Norbert Kovacs is a short story writer who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Squawk Back, Darkrun Review, Ekphrastic, Corvus Review, Down in the Dirt, and Scarlet Leaf Review.
TO AID YOUR SON ON A DATE
Lucien Dulsmere often gave his friends advice over their problems: whether on raising children, confronting stress, or managing friendships, it usually came to some benefit. A father and son got along more amicably, a man saw his work less as a threat, two friends got over an argument. Lucien tried to make it as easy as he could for his friends to listen to him. On occasion, he gave them money to carry out the costlier things he suggested: a dinner to reconcile a married couple, a gift to an upset colleague. He was a well-off business entrepreneur and could do it, in fact never asked to be re-paid. But Lucien did not always direct people the best way. Once he advised a friend to move his business from downtown; the friend did, lost most of his customers, and nearly went bankrupt. Lucien did not like to think of the mistake afterwards, since at least one reason he gave advice was to feel he was in the know.
Until his wife Donna changed, Lucien Dulsmere was an enthusiastic, cheerful husband. He loved to see his wife in the mornings, her hair blowsy when she awoke and walked for the upstairs bathroom. He kissed her every day on leaving for and returning from work and did it with genuine good will. He indulged her with presents, vacations to sunny, warm locales, and wardrobes of her choice. "For my bella Donna," he said once giving her a bracelet with pearls. Donna seemed happy for his various forms of adulation.
However, Donna soured as she aged. She developed a bad habit of complaining and nagging, the onset of which Lucien never understood. She claimed he arrived home late from work hoping to avoid her; she would not listen to his reasonable excuses, that he had needed to meet a deadline. She came to dislike his friends and claimed they gossiped about her; he asked her why she thought it and she made up absurd reasons. “I heard you egging them to on the phone,” she claimed. She said he admired another woman’s looks when he hardly looked at anyone else. He became miserable at hearing his wife complain and kept from her to avoid it.
After months of this trouble, Lucien discovered Donna unable to speak coherently one Saturday afternoon. He had an ambulance come and take her to the hospital where she was admitted to the psychiatric ward. The doctor there said she had the signs of a major schizophrenic disorder. “Medication may help her some,” the doctor explained, “but more would depend on her response to psychotherapy.” Unfortunately, Donna did not respond much to the therapist or even Lucien’s encouragements. She descended to great depths of bizarre behavior, some that suggested the interference of illness and some a deliberate will to be malicious. She yelled and screamed if Lucien asked help at minor tasks like moving small furniture. “Don’t ask me to do that trifling nonsense,” she said.
Donna started to drink. Lucien returned home from work many days to find her on the living room couch with a glass of whiskey, her face red and eyes lazy as she stared at the TV. "I have a headache," she claimed at those times and demanded to be left alone.
Lucien expressed his dismay at her awful state. "Honey, what's happened to you? You never were so."
Donna replied that the liquor dulled her pain and that he wanted to keep her from "being soothed." If he persisted that she needed help, she stalked off, cursing him.
Under the assault of her wretched temper, Lucien forgot any hope of loving Donna. In fact, he tolerated her only because she was unsound and could not be responsible for all she did. He was relieved when she at last died after a several day bout of binge drinking.
To drown his misery over Donna, Lucien Dulsmere became closer to his son, Tom. Mr. Dulsmere thought Tom a quality figure, and felt he would have believed it even if he was not his parent. Tom had a nicely mesomorphic body, dark curly hair, and handsome, dark eyes. "He's the type people enjoy looking at," Lucien bragged once to a friend. Lucien liked that Tom seemed rather well-adjusted, too. He had shown an endearing friendly streak even as a child. He did not hold back when the neighborhood boys asked him to games of Frisbee or touch football up the block. Tom could be also serious when it was demanded; he was an excellent student and had succeeded both in high school and at Wesleyan. Right out of college, he had gotten a job at a large insurance corporation in Hartford where he had been promoted to mid-level manager. Tom had a knack for success and it did not seem to spoil him. However, Tom was not all confidence and good impressions. He had a persistent guilty streak, even taking on blame that really belonged to others. He had passive moments where he forsook his best interest, sometimes to his aggravation. Lucien believed these only minor issues in his child's character. Altogether, he believed Tom well rounded and able to connect with any desirable person he chose.
In the half year after Donna died, Lucien observed his son show interest in different women. He wanted his son to be happy with them and avoid anything like the pain he himself had gone through with Donna. He decided therefore to help his son secure a woman who would commit to him. Lucien felt Tom’s current girlfriend might be the right one for this. Lucien knew little of Suzie Queene, but he saw her physical attractions, her fine black hair, her doe-like eyes, and her fleshy pink lips raised a spark in his son’s eye. Lucien understood that she was very interested in his son; he had seen how she wrapped her hand in Tom’s and kissed him on the sidewalk at the end of their second date. He believed moreover she was her his son's professional equal with her marketing specialist role at a financial firm. Seeing so much bode well for the union, he thought to help Tom make the match. What Lucien had in mind was to give Tom an allowance to indulge Suzie. Lucien trusted Suzie would love to be treated handsomely on the money. If it works, Lucien told himself, she may think it even easier to commit to and love Tom than she seems now.
One morning into Tom’s third month with Suzie, Lucien slipped his son fifty dollars in large bills across the table as he was finishing breakfast. “Take your girlfriend somewhere nice on that.”
Tom lifted his eyes toward the money but looked away disinterested. “Dad, I have enough to take her out. I don’t need that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You can go somewhere on it better than you would otherwise.”
“No, I’ll be fine without it.” Tom placed the money back beside his father and went on eating.
Lucien smiled when the young man picked up his face again. “You are being too modest. It’s not like I’m going to miss the money.”
“I know. I didn’t think you would.”
“Well then, what can be the trouble in doing a little extra for her with it?”
Tom fell silent, eying the table top. He toyed with a leftover waffle on his plate. At last, he reached for the bills and shot them into his front shirt pocket.
“Take her somewhere nice on it,” Lucien said.
When Tom returned after his date that night, Mr. Dulsmere came downstairs and found him on the couch, doing a crossword. “Well, how was it?” he asked. “What happened?”
“We went to Zoe’s and had a nice dinner. We talked.”
Lucien smiled. “What did you two talk about?”
Tom shrugged. "Just things.”
“My work, her work.” Tom looked down at his crossword.
After a long pause in which he hoped Tom would say more, Mr. Dulsmere said, “Well, I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”
Tom did not answer nor lift his head as he filled in a word on the page in his hand.
I think he’s shy over her, Mr. Dulsmere thought, going upstairs. I knew how that was with Donna—at least, when we were younger.
Tom continued to meet Suzie over the next two weeks but reported little news of it to his father. Lucien was restless over this lack of information and trusted a second indulgence had come due. He mail ordered expensive presents to Suzie’s apartment, a blue, well-cut dress (with a certificate to have it tailored, if needed) and an oversized box of chocolates. With these gifts, Dulsmere included a short personal note of affection: Sweets for a sweet, it read, followed by his son’s name. He told Tom about sending the gifts soon after he had. He explained before Tom got too defensive that there was no reason to feel embarrassed about the presents. “She will like you all the more for them,” Dulsmere insisted. "Women like these gestures. Whether you did them or I."
Tom smiled quietly at his parent. "You think very kindly of her. I might have done the same sometime. It was a nice gesture."
Lucien walked into the other room. He will like that I gave those gifts soon enough I bet, he thought, much contented with himself.
However two weeks passed and he did not learn how Suzie had taken the gifts. Rather than be disheartened, Lucien suggested to Tom that he and Suzie have an intimate dinner in the Dulsmere dining room.
“I can arrange the details," the father said. "I promise to see things done the way she likes best. I will cook for you. I'll make an excellent meal.”
Tom seemed reluctant. “You don't have to. I can order out for something and eat it here. I guess I'd like to.”
Lucien considered why his son should be this hesitant over his plan. Well, he does know her better than I do, he admitted. Tom could arrange things as he and Suzie like better than I could. I bet that will make them happiest.
Tom arranged for the date at home then. He ordered in Italian food and brought Suzie to his family home in his car. As they ate lobster fra diablo in the dining room, Dulsmere came downstairs to see how things went. He found the two, young people talking, Tom at the table’s head, Suzie at his right. Tom leaned toward her with an attentive but half-dazed expression. Suzie was speaking the words to some story very quickly.
“Hello, you two, I thought to stop in,” Dulsmere said. "How are things going?"
“Just great,” Suzie said to Dulsmere while continuing to look at Tom. She seemed to be soliciting a look from him.
Tom turned a wide-eyed and suddenly blank expression toward his father. “Everything’s okay.”
“I hope you are enjoying your dinner. You know,” Dulsmere said, pointing at Suzie, “I suggested he have the dinner here.”
Suzie brightened. “We do enjoy it, thank you.”
“Yes, we both do,” Tom added. He lowered his eyes to the table.
Mr. Dulsmere noticed Tom’s discomfort and tried to be more enthusiastic. “What did you think of the wine I left for you?”
“It was great. Just what we wanted.”
“Well, isn’t it good to be eating at home? It’s more close and friendly than in a restaurant.”
Dulsmere heard the reserve in his son's voice and did not dawdle to say, “Well, I hoped to put some light music on for you both. I thought it’d sound nice after you ate. If you don’t mind…”
Dulsmere put a smooth jazz CD to play on the stereo in the adjoining room and, despite sensing himself out of place, smiled at Tom and his date as he left them. I have a feeling, Lucien thought, climbing the stairs, he didn’t want me there. Perhaps because he had wanted to be alone with her. I guess I wouldn’t have liked it if some sixty year old man with grey hair barged into one of my dates when I was young. If Tom had wanted to be alone with her, then I have reason to trust they are getting closer. So, Dulsmere retired to his room with happy feelings.
Five days after the home dinner, Dulsmere arranged to meet Tom at his workplace. Dulsmere explained he wanted to “talk" with him. He came in fact ready to give Tom a hundred dollars to spend on his next date; the parent had kept silent about it to catch his son by surprise. The two met at the eatery in Tom’s office center. Dulsmere eased into announcing his gift by asking into Tom’s workday, his opinion of his company’s success, and so on. He then inquired after Suzie. “I haven’t heard much about her in the last week. You’ve been talking with her?”
Tom’s eyes dimmed and fell as he drew a heavy breath. “The truth is I haven't been doing well with Suzie.”
Dulsmere crinkled his brow. “Not well?”
“I’ve said nothing about it seeing how you felt, but things have reached a point I don’t know how not to say it anymore.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Actually, there are a few problems. I have discovered that she’s never happy with anything and feels she has to say it. Once it was not getting a raise; another time, that some friends weren’t talking to her.”
“Are you sure she’s not just trying to get your sympathy? When people hurt, they like to get sympathy.”
“No, it’s not like that. When she complains, she says I should be doing things so she doesn’t feel as bad that she failed at things. But when I do, she never thinks it’s good enough. She makes an issue of those gifts I’ve passed along to her.”
“What could be wrong with those?”
“She claims the dress was not what she likes. Nor the chocolates. She wouldn’t talk to me after she got either present. I don’t like that kind of attitude."
Dulsmere kept silent and still. Hadn’t Donna turned bad after years of getting special sweet gifts—the clothes, the vacations?, he thought. Hadn’t those gifts come so easily in my enthusiasm also? He considered all Tom had said and decided to keep the hundred dollars.
A few nights later, Mr. Dulsmere was reading in the living room when he heard his front door open and slam shut. Tom came into the room pouting.
“I couldn’t believe Suzie tonight.”
“How is that?”
“She had to know everything I’ve been doing at work. I was supposed to go into all the tiny details for her.”
“Like I had to tell her about everyone I talked with at the office. I was supposed to repeat every word.”
“She expected you to?”
“When I didn't, she seemed to think I was holding back on her. Just what I can’t guess. I wound up making up stuff so she wouldn’t keep at me.”
Dulsmere was disturbed. He remembered the suspicions Donna had when she changed. “I’m so sorry to hear this, Tom.”
“That wasn't all though. When I told her I talked with my friend Cathy at work, she forbid me to meet her anymore. I’m only friends with Cathy, but Suzie makes like Cathy is my second girlfriend. It doesn’t feel good to hear.”
Dulsmere sensed his son was in choppy waters. He thought to help things with some of the advice he liked to give. He hoped it would smooth things out.
“You know what’s been going wrong, Tom?” he said, smiling. “Suzie needs to see you can be firm. Insist on some mutual respect. Say that you understand she has her wishes but that you can’t accommodate her in all things, just like--”
“Suzie won’t listen,” Tom interrupted. “When I ask that she listen, she says I'm at some ploy.” Tom left the room leaving his father open mouthed and speechless. Why did he walk out?, Dulsmere thought. How can all this be happening?
The problems with Tom's relationship literally arrived on Dulsmere's doorstep two days later. Tom brought Suzie home with him after their date that night and took her into the living room to talk by themselves. Dulsmere, reading in his library, let them be. However, the pair's voices, hard and angry, came to him down the hall inside of ten minutes. Dulsmere walked over to the threshold of the living room to learn what was happening. He found the two arguing fiercely.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Tom yelled.
“When we fetched our coats to leave, you put your hand on my breast in the cloakroom.” Suzie’s voice shot into shrill indignation. “If anyone else had come, they would have thought we were out of control.”
Lucien gaped. She was speaking of his son, he realized.
“I hoped you'd like it,” Tom said. “Forgive me for trying so hard.”
“Was I to like it when you flirted with those other girls? When I caught you talking to that blonde at the bar when you said you were fetching a drink?”
Lucien was stunned and stared at his son. Who was to blame for their troubles now?, he wondered, Suzie with her harping or Tom for flirting? Lucien recollected his wife Donna's episodes of accusation, her attacks on his character.
Tom looked coolly on Suzie. “I don’t regret flirting with those other girls,” he said. “In fact, I think a relationship should be more than this bickering. I don’t want to wait for someone to like me while she judges and condemns me every time she can. So, I’m going to find someone else. I’m going to be different with her and everyone else.”
Suzie stared, her face paled with fright. She stammered, “I never thought you’d attack me. You were so polite and kind. I thought you had my interests at heart.”
“Well, I’m not going to be kind or consider you in that way anymore. I’m sorry to say it.”
Suzie left the house without giving Tom a reply. Mr. Dulsmere retreated then from the living room threshold to his bedroom upstairs, sad and forlorn.
In the morning, Mr. Dulsmere told Tom his regrets about Suzie. “I never thought things had gotten so bad as they did.”
“Well, I’m rid of her and glad of it. I will move on.”
Mr. Dulsmere crinkled his brow. “You aren't going to go after someone this soon after breaking with her?”
“Actually, I am. Didn’t you hear Suzie say I was seeking a new girl even on our last date? I’m going to a friend’s party to find someone tonight.”
This news repulsed Mr. Dulsmere, who hoped his son would reflect before pursuing a new partner this soon after Suzie. But Tom gave him no chance to object; he left for work and did not return until too late at night to talk.
In the next months, Tom met woman after woman, more than Mr. Dulsmere could track. Dulsmere saw them in glimpses, photos, described in words, the one woman following the next with flashy speed. Blonde, brunette, redhead; white, dark-skinned; some shy, some seductive; some intense, some mellow. Tom ran through them and easily forgot their ties when he sought someone new. Mr. Dulsmere was beside himself at Tom’s new behavior.
What was it Tom wanted in acting this way?, he pondered. Who was Tom becoming? Why was he running from one woman to the other so fast? What was happening to him? Mr. Dulsmere indulged his indignation awhile by thinking Tom’s new relationships were flimsy, transient events that he would come to regret. He told himself at the same time that he was considering his beloved son, someone he knew had long been a well-mannered and thoughtful. Tom would not pursue the women to kid them. Dulsmere believed there was a more complex, substantial reason behind his son’s new interests.
So, Dulsmere watched and listened to Tom and felt he discovered what his son wanted. Dulsmere learned that on some dates Tom took a woman to several places. Once, he brought a blonde named Brittany to see a boxing match in a pub; then the two went on a walk through a boutique lined street. Another time, Tom took a Leticia to New York and they went at random through the Theatre and Fashion Districts. Tom met women with unusual characters, proud women who were at the same time friendly; serious women who could be flirtatious; thoughtful women who had random quirks; ambitious women capable of sudden warmth. He met women willing to try new things rather than do what they always felt easy and comfortable. Mr. Dulsmere found Tom was happy dating these women; in fact it gave him a new energy he never had shown. The young man sought romance for itself, not for form’s sake or to satisfy anyone else. Lucien confessed it was good fortune after his trouble with Suzie Queene. Mr. Dulsmere wished, in the long run, that Tom would find happiness with someone and stick with her. But he knew there was yet no guarantee of that to satisfy Tom in his quickly passing connections. So, he smiled on Tom’s new inconstancy, as if it was part of a child’s game that would be ridiculous to judge.
After many relationships, Tom did find a young woman Mr. Dulsmere thought he might commit to. Paula was a tall brunette, a friend of a friend from Tom's corporation. She was fun, adventurous, and open-minded among other positives, Dulsmere gathered in listening to his son. Tom praised her to his father unlike the many other women he recently had seen. "We connect," he said. "She understands me. I don't know who else has relationship-wise deep down. I like her for who she is."
One day at breakfast, Tom told his father his plans to take Paula to New York for the weekend. Mr. Dulsmere smiled at the news and passed him two twenty dollar bills across the table.
“Go and treat her on that once you’re in the city.”
Tom did not touch the bills. “But Dad after all that happened when you…”
“I know. But you're convinced Paula is not Suzie.”
“I have. But let me cover the rest of the expenses for this weekend. The trip is my idea after all and—”
“I will not sabotage you again,” Mr. Dulsmere said and re-pocketed his money. He respected that his son knew best--at least about Paula.