I think it’s in a novel by Henry Green that one character says to another, “Let not our love end in long country walks.” Or words to that effect. And then there’s the immortal epitaph to lost togetherness composed by the sage of Hibbing, Minn.: “I ain’t saying you treated me unkind/ You could’ve done better, but I don’t mind/ You just kind of wasted my precious time/ But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
These passages ran through my mind the other night when I was discussing, in a calm, postmortem kind of way with a relative stranger, the wonderful relationship I have shared for the best part of three years with a remarkable woman. It was as good a time-in this particular department of existence-as I’ve ever had or could ask for, a time now ended.
Of course, what was a little odd about the conversation was that the stranger with whom I was discussing the breakup, and the lady about whom I was raving (in the good sense of the word) to this person, happen to be one and the same. I suppose you could say it was like having a chinwag with Mr. Hyde about someone I used to be close to named Dr. Jekyll.
It’s odd how relationships go. And-as Saki remarked of cooks and Nubar Gulbenkian of wives-go they do, but while they’re on, what a time it is! My lady and I just kind of got started, and found ourselves sharing a life, expecting and assuming that we would share a long future together, but without really cogitating the matter, simply taking all with all as a given, the way one does when one finds oneself effortlessly happy. We were a terrific couple.
But-at this point you can put on Prokofiev’s ominous “Wolf” music-we got ourselves into a weird Jules et Jim triangle in which the third party’s demands would eventually become so consuming that our little thing got squeezed to death. In our case, the third party wasn’t a person, but a store: T.F.S., as I came to think of it: “That F— Shop!” The sea, they say, is a cruel mistress, but until you’ve experienced a shop as a rival paramour, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
When we began together, the lady had time on her hands, and fascinating though it might have been for her to hang about the house all day listening to my views on trade publishing, she got in touch with her genius. And genius it is. Perfect pitch and taste when it comes to accessories, for lack of a better word, that add real style to matters of bed, bath, beach, baby and beast. In East Hampton, she had an ideal market. It’s a town that’s been overrun by new money desperate for an identity, usually someone else’s. This tsunami of greenbacks and plastic beats steadily and frighteningly against an obdurate old guard quaking behind its hedges and membership committees. Rare are the personal and commercial qualities that can do business on both sides of the hedge, as it were, but T.F.S. worked for everyone: it was just that good, an across-the-board hit from the git-go, as it deserved to be. Maidstone grandees thronged the place as well as parvenus with manners that had to be experienced firsthand to be believed … But T.F.S. took a lot of time. With Parkinsonian rapacity, it ate up existence and energy to the point where little was left to spill over to Madison Street. I tried to be supportive, and I think I was. My lady was sensible to turn me down when I volunteered to handle customer relations for her, especially since a fair percentage of her custom came from people like that ghastly woman who looks like Eddie Cantor in drag and is wife to the bullet-headed East Hampton vermin who last summer libelously likened me to Himmler, but I was careful to lay off-in this space and elsewhere-any swine whose American Express cards I knew to be on file at 11 Newtown Lane.
Inevitably, the right-of-way of our life split into parallel but separate tracks. To all appearances, we were still on the same timetable, but it was clear the destination must ultimately be different. A new, beautiful shop was opened in Locust Valley and immediately did a brisk trade among Gold Coast oldveaux with lockjawed accents of a refinement that makes my friend Louis Auchincloss sound like Huntz Hall. Two stores seemed to make three times the demand.
We didn’t fight. We didn’t seek emotional or sexual compensation outside the relationship. We did discuss. I did at one point say that I thought this was no way to live. Finally, when I was in Morocco a few weeks ago on a golf-writing assignment, she called to say that the time had finally come to implement a program under consideration for some time, one result of which is to precipitate your correspondent back into the single life. The parting is essentially without rancor or recrimination, but simply in recognition that individual fulfillment and growth often requires unpredicted changes in relationships and arrangements. I will say this: I do feel regret for what I regard as a relational waste, in which deep fondness was squeezed down to something smaller and less warm, more on the order of mere acquaintance. But that’s one man’s opinion. We have each sincerely wished the other well, and all success, and thanks for the memories, and now it’s time to move on.
The end of a good relationship-as the Great Cham famously observed of hanging-concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully on what may come next.
I’ve done my thinking. I’m going back to New York City to live and find my next life. “Old men should be explorers,” right? In the past baker’s dozen (no plug intended, but available at Amazon.com) of years, I’ve uttered a lot of defensive country-versus-city rubbish. One of the things I don’t like about this part of the world is that outrage seems to be based on envy and resentment rather than principle, a tendency that can be catching.
Now that a city life is a reality, I’m as excited at the prospect as I’ve ever been at any of the other dozen new beginnings that have transpired in my life. The art, the variety! On a recent Friday, I picked up Francis at school, we went to the new James Bond film, and then-thanks to the generosity of my old friend Sherwin Goldman of the New York City Opera-to the best production of Verdi’s Falstaff (or of damn near any other opera) I’ve ever seen or heard. You can’t do that out here. Out here is for when you go into “retreat” mode. Out here is for weekends, for the summer. Year round is running away.
I’ve put this house on the market (shown by appointment through Stacy Pennebaker or Christine Witker at Dunemere Associates, 516-725-2250). It’s a great house, on one of the best corners in Sag Harbor, and on a Sunday, when the downstairs is flooded with sunshine and Bach, you’ll have a sense of how it was before T.F.S. moved in and recentered the life that was once lived in these pleasant rooms.
Of course, the house is not the only chattel on offer now. There’s me. The version of today is better than that of three years ago. Everyone says so. I’m 63, in ripe health, don’t drink or smoke (but don’t mind either; such, such were the joys!), can cook, have a fabulous library of books and music reflecting a wide range of interests, along with some interesting pictures, am generally considered pretty good company. I have six great sons and daughters aged 42 to 13, and 2.7 fabulous grandchildren and a 10 handicap which I can sometimes play to. My three daughters-in-law and two sons-in-law are unimpeachable in all regards, and when I start to get out of hand, my beloved stepmother, the wisest person I know and the most original, seems to know exactly which buttons to push to bring the rampaging to a halt. There are only three things I respect as a matter of reflex: creative genius in any field; adherence to principle in one’s conduct; a sense of humor, starting with oneself. I despise hypocrisy, cant, plagiarism. I do not suffer fools at all, let alone gladly, and I certainly don’t believe the customer is always right. All in all, a perfectly adequate suite of equipment with which to march into the future, certainly better than the stuff Waugh’s William Boot took with him into the wilds of Ishmaelia. Life, thank heaven, goes on. And so will we.