When autumn leaves . . .by Jamie McKenzie
There were months when Cassandra lost hope. Trapped in a nightmarish relationship, she had to stir herself to make a strong move. She had to surface. She had to find hope . . . somewhere. Somehow.
When autumn leaves begin to fallThere is something sweet about the rain and cold of late October. Things begin to rot and drop. Few blooms survive this late. Things brown. Even the grass naps. Winter approaches and folks pull on sweaters.
Inside, fires burn. Cats huddle near the hearth. It is a time for reading with a blanket thrown across the knees. As the cold rain hits the roof and a shrill wind blows, being inside feels good.
Maybe that's why autumn is a romantic time for some people. Perhaps they remember hours with a lover at their side, both reading, sometimes stopping for a kiss or a caress.
That was certainly the case with Cassandra Newell. She tried not to listen to the song Autumn Leaves, but it was impossible to escape it in a world saturated with elevator music. Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf . . . The list went on and on. And Cassandra could not go shopping or enter an elevator without hearing the song. It was a haunting.
There had been months when her romance with Ted had been perfect. She had dreamed about loving like this. And then it actually happened. He was warm, tender and sweet with her from the very beginning. She couldn't believe her good fortune. It all seemed too good to be true.
He was tall dark and handsome in the classic sense. A runner. Bright. Funny. Even whimsical. They would sit with a glass of wine and trade quips for hours. She could not believe her luck. She had been searching for a good man for a decade with little success before Ted approached her at the bar one night in The Frog and The Peach.
He took the seat next to her, noticed the book she was reading and asked her what she thought of "Gone Girl."
This was, surprisingly, the first time any man had asked her at a bar what she thought about a book, so she was almost at a loss for words.
"I'm just half way through," she mumbled. And then she felt stupid for being evasive. "And so far," she quickly added, "It's one of the best I have ever read."
"How come?" he asked.
She was thinking what kind of man acts like an English teacher at the bar?
"You an English teacher?" she asked with her biggest, sexiest smile.
"Ahhh . . . " he replied. "You got me there. I guess I was a bit of a jerk."
"Not at all," she crooned. "I was just curious."
"Well," he smiled, "Truth is that you nailed it. I am."
"No shit!" she said. Instead of feeling weak and silly, she was feeling that she had regained her dignity.
"So?" he persisted.
"Son of a bitch!" she thought to herself.
"Character and irony — cleverness and sharpened word choice."
He looked at her with obvious respect. "Wow. That would earn an A in my class."
"Not in your class," she smiled. "You probably teach high school, and I teach at the university. English." She knew that she probably seemed a bit smug, but she couldn't help it because he had been smug and patronizing from the start.
"Ohhhhh . . . " he said. "You have a degree?"
"Yep," she answered, smiling.
"I'm almost done with mine."
"Let's drink to that!" she smiled. And they touched glasses to toast their future.
They managed six months of bliss. Perfect days. Perfect nights. Great kisses. Great conversations. Great sleep. It was a storybook romance. They had both suffered from dumb love in the past, so this new love was like some kind of reward for patience and perseverance.
"This is too good to be true," she whispered to herself.
"This is too good to be true," he whispered to himself.
And they were both right.
Reality has a cruel way of strangling infatuation. The early feelings of extraordinary love are almost always throttled. Those who dare to reach for true love are almost always disappointed. Sometimes they are punished.
One rotten apple
Cassandra could not point to a single day when her dream turned into a nightmare. The shift was gradual. Irritation became bother. Bother became despair. Despair became resignation.
Looking back a year later, she could see that the seeds of this trouble were evident on the first night they met. She was ahead of Ted in her career, and truth was, although he might try to ignore this fact, her superior position chewed away at his self-esteem. Combined with a large amount of alcohol each night, this was a potent cocktail.
He was still struggling with his dissertation and five high school English classes at the same time one of her recent papers was gaining lots of attention and praise. The comparison was not flattering.
"How'd it go, Honey?" She tried asking at the end of each day in the first few months they lived together.
His grunts or silence cured her of this ritual. He never wanted to talk about his classes, his students or his stalled dissertation. He would plop down in his leather armchair with a stack of student essays, a glass of Malbec and a grim look that brought to Cassandra's mind a scene from the Inferno. He was not very interested in food, so she stopped cooking and shopping, glad because she thought it sexist of him to expect that of her. They slid into a microwave, pizza and Chinese cycle spending their evenings working rather than speaking.
"Love u!" She would type on Viber for the first few months from the room where she was writing sending a loving sticker with kisses, and at first he would type back some tender words and stickers, but the exchange died after a few silences. She was not finding much tenderness or romance, but she tried to be understanding. His life was a grind, and she did know that dissertations were a torture for many.
She was up while he was down, and his resentment circled through their apartment and their lives like Eliot's yellow fog.
In her best moments she reasoned, summer was approaching and they would both have lots of holiday time. He could concentrate on his dissertation and their relationship without the pressures of high school teaching. She kept hoping they would be able to rekindle the fire that had burst up at their meeting. And maybe he would make such good progress on his dissertation that the dark clouds would lift, he could start writing in ways that would lift his spirits, and the two of them could celebrate with romantic picnics and retreats.
Always the optimist, Cassandra slogged through three months of increasingly dour living conditions, pretty much hating the life she had chosen for herself. She felt abandoned and neglected, but it did no good to share her feelings. He was always contrite, but nothing changed after she would make her pleas.
And then summer came and she discovered a new side to him. "I'm meeting Tom at the Meadowlands tomorrow," he announced.
"Oh," she smiled. "That sounds like fun. How about I join you?"
She could tell from his eyes that she was not welcome.
"You like the ponies?" he asked, his lips curling with amusement and disbelief.
She'd never been to the track or gambled on anything in her life, unless maybe it was her betting on Ted, hoping against hope that he would fight off his dissertation blues and use the summer to create some momentum. She was beginning to think Ted was a long shot. Half of the students who passed through the doctoral program with her never finished their dissertation. They ended up with what was jokingly called ABD - all but the dissertation.
Ted smelled of ABD and booze. Night after night he fell asleep in his leather chair, if he was home. The summer passed in a blur with no romantic picnics. Most days he spent at one of a half dozen tracks with fellow gamblers. He never once invited her to join him, and she did not press the issue.
It was time for her to leave. Ted was sliding deeper and deeper into a fog bank of alcohol and gaming. During July and August she saw no evidence that he even looked at his dissertation.
So why didn't she leave? she asked herself daily. But she stayed. She had no good answers. He was not cruel to her. He was never home. In some ways her life was improved by his absences. She was able to tackle and finish some challenging articles that had been on her back burner all year.
They had stopped making love. Had stopped kissing and holding hands. Love had died, and they were left bereft. So why did she stay?
It made no sense, but she had trouble leaving someone when they are down and out. She remembered a song about that. "Nobody loves you when you are down and out."
And she did not want to abandon him in such dire straits. She kept thinking circumstances had to improve now that he was hitting bottom, but with each week he showed her new depths. She had known very little about bottoms, she discovered.
Down and out
Cassandra finally decided to move out and start life away from Ted.
She moped about for a week wrestling with the decision, but she could see no end to his troubles and no chance that he would pull himself out of his downward spiral.
He was gone for long stretches at a time now, and when he did appear, Ted was usually stumbling drunk. He was drinking so heavily, he was incapable of holding a conversation. He often woke her in early morning banging on the door because he could not find his key. On the few times they saw each other, he lunged into their apartment to collapse wordless on the couch. His t-shirt and shorts showed signs of a three day binge. Dirt and vomit.
Cassandra wondered how he would manage when school started up again at summer’s end, but she knew there was little she could do to salvage either their relationship or him. Even though she felt they should sit down face to face to talk over their separation, there was no way to make this happen. He was either absent or passed out. The irony of two English majors being unable to communicate.
She packed up her things and left a note. In his condition, she wondered if he would see the note. She wondered if he would even notice she was gone. Eventually the landlord would want to see a rent payment and the utilities bills would come due. These were all things she had been handling as he slid downward, but now they would be his to manage once again.
She wondered if her leaving would wake him up. If her leaving would help him regain his feet. But she knew the answer. He was well past reform.
The odd couple
Once Cassandra found herself living alone away from Ted, she was surprised by how little loneliness she felt. Lonely was life with Ted. Being in the same house with someone who did not show any sign you existed. That was lonely.
A decade earlier Cassandra had taken a scuba course and learned the dangers of rising too fast to the surface. Leaving Ted behind held some of the same risks, she learned, as years of submersion had deadened many of her instincts and left her numb. It felt like she would need months to regain her sense of self, to awaken, to feel, to dream again.
In the meanwhile, she contented herself with small steps. Shopping for groceries. Meeting friends for coffee. Taking the train to see her parents. Working on essays. Forgetting. Moving on. Erasing. Reinventing. Teaching class. Shrugging. Shedding. Moving on.
She had been depressed, she realized now, for years. Living with Ted had been more than ball and chain. As he drowned, he dragged her under. On the surface she had been bright, cheery, competent and successful, but inside she was a mess. She was dimming. Sputtering. Whatever spark she had brought to the relationship in the beginning had pretty much disappeared. She was embers. Staggering. Moss covered. Barnacle covered. Hardly alive.
But star of her department. How is that possible? she wondered. She knew, of course, that she had diverted all of her love and energy into her work, had become wedded to her writing instead of Ted. She was winning prizes even as she sank deeper and deeper below the surface. She had been flailing about trying to salvage something from the wreckage.
She spent little time speculating about the future. She had never been much of a dreamer, but whatever inclination she had in that direction had died. She was content with survival. She was no longer drowning. And while she was not exuberant, the damp blanket of depression had lifted. She was not full. Not empty. Not sad. Not happy. If it had been bath water, her mood would be called tepid or lukewarm. After her time with Ted, lukewarm seemed scalding in comparison. She felt relief. Calm. Deliverance.
Some people lurch from one terrible relationship to another and another. They stagger from one bad partner to another. They cannot live without the drama of drowning. Not Cassandra. She was determined to avoid any kind of relationship for at least a hundred years. She no longer trusted her romantic instincts and judgment. She was sure she would fail again. Pick another loser. Ride the anchor chain to the bottom once again.
She considered doing therapy to figure out what made her fall in love with a loser like Ted, but she was just too embarrassed to tell anyone her story. She thought of herself as almost brilliant. It was a word she heard whispered from time to time. But when it came to Ted she had been deaf, blind and plain stupid. Looking back, there had been plenty of warning signs. She had ignored them. Arrogant bitch that she was. So fucking brilliant. So fucking stupid.
There were men in her life, for sure, but none that interested her. She was inclined to dismiss all men out of hand now. They were a terrible risk. She saw no benefits. Ted had exhausted three lifetimes. And she was not eager to waste any more.
At times she felt their attention. They buzzed about a bit like flies. Not much had changed since her fifth grade year when boys had shown interest by pulling her hair or tripping her. Courtship had not advanced much beyond that level. She paid them no attention. Acted as if they did not exist, but the more she ignored them, the louder they buzzed. It was as if her indifference was blood in the water and they were sharks driven to a feeding frenzy.
One man, physically the least attractive of them all, was especially persistent. He had the misshapen features of an especially sad looking bulldog. His voice was grating, and he loomed large and clumsy like some lumberjack from long ago. In a university where the clothing styles of the faculty tilted toward grunge, his style was surprisingly preppy. He was buttoned down and rep tie.
Everyone said he was brilliant, and she knew they were right, but he was not her type. Her type? That struck her as funny. As if she had a type. He just seemed like some dumb fifth grade boy who knew nothing about women or anything else, for that matter. She had no use for him and wished he would stop his buzzing.
Gerard found her distance and her discomfort no impediment. He was accustomed to women reacting in this way at first and knew that his charms lay below the surface. He was in no rush at all but had chosen Cassandra with due deliberation. He would not be easily discouraged.
Gerard was so different from Ted. His work was distinguished, and his ego was rock solid. Not that he was arrogant. He was simply sure of himself. He was confident.
Despite her decision to ignore him, Cassandra found herself watching him and listening to him carefully, while doing this in ways she thought quite discrete.
Gerard was not fooled. He knew what was going on. But he pretended ignorance. He knew she was paying attention to his words in department meetings. She could feign indifference, but she did it with such intensity, she communicated the opposite. He was astute. She was like a fish making passes at a baited hook.
Cassandra had always been smarter than just about anybody else she encountered. It had been going on for so long that she never thought much about it, but it surely had an impact on her relationship with Ted. She occupied such a lofty mental level that she could be quite remote. But it also meant she might underestimate someone like Gerard. He was probably smarter than she was in some ways, and he was definitely more astute when it came to men, women and the games they play from time to time. She was a kindergarten student when it came to romance and relationships. She was clueless.
Gerard was a patient man. He was in no rush and he knew that timing in this case was everything. He would have to gradually penetrate until she woke up one day and realized she had been infested. It was not a pleasant metaphor, but termites usually made remarkable progress before they were detected. This was his intention. He knew she viewed him with something close to loathing, so termites seemed fitting. He figured she would agree.
The termite thing broke down when he got to the part where she is supposed to embrace the infestation. He knew of nothing in nature that would support this notion, but he knew that captives often build a queer affection for their captors — a phenomenon called the Stockholm syndrome. Perverse as it might seem, he hoped to turn her aversion into affection, though he had no intention of kidnapping her.
Gerard knew Cassandra lived for her work, and he knew she was brilliant. He also knew she was clueless when it came to the politics of university life and university publishing. Her work was fantastic but she relied entirely on talent to gain attention and showed no savvy when it came to winning the affection and support of her colleagues across the USA who will shine the spotlight where they wish.
Gerard had savvy to spare when it came to schmoozing. While his work was almost as good as Cassandra's, he was more widely published and acclaimed. She was well aware of this contrast and quite irritated by the unfairness of it. At one point she tried to blame it on gender bias, but at some level she suspected it had something to do with politics. Even though Gerard was almost homely, he seemed to offset this deficit with charm. It was not the kind of charm she would welcome, she thought, but she had to admit he had a way of winning over even the most intransigent and disagreeable folks.
Truth was she was eager to find out his secrets. She was so eager, in fact, that she swerved from her original course and found herself inviting him for a coffee after a department meeting.
Her approach was shameless. "Gerard," she smiled, taking his elbow lightly in one hand, "I am in need of some advice."
He smiled and waited for her to explain. He was enjoying this moment immensely.
"Can I buy you a coffee?"
Somehow the coffee turned into martinis.
"I hate to admit it," she said, after downing both olives before sipping her drink, "but I am jealous."
"Yes," she blushed. "Jealous of the attention you get and the ease with which you get published."
Gerard was impressed. He knew of no other faculty member who would have spoken with such honesty. Pretense was expected. Vulnerability was shunned. It was an old WASP thing to keep a stiff upper lip. Never admit weakness. The woman was charming.
"I will be honest with you, Cassandra. I admire your work and think you deserve equal attention."
"Really!" she blurted.
"Really," he echoed. "And I would be pleased to share everything I know."
She smiled and found herself warming to this man.
They raised their martini glasses and clinked.
Cassandra owned a bicycle, but she never took it anywhere. It was old, slow and too much work. Most times she preferred walking. She knew almost nothing about the sport of cycling, but she did remember reading something about a strategy called "drafting" that allowed stars like Lance Armstrong to save energy by riding behind teammates who would shelter them from the wind. Toward the end of the race, the star would dart out from behind his mate and sprint to the finish.
Gerard explained to her that the same strategy could work in academia, though it was not so much a matter of blocking wind, even though wind was in abundance. Someone like Gerard, generally thought of as an up-and-coming star, could lead the way for someone less notorious like Cassandra. He could carve through the obstacles, the indifference and the pretensions of other intellects and pull her with him into more exalted realms than she might manage on her own. He could break the ice.
Once again they sat with drinks as Gerard offered to draft for Cassandra. But this time he suggested the Haunt, maybe the only dive bar in mostly stuffy Cavendish, and they sat with cheap beers instead of martinis. She was not exactly a beer girl, but she was drafting, wasn't she? And she knew it was time to learn new tricks. She had the academic work under control, but she had no idea how to win over the academics who sat like early Romans in the Circus voting thumbs up or down according to their whims and prejudices.
She was beginning to like this teddy bear of a man. He was clever and entertaining in a slightly sardonic way, and he seemed very comfortable in the dive bar. It was as if this was home for him in contrast to the martini bar.
Sitting in a bar for hours was completely new to her. Sitting with another person chatting was completely new to her. For that matter, relaxing and getting buzzed was new to her. Most of her life was dedicated to superior performance. She wasted little time relaxing. She was almost always on task and focused, productive to a fault. But now she was learning the path to fame was paved with beer and chips and TV screens. It was not enough to do great writing and thinking. She must learn to rub shoulders, bump shoulders, grab shoulders and drink beer with the rest of the guys.
It was not hard work if you had good company, and Gerard was good company. He told stories, told jokes, made fun of people down the bar, guessed what they did in real life, teased her about her lack of bar savvy, teased her about her slightly prudish demeanor, praised her writing and research, and then became silent and just smiled.
"What?" she asked, disconcerted by his silence.
"I was just savoring."
"Yes," he smiled, "If someone had told me two months ago I would be sitting drinking beers with Cassandra in the Haunt like we are now, I would have laughed in their face. Preposterous!"
She raised her beer glass, looked him in the eye and matched him. "If someone had told me two months ago I would be sitting drinking beers with Gerard like we are now, I would have laughed in their face. Preposterous!"
They clinked glasses, smiled and drank.
Cassandra had been to dozens of conferences, but once she saw how Gerard worked a conference, she realized her past efforts had been doomed. It was not in her nature to schmooze, but Gerard quickly demonstrated the benefits of this strategy as they swept from group to group and party to party. In the past she had dutifully sat through readings and panels, taking notes and seriously pondering what the presenters had to share.
Gerard attended no sessions and took no notes. He spent all of his time making contact with “people who matter,” as he put it. Each time he found someone, he would greet them as warmly as family, touch their arms, embrace them, kiss them and break all the academic rules of decorum she had carefully mastered.
To her surprise, he was warmly received by every one of these dignitaries. She supposed that they were so accustomed to stiff formalities that they welcomed his down home warmth and affection. To his credit, he immediately transferred his warm connections to Cassandra.
“Elizabeth,” he smiled, “I want you to meet Cavendish’s shining star, Cassandra Newell. She’s doing remarkable work.”
While Cassandra had never met Elizabeth Chandler in person, she knew of her work and knew she was the conference chair. She never would have approached her solo but suddenly felt her hands taken warmly.
“How nice to meet you, Cassandra. If Gerard speaks highly of your work, I am sure it is just as he says. What is your focus?”
In the first three hours, Cassandra met “everyone who matters” and received the same acceptance.
He was a good teacher, but Cassandra understood that he was opening doors to her that would have remained shut even if she had tried this approach solo. He had built up these relationships over a decade and was sharing them without asking anything in return. She wondered about his motives but knew they were far from academic. She could also see that his own currency rose in value as these powerful people noticed him with a good-looking companion. Realizing this, she took his arm and treated him more like a date than a colleague. Most of these dignitaries would take them for lovers, and Cassandra felt it only fair that she do what she could to shine her light and warmth on Gerard. She was a prize he could be proud of.
He was clearly pleased by her affection. Once or twice he turned to give her an appreciative smile. Each time he did this, she squeezed his arm a bit like a good girl friend.
As the afternoon turned into evening, the parties spun into full tempo but Gerard slowed down. “Our work is done,” he smiled.
“So soon?” she wondered.
He nodded. “What we did earlier is taboo once the music and the dancing starts.”
She found this a bit peculiar, but Cassandra was grateful for the break. One of the publishers had thrown a party with free drinks and a great spread of shrimp and hot appetizers. There was a six piece band playing “rock of ages” - music that would please everyone from 25 to 65 years of age.
To her surprise, Gerard was a pretty slick dancer. Fast. Slow. He had moves that made her giggle and smile. Never much of a dancer herself, she found herself getting into the groove after a few drinks and a dozen dances.
What a change from Ted. Gerard was no stud, but he was great company, and she found herself welcoming the slow dances. He had a way of holding her that worked some kind of magic she could not remember having felt with anyone else in her life. She felt happy, safe and a bit drunk. She closed her eyes and surrendered to the good feelings.
Gerard was also feeling a bit drunk, but his elation was due more to their afternoon than the drinks and dancing. He had not expected her to take his arm and act like a girl friend. He knew that the notables were surprised and impressed by Cassandra. She was a stunning woman unlikely to form a romantic connection with someone like Gerard, so they were happy for him. They already viewed him as a charismatic, but that view was limited to academics. Cassandra forced them to revise their thinking. He clearly had talents they would not have suspected previously.
They danced for hours and drank way too much.
As they left the last party and headed back to their rooms, Cassandra wondered if he would lead her to his room, but he got off the elevator a floor before hers and gave her hands a squeeze.
“You were terrific today, Cassandra. A real star.”
She squeezed his hands and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for all you did, Gerard. It was a magical day and wonderful evening.”
Climbing into her bed alone, Cassandra found herself wanting more of the sweet feelings that she had enjoyed during the slow dances. She did not ring his room or invite him to hers, but she did think about it.
There was no need to rush, she realized. Things were moving along quite swiftly as it was.
Written materials, art work and photography on this site are copyrighted by Jamie McKenzie and FNO Press.
From Now On is published by FNO Press