Tomcat in Love (Tim O'Brien)

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  In summary, then, my circumstances were these. Something over forty-nine years of age. Recently divorced. Pursued. Prone to late-night weeping. Betrayed not once but threefold: by the girl of my dreams, by her Pilate of a brother, and by a Tampa real-estate tycoon whose name I have vowed never again to utter.

The popular wisdom dictates that in such situations we must "go forward" at all costs. (At one point or another, we have all chuckled aloud at the pertinent advisories in the pages of Cosmopolitan.) Move or die--so say the psychiatric sages. Learn to cope. Face reality. Stay busy. Exercise. Take up hobbies. Find a new partner.

For some, no doubt, this progressive counsel proves rock solid. Not so in my case. In the weeks following my divorce, I did in fact make a halfhearted effort at "coming to terms" with "new realities." I packed up Lorna Sue's belongings, purchased an Exercycle, attended faithfully to my duties as occupant of the Rolvaag Chair in Modern American Lexicology at the University of Minnesota. And while it was traumatic, I also forced myself to spend considerable after-hours time in the company of several droll, well-sculpted enrollees in my seminar on the homographs of erotic slang.

None of this had the slightest curative effect. I cried like a baby in the arms of Sarah and Signe and the tiny, redheaded Rhonda; I gained six unfashionable pounds; I drank myself to sleep. Worse yet, on a professional level, my scholarship came to a complete and terrifying halt. My classroom lectures, once so justly famous, began to meander like the barroom soliloquies of some dull, downstate sophomore. The old academic pleasures no longer beckoned. (During office hours, even as a chorus line of leggy young coeds awaited my attention in the hallway, I sometimes locked the door and lay immobile on the floor, driveshaft idle, my magnificent old sex engine backfiring on grief.)

Modern methods, in short, had failed abysmally. Antiquity beckoned.

Thus revenge.

The word comes to us from the Latin, vindicare, to vindicate, and in its most primitive etymology is without pejorative shading of any sort. To vindicate is to triumph over suspicion or accusation or presumed guilt, and for the ancients, such triumph did not exclude the ferocious punishment of false accusers. (Hence vindicta. Hence vengeance.) By this classical formulation, there was nothing ignoble about seeking satisfaction through punitive means. To be "vindictive" implied qualities both honorable and heroic, a fineness of spirit, a moral readiness to strike back against falsity and betrayal.

Sadly, of course, all this is now history. Paladin is passé. Chivalry is a belly laugh.

My resolve, therefore, was to resuscitate the old virtues.

Enough coping, I decided.

Time now to punish.

(Was I an eighteen-year-old? Clearly not. "Vengeance is mine," saith the Lord and Thomas H. Chippering.)

On three successive Thursdays, immediately after my final class of the week, I flew to Tampa with the purpose of scouting out the terrain. These were costly excursions, to be sure, not to mention excruciatingly lonely, but in no time at all I had acquired a working knowledge of the environs.

Tampa itself brought to mind a great pastel jellyfish beached up along the sea, its flesh gnawed away by salt and sunlight, the remains loosely bound together by a skeleton of bridges and causeways and hotels and shopping malls and multilane freeways. The dominant fact was sunshine. The dominant color was turquoise. All very splendid, no doubt, but as a Minnesotan, a son of Swedes, I found the subtropical air far less than bracing, the tempo sluggish, the smells musty and flower-sweet. (I suffer from hay fever. I cannot tolerate excessive vegetation.)

Tampa: languid, lazy, listless. Nice place to visit, et cetera.

Yet it was here, in the land of Buccaneers, that my unfaithful Penelope and her two salacious suitors somehow managed to survive. In marital partnership with her tycoon, Lorna Sue was cohabitant of a huge, flagrantly ornate mock-Tudor dwelling in the southeastern suburbs of the city; Herbie lived in a handsome little bungalow a half block away. (Cozy arrangement. Wholly predictable.) Under a hot Tampa sun, roasted by sorrow, I spent those long, fuzzy days sitting in a rental car with a notebook and a pair of binoculars. I fumed. I drank and talked to myself. On one painful occasion, for an entire afternoon, I looked on as Lorna Sue planted a bed of red roses along her front doorstep. Here, in tight denim shorts, was the woman I had loved beyond loving, the woman who had eventually traded me in like a battered old Chevrolet. I could scarcely keep the binoculars on her. Barefoot and content, humming to herself, she seemed so casual about putting down roots in the bleached Florida soil. So domestic, so putridly cheerful. Roses, for Christ sake!* There was not a hint of remorse in her posture, not a tremor of dissatisfaction, and I could only seethe at how quickly and thoroughly my revered Lorna Sue had adapted to life in the Sunshine State. Healthy and serene. Tanned skin. Hair held back by a checkered red bandanna. I will confess that it choked me up to study those untroubled brown eyes, those pouty lips that had once issued vows of eternal fidelity.


I yearned for a hammer and nails.

Say what you will, but the Romans understood these matters. They coined the lingo.

I had no plan in mind, no agenda, but over the course of those three separate visits to Tampa, I trusted in fate and patiently collected intelligence from the safety of my rental car. I watched Herbie mow his lawn, watched the tycoon polish his snazzy blue Mercedes. (Often left unlocked.) In the late afternoons, almost without exception, I tailed Lorna Sue to a nearby supermarket--fresh vegetables, expensive cuts of meat. Cocktails were at six. Dinner was at seven sharp.

It was a stressful period, yes, but the notion of revenge kept me going on even the most trying occasions.

Such as:

--A Sunday picnic on the beach. (Lorna Sue and her vain, absurdly hairy tycoon wading hand in hand into the turquoise waters of Tampa Bay.)

--An outdoor cocktail party at Herbie's house.

--Lorna Sue's silhouette against the drawn bedroom curtains.

--An afternoon yard sale featuring artifacts from our years of marriage. (My coin collection. Lorna Sue's homemade wedding gown.)

--Roses. How, in such circumstances, could any sensitive human being avoid the occasional pinch of gloom? Call me crazy, if you wish, but do not forget your own double-crossing husband, that beloved Judas who disclaimed and repudiated you. Ask yourself this: Is not all human bleakness, all genuine tragedy, ultimately the product of a broken heart?

Late at night, in my ninth-floor hotel chamber, I began sketching out a strategy of reprisal. The least important of my targets was clearly the tycoon. Granted, I despised the usurping bastard, but in a way he seemed incidental to it all, someone to be dispensed with quickly and without fuss. The possibilities were infinite, and I soon found myself giggling as I jotted down some of the more intriguing methods--arson, food poisoning, transudative sailboats.

To look at me, perhaps, one might conclude that I am incapable of violence, rather meek and unassuming, yet little could be more distant from the truth. I am a war hero. I have experience with napalm. No doubt my students would raise their Neanderthal eyebrows at this, even cackle in disbelief, for I cultivate the facade of a distant, rather ineffectual man of letters. Effete, some would say. Imperious.** (Other possibilities: officious, prissy, insufferable.) At the same time, however, I must in good conscience point out that women find me attractive beyond words. And who on earth could blame them? I stand an impressive six feet six; my weight rarely exceeds one hundred eighty pounds. In the eyes of many, I resemble a clean-shaven version of our sixteenth President, gangly and benign, yet this is mere camouflage for the man within--a recipient of the Silver Star for valor.

In short, I am hazardous. I can kill with words, or otherwise.

And so, yes, first the tycoon.

Late one afternoon, on my third trip to Tampa, I visited a small, exclusive boutique in the hotel, where with the assistance of a personable young salesgirl--Carla, by name--I browsed through a selection of women's undergarments. Quite graciously, I thought, and very boldly, the girl agreed to model several items at the rear of the store, and in the end, after numerous changes of costume, I settled upon a pair of fluorescent purple panties and matching bra.

"For your wife?" Carla inquired.

"For her husband," said I.

The girl glanced up with interest. (Fascinating creature. Spiked orange hair. Leather dog collar, also spiked. Iron bracelets. Iron anklets. Snake tattoo just below the navel.)

"So you're divorced," said this punkish, altogether immodest cupcake. "Fucked over and all that?"

"Sadly so," I murmured.

The girl nodded, then immediately frowned. "So why the purple shit? I mean, like--you know--why all this expensive underwear for some cocksucker who stole your squeeze? Just yank his nuts off."

I was enchanted.

And for the next few moments, with pleasure, I proceeded to outline my recent history, including (but not limited to) certain heartbreaking incidents of perfidy and faithlessness. The word hairy popped up. Also the following: mattress, turtle, engine, tycoon, Pontiac.

Carla studied me briefly, then sighed.

"Okay, I get the picture. Revenge. Sock it to the fuckers." She stood there for a moment, grim-faced, plainly infatuated, still clad in phosphorescent violet. "Look, man, if you're really serious, I got some pretty sick shit you might like."

Swiftly, then, the girl escorted me into a dark, poorly ventilated back room. Instantly, I was reminded of Poe's tales of the macabre. Arranged on the shelves were numerous devices of torture, among which I spotted such items as handcuffs, chains, padlocks, whips, gags, masks, leg irons, car batteries, neck clamps, pliers, assorted pins and needles.

"I keep this stuff for friends," said the fetching (and plainly dangerous) young Carla. "Take your time, dude. Browse."

"Intriguing," I purred, "but I am not in the market."

"You want revenge, right? Entrapment? What you do is, you just plant some of this sick shit. They'll be divorced like tomorrow." The girl eyed me. "S and M. It's my thing."

"S and M?"


"Sick?" said I.

"Yeah, like--you know--sick. It means...Hard to explain. I mean, you meet this guy, let's say, and he's real tall and ugly and older than shit--sort of strange-ass cool--and you think: Sick! Know what I'm saying?"

I had not the slightest idea. Hence a tolerant smile. Hence finesse:

"I'll put it this way," I said cagily. "I happen to teach this sick business. Our American tongue, that is."

"You teach tongue?"

"Stock-in-trade, my dear." I reached out and shook her callused, washerwoman's hand. "Thomas H. Chippering, professor of linguistics."

"No shit," she muttered, and yawned, and stared vacantly. "Want me to model something?"

I took a seat.

"Sick!" I said.

And thus, by this bewildering sequence of events, I spent a fruitful, often spine-tingling forty-five minutes as a spectator to the latest in S and M. My plucky iron maiden modeled her entire collection, A to Z, chatting me up, occasionally requesting my assistance with keys and combinations.

"The thing is," Carla informed me at one point, "I get tired of selling all those stupid sundresses and Mexican blouses and crap. Like, there's no pain in it. You know what I mean?"

"Precisely," said I, and looked directly into her tongue. (Where at the moment she was inserting a steel pin in the shape of a barbell.)

"See, what people don't realize," said Carla, "is that nobody can fucking hurt you if you're already fucking hurting. Am I right?" She paused thoughtfully. (The barbell impeded her speech not a whit.) "How the fuck old are you?"

"Forty plus," said I.


"And you? How the . . . How old would you be?"

"Lots and lots and lots less," she said. "Clamp me, will you?"


"The handcuffs. Tight."

I clamped her. She winced in gratitude.

"You're catching on," she said, and almost smiled. "Tall guys, they've got huge dicks, I suppose. Pile drivers?"

This was too much.

I stood up, shot her a rebuking glare, and started toward the door. Carla hooked my arm.

"Hey, come on," she said, nearly pleading. "All I meant was, I meant like you're into hurting people, right? The S part? Which is totally cool." Her lower lip quivered. "Revenge--I've been there. My ex-boyfriend, he was this motorcycle asshole, loved his hog more than me."


"And like--you know--I know."

Then she wept.

Not only wept; the little pumpkin virtually fell into my arms. Spiked hair, dog collar, purple panties, purple bra, handcuffs, tongue pin--all irrelevant. She hugged me and shuddered and cried like a little girl. True, I shouldered the responsibility, yet at the same time I could not help wondering why it was that such odd, crippled creatures so often flit through my life. (Lorna Sue for one.) The maimed, the vulnerable, the emotionally disadvantaged.

"There, there," I said.

She looked up. "You want to bite me?"

"I do not."

"It's okay. It's good."

"No, indeed," I told her sternly. "This motorcycle chap. You struck back, I gather?"

Carla wiped her tears.

"Well, sure, that's what I'm saying. Hurt him bad. Leaky brakes." She blinked, looked down at her handcuffs, then sniffled provocatively. "Listen, man, you're not so bad. If you want, I can give you some tips, like helpful hints about--you know--how to really torture people."

I weighed my options.

"Kind of you," I said. "Over dinner, perhaps?"

The girl frowned, then sighed heavily. "Okay, dinner. Biting. Nothing else. You're way too old for me."

"Righto," I said.


"I do. How much for the leg irons?"

*Rose: a word that will forever turn my stomach sour with treachery, one more hideous entry in my dictionary of love.

**Imperious? What inane balderdash! Permit me, in this space, to offer an anecdote that goes far to explain how a man of my diaphanous abilities has come to be the recipient of such shameful invective. To wit: On seven separate occasions I had been a nominee for the university's Hubert H. Humphrey Prize for teaching excellence. Seven straight years I went down to defeat. (Payola. Collegial jealousy.) On the morning of my seventh Waterloo, I happened to encounter that year's prizewinner--a professor of biology whose insignificant Cornish name escapes me. This rendezvous occurred, it is crucial to note, in the faculty club men's room, where we stood side by side at our respective urinals. (Rage made my work difficult.) Eventually, job complete, I turned away without a word, scrubbed up, toweled off, and began to depart, at which point the smug, victory-flushed Wellington zipped up and approached me with an outstretched hand. (A damp, unsanitary hand. This a biology teacher!) Did I refuse to shake? I did not. I bit the bullet, wrapped a paper towel around my fist, and vigorously pumped away. So then: Imperious? Or hygienic? I leave the verdict, as it were, in your hands.

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Excerpted from Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien. Copyright © 1998 by Tim O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.