Rules Of Engagement

Rules Of Engagement
Love, Self

My boyfriend during my freshman year of Brown was a 6'5'' black guy from Philly who played power forward on the basketball team. One of the main reasons I was drawn to him was that I knew my parents wouldn’t approve. They are what you might call liberal conservatives: They’re NPR-listening, cultured, Democratic-voting Jews, but my mom doesn’t like women with visible bra straps, and my dad doesn’t feel comfortable around black men.

It didn’t work out with the basketball player and by the time I graduated I was still single. I moved into an apartment in Brooklyn with some roommates, and at night I barhopped with a girlfriend who had guys falling left and right for her because she smoked and knew how to appear disinterested. I threw myself at every 120-pound drummer who gave me a second glance.

This didn’t make for many long-term relationships, but it did help my career: At 22, I got a job writing a weekly column for The New York Press about my dating life. For three years, I chronicled my dates with a string of actors, comedians, screenwriters, journalists, and novelists, who all had one thing in common: None of them had any interest in marrying me. My parents, who still lived in Brooklyn where I’d grown up, read the column religiously and accepted their friends’ jokes with as much humor as they could.

By the time my 29th birthday arrived, I was making a good living writing about sex—two novels, three columns, countless articles—but I didn’t have a boyfriend, and I was afraid when I died my books would be all I’d have left. So I threw myself a birthday party to convince myself that friends were all that really mattered.

A few days before the party, I decided I needed some art for my walls, and a mutual friend suggested I contact a painter he knew named Jack*, who painted Jewish boxers from the 1930s. I imagined him as old and Jewish but when he came to my door with his portfolio and some paintings to lend, I realized he wasn’t either. He looked to be in his late-30s and he was 6'5'', with red hair and tattoos of his own artwork up and down his arms. He was wearing a wide-brimmed tan felt hat that tied with a string to his shirt button, and something about that old-fashioned sensibility excited me.

I found out he wasn’t Jewish but I decided that was OK; he wasn’t husband material. He’d be a hot fling. I invited him to the party but he declined, which was good because I wound up drinking strawberry margaritas all night and getting so drunk that I threw up after my last guest left. When he came to pick up the paintings we went on a long walk. Because I wasn’t thinking of him as a potential mate, I was myself when I was around him, and not so nervous.

Soon it became clear that in addition to being hot, he was also an avid reader, a gentleman, and a rough-edged romantic. He cooked for me, well, in his tiny galley kitchen. He read me Bernard Malamud at night. He bought me used books by Kleist and emailed me photos of vintage porn, saying the women’s bodies reminded him of mine. We went to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and during the closing credits I told him that I loved him.

One night a couple months after we met, I invited my parents over for dinner. “I can’t believe you’re cooking,” said my mother.

“I’m not. Jack is.”

We all sat around my tiny table and Jack made a bouillabaisse with good salad and sourdough bread. My dad ate three portions. When he found out that Jack had gone to Harvard for graduate school, he seemed doubly impressed. So Jack wasn’t Jewish but he was a mensch, a great storyteller, and he loved me.

The next day, my dad wrote to say how happy I seemed, and how beautiful I looked. I got choked up reading it because most of the time when he sent emails, they were passive-aggressive and weird.

Over the next few months, my parents got to know Jack better, and given the fact that he was from a different background and a lot older than me, I thought they did a pretty good job of making him feel welcome. There was only one thing they didn’t seem to like: They weren’t exactly sure how he made a living. When they asked, I explained that he sold his paintings, but I rarely gave details about how often or how many. Then I’d change the subject. Soon they stopped asking, and we settled into a kind of uncomfortable silence on the issue.

That winter, I invited Jack to spend the holidays with my parents, my brother, and me at their country house in the Berkshires. For my brother’s birthday our cousins always came over and my mom always made lasagna. This year, Jack offered to do it for her. “That’s very generous of you,” my mother said, but she didn’t look happy.

In the morning, Jack did his prep work, all except for the salad, and then we left to go see Gangs of New York. We got back at five o’clock and I saw an entire salad in the bowl sitting out on the counter. “You didn’t have to do that,” Jack said, blinking.

“I was just trying to be helpful,” my mother said.

Jack looked at the heap of vegetables on top of the lettuce—carrots, tomatoes, celery, and cucumbers. It was a Jewish salad, the kind I’d grown up eating, with everything thrown in. It wasn’t a gourmet salad, the kind they served at restaurants with just lettuce pre-dressed with vinaigrette.

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Our cousins came over and Jack set out the lasagna, to oohs and aahs. I didn’t see the salad and when I looked up at him he was at