Difficult Love: Encounters with Joy

by Rafiq Kathwari

Owowwowwow! What timing, Joy said, kissing my forehead. I was leaning against the island in her kitchen, my arms cradled, eyes lowered to my worn-out sneakers as she sautéed fillet of sole in the juice of tangerines.

Later, my sneakers squeaked when I dragged my feet home in an October drizzle, my sight dim, thinking at least she didn’t reject my marriage proposal completely, only “for the time being.” It was an impulsive moment, a reckless proposal.

I tossed and turned all night, hoping that when the “time being” elapsed, Joy would say, “no.” My body said sleep, but my mind was in turmoil. What did I really know about Joy? Could I list three good reasons why I wanted to marry her? Was I driven by the need for love? Was I afraid of keeping my own company? Did I have a commitment phobia, as my friends said I did? And did this phobia stalk me in my relationships? Was I looking for a mother? That gave me pause. It would be unfair to Joy or to any other woman I might meet.


I had thought of other women while making love to Joy. Don’t most men? Specially after the cautious exuberance of the initial courtship?

I was the prisoner of my own history, struggling to overcome the conditions into which I was born. Did I have any notion of what love meant? I never saw my parents hold hands, let alone embrace in front of their children. After Father ransacked Mother and she gave birth to six children, he abandoned her for a woman half his age. Love? I had seen Grandfather fondle cousin Sophia on his kind size bed. Love? Sophia was a heartless tease at fourteen? But I, too, fancied her. And how the bird had fluttered! Her plumes fanning out, each feather a brilliant madder dye.

Was it true, as Harry the Shrink suggested, that because as a child I witnessed Grandpa finger Sophia, I subsequently regarded women, to whom I was attracted, as beyond my reach, whom I could only desire, while other men, seemingly stronger than myself, plucked and enjoyed the fruit?


Why didn’t Harry the Shrink caution me, say something as I two-timed my Maine sweetheart Jane? Her family had embraced me as one of their own. Why did I two-time Jane? Who am I, why am I here, where am I going any aren’t I already there? Knowing what he did about me, Harry the Shrink could have said, “Hey, fella, Jane truly loves you. Now  that you have wet your whistle with What’sHerName, the sales girl from Macy’s …. Tracy. Enough already. You will end up hurting people.” Harry, that flaccid, classic Freudian shrink – that sonavabitch, the longer it took me to find out the price of love, the richer he got. The day I began cheating on Jane, Challenger exploded above Florida.


Unable to sleep, I revisited several passages of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a book I had trudged through all summer, particularly Letter 81, in which Madame De Merteuil tells Valmont the story of her life, suggesting that love is war, the conquest of power and the only goal is sexual vengeance, for which one must prepare oneself.

The very notion filled me with disgust. I thought of overdosing on Zoloft. I had a handful of pills in the bathroom cabinet – a given in the anomie of New York amid her fortissimo. The thought of suicide was comforting, to paraphrase Nietzsche, it helped me through the night and I finally fell asleep as NYSD began to demolish the dawn.


“A dog in diapers!” I said when I first knew Joy, who lived in a sublet on East 64th Street, opposite the Indian Consulate. The mutt wagged his tail, which snaked from a hole cut in the diaper.

“Gaulois had a rectal tumor removed,” Joy said. “It’s made him incontinent. He’s used to it.”

I felt sorry for Gaulois. Joy refused to take the diaper off, except for  short walks in Central Park, but gradually she undiapered the dog whenever I visited, which was often. She called him “mon gros bebe.” I pronounced Gaulois like those awful cigarettes, but Joy insisted the name was Gaelic. I named him Gogo.


One night, as we lay on her bed, Joy related the exodus of her family from Eqypt during the Suez crisis.

“My maternal grandfather worked underground in Cairo for the partition of Palestine, and the French Hadassah knew about his work and arranged for my family’s exit, and two weeks later, after my parents sailed from Alexandria, I was born in Paris.”

The story appealed to my journalistic instincts. I encouraged Joy to ask her mother for details. Joy said she had tried many times, but her mother always changed the subject.


“Her family has Egyptian roots,” I said, introducing Joy to my nearest relatives in America at a festive lunch to celebrate the end of Ramadan.  You are one of us, People of the Book, they said, embracing Joy.


Joy is Aries, I Scorpio. On her 39th birthday, I asked her to make reservations at the restaurant of her choice, “in New York, not Paris.” Joy used her fluent Parisian French to endear the Maître d’ at Bouley. Between the Mandarin Sorbet and Ecrevisses a l’étouffée, I adorned her slender neck with fresh water pearls from a pale blue box.

Last November, when I turned forty, Joy gave me a maroon cashmere cardigan, which I donned on her birthday.


“Rafiq, you drive me nuts,” Joy said, standing in the doorway of my bathroom, wrapped in a white bathrobe, her curly hair wet, candy striped toothbrush in hand, “why don’t you put the cap back on this tube?”

“There are sorrows other than an uncapped tube of toothpaste in the world,” I said, reclining on the couch, glued to CNN, adding, “what’s eating you anyway?”

“Oh, nothing, honey.” She said. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed. Read to me.”

Nothing. Ha! There was something brewing in the boiler room I could bet my bottom dollar and I wouldn’t have to dive deep to reach it.

Anyway, I searched for some “light” reading on my bookshelves and chose My Mortal Enemy, which a friend had lent me, praising the author Willa Cather. It was a slim book that I thought I could whiz through easily. After the first chapter, Joy feel asleep, but I continued reading to the end of the second chapter when Driscoll confronts Myra with “a cold business proposition;” if she marries Henshaw, he would disinherit her. Myra gives “dare to Fate” and walks out of her large family inheritance.

I finished reading the book next evening alone. Joy didn’t like the story, she shrugged when I asked why.


On Valentine’s Day, I unpetalled two dozen roses, sprinkling a handful across the hallway, creating a trail through the living room into Joy’s bedroom, covering the bed with petals, where they mingled with a Narcissus meshed in the lacework coverlet.

“This is nice,” Joy sighed. Those are the only words she spoke when she returned home from what she described next morning as the type of day that makes her hate her job. “I spent all day training 107 Italian French and Spanish linguists. It gave me a massive migraine.”


“I don’t want to make love to you anymore,” Joy said a few nights later as she lay on her back on the red Bokhara rug in my living room, her arms hugging her two glorious charms. The radiator whistled.

“Joy, come on,” I protested, hurriedly entering my boxer shorts. Two times out of three, I hit a home run. Tonight, I struck out. Joy got up, went into the bathroom, adjacent to the kitchen.

“You think everything is a game,” she said, unraveling a stream of blue toilet paper. I clenched my pipe between my teeth and searched for a match I had used to light the candles on the cocktail table. I found it under a ransacked container of General Tsao’s chicken, next to an empty bottle of Pinot Noir.

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” Joy said, dabbling her face with a washcloth after she had rinsed her masque. “Get a life, a real job.”

“I have a job,” I said, sending smoke signals fourteen feet to the ceiling. “I review books. I want to write, to create characters who accept me for who I am, even diaper their babies.”

Gogo sat up in the corner, Joy’s thong in his paws. I walked to the kitchen and started washing the dishes.

“Stop with the words, “ she said, slipping into a white nightgown, printed with impatiens. “You’re delusional. A writer? Pouf. “

“Come to think of it, I’ve never seen you write every day, the way serious writers do.  No. Wake up! Either you have it by now or you don’t. Forget about it. I want a man of deeds.”

“Go for it then,” I said, shoving two plates in the sink, my pipe as well. “How easily you give up,” she said, slamming the bedroom door.

I uncorked a new bottle of Pinot Noir and gulped savagely from the bottle.


“I’ve always wanted to visit Kashmir,” Joy said one bright Sunday morning, as she lay smiling on her canopy bed, rumpled white sheet pulled up to her cleavage. “Me too,” I glowered, standing naked next to the French window, looking at the massive Oak doors of the Indian Consulate.  “If only the world’s largest democracy wouldn’t deny me a visa, I’d love to see my parents in Kashmir.”

She wrapped the sheet around her and walked towards me. I stuck my chest out, the ribs hurt.

“You’re so political,” Joy said, leaning her head against my shoulder. “It makes me uneasy.”

“But my reports are true,” I said, gnashing my teeth. “Mass rape in villages, cities left ln cinders, shrines torched, towns without post offices, that’s the Indian army in Kashmir.”

“Lighten up,” she said, drawing me towards her. “Ethnic cleansing has been around since the time of the Pharaohs.”

“But it makes me angry,” I said. “I feel helpless.”

She nibbled my ear. My lips brushed her neck. The subtle scent of jasmine persisted, her nipples hardened under the sheet.

“Let’s tune in to the Voice of America,” I whispered, twirling her nipples. “Are you AM or FM?”

The sheet fell to the floor.

“Shortwave” she moaned as our lips met. A motorbike screamed down the block. A car alarm wailed outside the window.


“I can’t hold it in anymore,” Joy said to her mother on Rosh Hashanah. “I’ve been seeing a man. He loves me. I love him. He’s asked me to marry him and he’s Muslim.”

Joy said they were sipping tea on the lush terrace of her mother’s estate, overlooking Beverly Hills, describing the setting in her characteristic way, rendering her native French into colloquial English. It was one of her endearing charms. “God slashed the sun’s vein, scattering rubies across the Pacific.”

Her mother, after susurrating the tea, rose from the chair, sternly pointed a finger at Joy and said: “If you marry a Muslim, you’re not my daughter. I’ll cut you off without a penny.”

Joy said her mother gathered her long silk scarf around her shoulders and left the terrace, her nose in the air. Joy had shrugged, put her feet up on the wrought iron table and looked at the sun, “a jewel in the horizon’s forehead,” she said.


A ha. I now understood why Joy disliked My Mortal Enemy. How could I be so blinded by love? Joy was her own mortal enemy, unlike Cather’s Myra, Joy wasn’t ready to give the “dare to fate.”


“My mother asked if you would convert,” Joy said as we walked brusquely past the Universalist Church on Central Park West, a block away from my apartment. A Saturday afternoon in October was fast approaching dusk.

“Convert?” I asked, feigning surprise, an echo of Madame de Merteuil. “But why.” I said, taking a certain devilish pleasure in the moment. “Aren’t we both children of Abraham? We shun pork. I am circumcised. Your mother will come around. In fact, she has begun to. Our children will grow up, not necessarily as Jews or Muslims, but as secular citizens.”

It was a mouthful, but I said it, adding “it’s our life, sweetheart.”

“If you really loved me, you’d convert,” Joy said.

“Ditto,” I said. “You wouldn’t ask.”

She pulled her arm away. I swear I heard the wind sigh on my shoulders.


“I’ll cook,” I said, inviting Joy on our blind first date to my first-floor walkup on the West Side. We had mutual friends. She accepted. It was a Thursday before Thanksgiving. Flurries had been forecast for the evening.  I prepared chicken tikka masala, a specialty of mine, having marinated the chicken in yogurt and a chaos of spices, the previous evening.

The scent of saffron permeated my small windowless kitchen as the automatic rice cooker exhaled steam.

I dusted my books. I put on a starched white button-down shirt. I bought a Chianti, two red candles and Holland tulips “with scars in their breasts,” as Joy described them later.

Ten minutes before Joy was due to arrive, I heated the oven to 450 degrees and put the chicken in it. I inserted a cd into a player: Begum Akhtar started singing Ghalib.

I bagged the garbage and ran barefoot downstairs without touching the banister. The door slammed shut behind me. Overcome by panic, I sat slumped on the steps, brown trash bulging on the white tiled floor.


The Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the one for opportunity. I stood up and looked out the glass door at parked cars become white urns. First, the Super, down the block. He must have spare keys.

I dumped the trash into the can on the sidewalk, my toes curled as I stepped gingerly, leaving footprints in the snow, drawing puzzled stares from the doorman in the high rise opposite my brownstone.

“How you doin’?” Luigi the Super asked as I identified myself over the buzzer. “You gotta be crazy,” he said, shaking his head at my bare feet. I explained, emphasizing the chicken in the oven.

He opened a closet in the hallway and we read the faded ink on crumbling manilla tags, attached to bulky key chains.

“Try these,” he said, jangling a ring under my nose.

“I’ll take care of you later,” I said grabbing the ring of keys.

“Sure,” he said, waving me away. “You and everyone else.”


Long black topcoat, confusion of black curly locks, polished lips stood in the vestibule when I returned. Her round charcoal eyes registered surprise at my bare feet. She giggled. I smirked.

“One flight up,” I said,  with a flourish of my arms, opening the door in the hallway. I followed her up the steps, one step at a time, a hand on the banister.


I’m alone tonight in my apartment, cleaning my closets, trashing a worn-out pair of sneakers and a packet of dog biscuits, while munching on a Hershey bar to pump up my energy level.

Outside, branches bough, stunned by blooms. Begum Akhtar is singing

My feet were bare

And every road was covered with thorns                               

* * *