re the one, you won’t regret it.”

I am the one, thought Steven. She needs me. Yes. We need each other. His mood continuing to rise, to brighten. Steven began to hum, solfaed each note with increased joy and happiness. La-la-la-laa! He knew this feeling. This wonderful restorative feeling which he had not felt in quite some time.

“I’m in love,” he enthused to the computer screen. “I’m in love.”

From the great open plains of his heart the words poured forth, a dazzling rainbow of thoughts and feelings. Letting this miracle happen, Steven vowed to tell her everything she cared to know. Everything. And she in turn would reveal to him the depth and contours of her own vivid life.

Fueled by his second cup of coffee, his agile fingers at the keyboard, related his excellent health. Should he tell of his wounds? Perhaps indirectly. Enfold it within an upbeat narrative embrace. A story within a story, so to speak. Yes. He would do that. What else?

She asked, he divined, his preference in music. Well then, his tastes ran the gamut from Western classical to Japanese reggae. From Balinese metallophones to Chinese zithers. Though after a long week trading commodities he enjoyed nothing better than to relax with a glass of sparkling wine, the better to appreciate the melodic varieties of 70s rock. Who on Earth could live without it?

In fact, Steven had attended more than a few Linda Ronstadt concerts. Her extraordinary good looks, the astonishing range of her sultry voice, but most of all, the way she revealed the depths of her heart in songs of love and regret, loss and sorrow. How on Earth did Linda do that? He sent her fan letters. A bouquet of costly flowers. His friends thought him crazy. But what did they know about love and loss, the varieties of grief? One night, he arrived unannounced at her stage door bearing gifts—but she wasn’t there.

Time skittered past. It seemed he had filled page upon page with his curious blend of facts and fancy. Who would have thought the act of enumeration could be so productive? Oh for the sight and scent and touch of a woman. Her languid kisses upon his furrowed brow. He imagined her legs intermingled with his, the warm sunlight dappling the rumpled sheets, her chestnut brown hair fanned across the pillow. He savored these thoughts. These future delights.

Back to work. But this was not work. It was pleasure. More than pleasure. It was pleasant. Pleasenter. Pleasentest. How is that for an Edward Albee declension? Steven and Eleanor, like Martha and George, such a promising pair. Martha with her Woolfish cries, George turning the scornful tables. How it all went south.

But this time it would be different. Name. She must have a name. Agnes? Too upper class. Katie? No thank you. Something elegant. Approachable. Inviting. Mary. Maryann. Maribeth. There. That’s it. Her name is Maribeth. She is five foot six, slim, long-legged, with alluring, provocative curves. Her bewitching smile, her kissable lips, are transfixing. But she is also kind-hearted, warm, playful. She is loving yet strong. Arguments? Never. He had learned to pick his battles. At the sound of her voice, her slightest touch, each time they meet, Steven will thrill at the sight of her. And Maribeth him.

He leaned back from the computer. Stood up and stretched. Flexed his achy fingers. Breathed in deeply. Exhaled. Ahhhhhhh. Closed and rubbed his weary eyes. Two solid hours had passed in solid reverie. But now, as his energetic ex-wife would say in the midst of lovemaking—the ferocity of her barbs like heavy artillery—he required a modest sabbatical.
More coffee. But not the foul brew of the instant elixir which stained his teeth and hurt his gums.

Or the electro-mechanical pod, or the primitive cowboy percolator. No. For this particular recharge Steven would indulge the ritual of a gourmet’s pour over. Carefully, he measured and ground the fresh aromatic beans. Wet and fit the filter to the drip cone atop the mug. Carefully added the pulverized beans into the cone, poured a bit of water to let the coffee bloom. Finally, in a thoughtful, circular motion, he poured the hot water over the steeping grounds. How long it took did not matter. Every sip was ambrosia. Soon the caffeine re-quickened him. It was time. Once more into the breach!

He loved to travel. What, he thought, could be more romantic than to meet Maribeth in Rio, to join the festive crowds at Carnival. Or perhaps Jerusalem, where arm in arm they’d walk the ancient cobble stones, admire the rhythmic clattering of mule drawn carts, the jingle of beggars bells, absorb the pithy lilt of one hundred glottal tongues. Or better yet, rendezvous in wealthy Zurich, take the immaculate Dolderbahn trolley, a tribute to Swiss precision, as it gracefully advanced up the tracks, up and up the steep landscaped hill to Waldhaus station, the very last stop. From there, a short walk to Dolderstrasse 107, to enquire—fingers crossed, hope against hope—of the good Dr. Schmidt, regarding Steven’s injuries. “A story for another time,” he would tell Maribeth, before Frau Hotterlink, a short diminutive woman, informed him in German that Herr Doktor, a strikingly handsome man, a nimbus of pure white hair mantling his regal head, was indisposed, but conveyed his best regards.

“You speak German?” asked Maribeth in the eye of his mind.
“Natürlich,” Steven replied. “Are you hungry, mein schatzie?”
“Famished,” she said.
“Komm mit mir,” he would say. “Our cab is waiting. We have reservations.”

The clink of crystal glasses. Hearty old world food. Sweet custard Caramelköpfli topped with delectable golden caramel sauce.

“What a lovely meal,” enthused his make believe lover. Seductively, she leaned forward, her bare shoulders radiant in candle light. Clasping her hands to his, she whispered into his ear, “What next, darling? Hmmmm?”

Hmmmm. Not yet. He wanted to savor each moment with her before they made love. What subject to further kindle desire yet briefly delay it? A movie? Yes. Why not? They both loved film. She hoped to be an actress. He’d written treatments and screenplays. Or should he stick to the simpler things in life? His rent had gone up. A noisy neighbor had departed. In pocket change, he’d found a rare Buffalo nickel, a Wheat-Back Lincoln penny, a Mercury dime.

He determined a compromise. “Not long ago,” he said, at his favorite art house theater, with its high-domed ceiling and crystal chandeliers, its great silver screen, the patrons waited for the film to begin.

“How delightful!” he composed Maribeth to say. “What happened next? Oh, do tell, Steven. Do tell!”

There came a rush of footsteps down the carpeted aisle. A late patron. There was always one in the crowd. Please don’t sit here, thought Steven, still in his daydream, eyeing the seat where he’d placed his Burberry coat and Stetson hat.

A gruff clearing of throat. And again.
“Pardon me,” said the man. “May I?”
Christ, thought Steven.

The enormous disheveled fellow plumped himself down in the now empty seat, caught his labored breath, and with thick stubby fingers repeatedly rooted inside the large plastic tub of salted buttered popcorn. Hand to mouth, piston-like, he dipped and shoveled the crunchy morsels into the great maw of his bearded face, smacking his salted lips. His thirst stimulated, the ungainly fellow lowered his gaping mouth to the white plastic straw of his colossal drink, secured his puckered lips to it, and with animal intent noisily sucked the ice-cubed soda down, down his parched gullet. After a too brief pause, he dipped his great shaggy head, expanded his cavernous mouth vertically, and trumpeted an elongated, growling, frat house belch.


“Well, that was enough for me,” said Steven, who abruptly stood, gathered his things, located an empty seat ten rows back.
“Such a gentleman. You handled it just right,” said Maribeth, and kissed his brow.

But what could have happened in the darkened theater as the projector reels calmly unspooled their luminous fate? Men like Steven did not have anger. They had murderous rageful furies. He had wanted to strangle the man. Bash his brains in. To look inside the emptied skull, as he had once done, fascinated by its pearl-like shimmering interior. After his men had scavenged the dead Viet Cong for souvenirs he’d given the order to move out.

“Enough! Enough! Enough!” he heard himself stammer.
He summoned Maribeth to cure his anguish.
“Steven, what are you thinking?”

When they had known each other for a time, perhaps then he would tell her. He had not gone to war willingly. “I was an ordinary soldier,” he would say, as they sat beneath a protective tarp overlooking a meadow, and past it, a wide, calm, azure lake. He imagined the forecast was showers.

“A light spring rain,” echoed Maribeth. “Sun showers.”

The wine and cheese and bread consumed, the sudden sprinkling suffused with light, haltingly, he spoke of rain pelting their uniforms, how it thudded against the stout bamboo, how it masked the sound of the enemy’s movement. Then all at once the sudden roar of AKs, a chorus of shouts, screams, the horrific chaos and caterwaul. In this particular apocalypse, the fighting so intense, both sides turned to savagery. From that day Steven lived with regret for what he did, and for what he did not do.

Touched by the depth of his grief, Maribeth would hold him, and Steven, feeling his sorrows depart, would ask, “Boy or girl?”

“A girl,” Maribeth cried, calling in his dream the doctor’s office. They agreed upon Caroline, after Maribeth’s grandmother, and Steven called forth Caroline beneath the covers, the yellow quilted blanket pulled to her face, only her blue, blue eyes visible, prepared for wonder.

“What story would you like to hear, sweetheart?”
Caroline shivered excitedly. “With the man and the dog.”
“All right,” said Steven. “Daddy likes that story too.”

He edged closer to his four-year-old daughter, warming to the task. Where his stories came from and what they meant he did not know, but the child loved them, and that is what mattered most.

“Once there was a man with a dog named Billy. Every day they walked in the woods. There were birds, trees, little animals, and the dog named Billy knew the way, went far ahead, but always came back, because Billy loved that man. They were such good friends. One day the man and dog went far, far into the woods, where they had never gone before. When Billy came back, he barked and barked, wagged his tail, and the man followed him to the secret cave Billy had found. Into the cave they went; down, down a narrow tunnel, to a large round room with a tall blue ceiling, its walls painted with clouds.

“What kind of clouds?” he imagined Caroline might ask. “Big clouds? Little clouds? What color?” Hurriedly, she pulled the blanket back to her face.
“This kind,” and Steven saw himself tickling her as Caroline shrieked with joy. “No more! No more!” she would say. Steven, brightened by her laughter, continued the story.

The clouds seemed to move, and the man thought to put his ear to the wall. He heard something. Billy the dog, sitting in the center of the room, tilted his head sideways, listening.
“What is it, Billy?” said the man.

And Billy, both his ears straight up, barked at what he knew was there but could not see it. Suddenly, a ball of light appeared above Billy’s head. Slowly, slowly Billy floated off the ground, up, up, up, and the man watched as Billy began to run, run while floating beneath the mysterious light. Then the man floated, up, up, up, and he too started to run, run in the air, until at last, the light set them both down, down, became dimmer, dimmer, and just like that, it disappeared.

“A miracle!” said the man. “A miracle!”
Then he and Billy left the cave to begin the long walk home.
“The end,” said Steven. “Night-night.”
But Caroline lay fast asleep. Maribeth peered in the doorway.
“I’m ready for bed too,” she winked.

Steven removed his glasses. Then he printed out the single page he had actually written, which related his mostly good health, his travels, penchant for sports, theater, foreign films, a vigorous hike, a casual walk, a good meal and conversation. He wasn’t perfect. But who was? He hoped she would find him compatible in company and pleasure.

“Hope to hear from you soon.”
He opened a copy of Bartlett’s Quotations and fanned the pages. Pressing his finger to a random quote he read it aloud.
“It is always hazardous to meet your heroes.”
“Maybe,” he said, and closed the book. Took a breath. Sent the email on its way.
“Or maybe not.”