A woman finds out that the man of her dreams is not what she expected.
| The Prince
I had been at my Cousin Natalie's wedding reception for two hours and was looking for a way to make a quiet escape when I heard a commotion near the front door. I turned and saw a dozen or so men forming a semi circle around a tall man with dark, curly black hair. Intrigued, I walked closer to see what was happening.
When I reached the edge of the crowd, I had to walk in front of several of my uncles to see the man’s face. He had dark, heavy eyebrows, a long straight nose, and a strong chiseled chin; he reminded me of a young Alec Baldwin. Uncle Tony pointed his finger at the man's face and said, "It ain't right to go away for so long without a word to anyone in your family." I couldn't hear what the man said, but it made Uncle Tony laugh. My cousin Vincent playfully punched the man in the shoulder. I move closer to hear what the man was saying.
"Michael, so where ya stayin?" Vincent asked.
"I've got a small apartment on the upper East side," Michael said.
My heart fluttered when I heard the rich baritone and realized he was Michael Baroni, a distant cousin on my mother's side. He had just recorded a second successful album, before he disappeared without a trace five years ago. I waited while he answered all the men's questions until he moved away and was alone.
I took a deep breath, whispered my mantra, and walked up to him. Michael, looking the other way, didn't see me until I was in front of him.
"Would you like to dance?" I asked in a shaky voice. My mouth was so dry I couldn't swallow.
"Me?" he asked with a bemused smile. His dark gray eyes twinkled, and his raised eyebrows exaggerated his response.
"Yes." I pointed to the bridesmaids around us. "There are no other males within five yards."
"Will you lead, or shall I?" I asked when he hesitated. My pulse raced and I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack.
"I guess I'm a bit old-fashioned," he said with a smile. "I feel more comfortable when I lead, at least on the dance floor." Taking my hand, he led me to the middle where several couples were dancing to the five-piece band. I felt the power in his right hand as he pressed it against the small of my back. "With whom do I have the honor of dancing?"
"Erica D'Amico." The band was playing the Power of Love. I couldn't believe I was dancing with Michael.
"Do I need to introduce myself, or is it safe to assume you have the advantage of me?"
"I had a crush on you when I was thirteen and you were twenty."
"You embarrass me," he said. He leaned back and scrutinized my face. “Wait, now I remember who you are. You're Joey and Edna's kid. You used to have your hair in a long ponytail." He paused, and looked me over. "You're all grown-up."
"Glad you've noticed." I blushed as his eyes lingered on my breasts. "It was fascinating to see my uncles and cousins converge on you."
"There seems to be a lot of interest in me."
"You're a legend, Michael. For the past two months most of the family gossip has centered on your return to New York."
"I can't believe I've been the focus of that much attention." He frowned for a moment, seemingly lost in thought.
"Michael, you're the family hero. An All-American basketball player at the University of Pennsylvania was just a start, and then two best-selling albums. All before you were thirty. In addition, to top it off as my mother says, ' Tall, dark, and more handsome than any man has a right to be.' You were Prince Charming for many of us."
He laughed. "Part of being a legend is exaggeration."
“Well, every legend has a mystery. Like where have you been for the past five years?"
"A subject for another time," he said. "Tell me about you."
"I'm twenty-eight years old, and I'm an assistant professor of history at Columbia."
"Congratulations on your professorship," he said. "I saw no ring, so you're not married, but you have a boyfriend?
"Not at the present time," I stammered.
The music ended, and he held me for a few seconds. I was delighted to be in his arms, but we would soon become the center of attention. He let go of me and smiled, and we walked off the floor together.
"I've got to go," he said. "I came here as a favor to my aunt. This is not my kind of event."
"Any chance we could get together?" The tension in my chest made breathing difficult.
He laughed. "Are you always this forward?"
"No. I've never done anything like this before."
"Give me your number, and I'll call you in a couple of nights."
I got my purse and wrote my number on the back of my business card.
He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek and said, "Au revoir," and walked away.
I stood for a moment, unable to believe my boldness. My face flushed and my body trembled. I couldn't decide whether I was Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. This kind of thinking would not go over well at my women's group.
When the phone rang on Tuesday night, I dropped my coffee mug on top of the papers I was grading. Michael suggested we go to a restaurant that had Italian food and a jazz band, in Greenwich Village on Saturday night. The rest of the week was a blur. Suddenly he was due in an hour, and I hadn't decided what I would wear. I settled on my dark green dress and was putting in my last earring when the doorbell rang.
"You look lovely," he said. He wore gray slacks and a dark blue sport coat without a tie.
"Thank you." I was glad I decided to wear a dress. We took a cab to the restaurant and, even though we had a reservation, we waited thirty minutes to be seated. Our waiter told us about the specials for the evening, and then he presented the wine list to Michael.
"None for me," Michael said. "Don't let that stop you from enjoying some fine wine."
I chose a Merlot to go with my lasagna. I watched the waiter walk away, and then I looked at Michael. He was regarding me with his soulful gray eyes, and I dropped my gaze suddenly tongue-tied. "Say something," I admonished myself.
"Have you started singing again?" I asked to break the awkward silence.
"Not yet. But I'm putting together the notes I scribbled during the last several years."
"Mind telling me what it will be about?"
Before he could respond, the waiter arrived with our appetizers. We exchanged small trivialities during the meal, but it wasn't until we finished eating the tiramisu that we were able to concentrate on each other.
"You were going to tell me about what you are writing," I said.
"I'm trying to capture the mood of the counterculture in America without resorting to rap or hip-hop. It won't be anything at all like my last album."
"What do you mean by that?
The band began its next set, and the trumpeter's high sharp notes pierced the air. We sat there riveted by the skill of the young prodigy. When the set ended, I yawned despite my effort not to do so.
"It's after one a.m.," Michael said. "I think the history professor has had a long evening."
"But a fine one." I hoped he couldn't sense the heat from my body. .
Michael used his physique to get us through the crowd waiting to get in. It was a short ride to my apartment, and he walked me to my door.
"I had a wonderful time," he said.
"So did I."
For a moment, we faced each other; finally, he leaned forward and kissed me softly on my lips. I started to press my lips to his, but he pulled away.
"Will I see you again?" I asked and felt the tension squeezing my chest.
"How about coming over Wednesday night for dinner?" I asked. "I don't teach classes on Thursday."
"Sure," he said with a bit of hesitation. I was puzzled by the fact that he rarely made eye contact with me.
"Dinner at seven?" I pressed ahead disregarding his ambivalence.
"Okay." Then he turned to go to the elevator.
AfterI locked the door, I let out a silent scream of joy.
On Monday night, my friend Janice arrived at my door in blue sweatpants and a University of Syracuse sweatshirt. Sweat dampened brunette hair plastered her forehead.
"Did you run here?" I asked, ushering her in the door.
"Just spent an hour at the gym." She grinned at me. "I need to hear all the glorious details. Is he gorgeous?"
"First, let's sit down and have some fresh coffee in the kitchen. Then we can gossip."
Janice brought the cups, and I set the coffee pot on the table. "Yes, he is gorgeous, but there's more to him than the way he looks. He's very sophisticated and mellower than any man I've been out with in years. In fact, he's a bit shy at times."
"Hard to imagine," Janice said. "What did you find out about his strange disappearance?"
I shrugged and set the cream on the table. "We didn't talk about it."
"You've got to be kidding. What about the rumors of what he'd been doing?"
"What rumors are you talking about?"
"Some people say he went out to Hollywood to write music for movies, and others say he was in a monastery."
"Never came up."
"What happened when you came back here?"
I shrugged and said nothing.
"Did you kiss?" Janice almost yelled.
"I don't kiss and tell." I fought the urge to burst out and scream, "Yes."
Janice made a gesture more generally used among the tough teenagers of the city. "Wait a minute. This is the guy you've had a crush on since you were teenager. You're not falling in love with him are you?"
I said nothing, but my reddening cheeks told her what she wanted to know.
"You barely know this guy. Besides, you've only had a few relationships. You've got to take it slow."
"You're right." But my heart had a mind of its own.
It was mid-term, and grading papers kept my mind occupied with something other than Michael. Suddenly, it was Wednesday night and my heart started beating faster as seven o'clock approached. I was checking the chicken cacciatore when the doorbell rang. My apron wouldn't come untied, and I raced to the door just as it rang it again.
"Looks like I'm a little early," he said with his bemused smile.
"As usual I'm running a little late. Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes. You can watch the basketball playoffs while I'm finishing."
"A woman who truly understands men. I'm doubly blessed." He laughed heartily.
Despite my worst fears, everything turned out fine.
"The chicken cacciatore was delicious," he said.
"Thanks. Are you sure you don't want any wine?"
"No thank you," he said, his smile suddenly gone.
After we finished dinner, he helped me wash the dishes and put them away. "Let's go into to the living room."
He hesitated before he went in and sat down on the couch, and I sat beside him, close, but not intrusive.
"Great meal," he said, patting his stomach.
"Thanks, again. You mind if I ask a question?"
"Just one?" Michael blinked and was no longer wasn't smiling.
"Besides your agent, how many people know what you did the last ten years?"
"Only my parents.”
"Would you be willing to tell me?"
Michael closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. "Only if I have your word that you will share with no one."
"I would never do anything to hurt you."
"Ask away," he said flippantly.
"Well, where were you?"
"I wish that I knew,” he said with a forced laugh. "Oh, I can name most of the cities I spent time in but not all the places in those cities."
"How could you not know where you were?"
"Drunk or so stoned I didn't care." He shook his head and sighed, as if he were reliving painful memories.
He used to boast he was drug-free. How could he change so much? I took a sip of wine. "Did you get into drugs because you were touring with a band?"
"No. I got into alcohol and street drugs because I was terribly depressed and the doctors and all of their medicines didn't do me any good." A tick developed in his right eye and he clenched his hands.
"There were good antidepressants five years ago.”
"Tried every one of them." He sighed and his shoulders slumped. His energy level was depleted by talking about this. "Some of them worked for a while, most of them didn't work at all." He spoke with a mixture of anger and regret. "Ultimately, neither the drugs nor the doctors were of any use. The drugs made me feel so strange I began to wonder if I was crazy. If they couldn't help me, I wasn't going to stay there and let them hurt me."
His paranoia surprised me; this was a side of him I had not seen. "Did you really believe they were going to hurt you?"
"I didn't give them a chance." Suddenly, there was a hard edge to his voice. "I headed west and moved from city to city, staying in cheap motels and apartments. At times the depression was so awful I stayed in bed for days, subsisting on cold pizza and warm pop."
"What did you do for money?”
"Mostly I lived off the royalties from my albums. But I couldn't access all the money at once. Sometimes the depression subsided, and I sobered up long enough to write a few songs I sent to my agent. I used the money he wired me to buy more drugs. When I was broke, I did things I would've never imagined possible. Sometimes I slept with women so that I had a place to stay and food to eat; other times I dealt small amounts of drugs." He shook his head again, seemingly experiencing more bad memories. "I stayed with old hippies, Goths, and once with a woman who was a small-time dope dealer who never saw a sober day." Michael stopped and looked away. His eyes were unfocused; I wasn't sure where or when his mind was.
I couldn't relate to his experiences. I'd gone from one elite school to another, until I ended up teaching at one of the finest universities. It was hard to believe that he had sold drugs and even his body. I felt empathy for his troubles but found his behaviors distasteful. He had been treated like royalty, and then he found himself looking for a place to sleep among the poor and outcasts of society. Mentally ill and a drug addict? Was this my Prince?
"So writing music kept you sane,” I said. "Sorry, bad use of that word. How did you get well?
"Eventually I heard about a new antidepressant that worked for people who had never been helped by any other medication. I called my agent, and he sent me money so I could check into a clinic outside Santa Barbara. The medication worked slowly, but at the end of a month my depression eased. For the first time in a decade, I felt and thought like I used to." He sat still for a few minutes, again absorbed by his own thoughts.
"How long ago was this?" I shivered at the thought of feeling so lost, but I was beginning to understand his ordeal.
"I have to stay clean and sober as well as take the medication. After I told my agent I was ready to record again, he got me an advance and I found an apartment. I began to write a little at first, more with each passing day. The wedding where we met was the first family social event I've been to since I came back. Mostly, I run, and I write."
"Sounds like a monastic lifestyle." I wondered if he was able or willing to do more.
"It is. That's as much as I can handle now."
"You were so charming and debonair at the wedding. You handled all of my aunts and uncles with so much charm."
"An act, a sham. I can do that for a couple of hours then I need to leave before I become so nervous I stutter and break out in nervous perspiration."
Michael said he was better, but it seemed to me that it was a relative term. If he couldn't handle the pressure of complicated social interactions then he was a long way from being well. I wondered about his relationships with women.
"When was the last time you were out with a woman?"
"Stoned or clean and sober?"
"You've got to be kidding," I said. As I tried to make eye contact with him, he looked away.
"I wish that I was," he said wistfully. "You're the first woman I've been out on a date with in over six years that wasn't high or soon-to-be so." He delicately caressed my face.
I moved closer to him, and he kissed me gently. I pressed my lips to his; as the kiss became passionate, he pulled away.
"I'm sorry," he said staring at the floor.
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"I'm not sure I should be doing this," he said. His hands were clenched, and his tick became more pronounced.
"Getting into a relationship," he said.
"We've had two dates and barely started kissing," I said. "That hardly constitutes a relationship."
“I can sense the chemistry between us, and I can't take the chance of becoming involved."
"What are you afraid of?" I wasn't sure what he was avoiding, but I began to get a sense of how fragile he was.
"I don't know if I'll remain stable. I've been on my current medication for over six months. There have been other times in my life when I thought I was okay only to find out otherwise." He leaned back against the couch; his eyes unfocused and his face wet with perspiration.
"How long would you have to be stable before you let yourself become involved with a woman?" As soon as I said it, I wondered if it was any point in pushing him.
He didn't respond at first; finally, he blinked and made eye contact with me. "I'm sorry," he said. A furrow formed between his eyes as he tried to respond to my question. "I can't tell you because I don't know." He leaned back against the couch and closed his eyes. He was breathing raggedly, as if the air lacked sufficient oxygen.
"There's no need for you to apologize. It's probably best not to rush things and to give yourself time to become more confident about how you feel."
The stress of his confession about his five-year ordeal and his fears about his mental stability had overwhelmed him. His relaxed and witty style was gone, and I saw a vulnerable and fragile man trying to put his life together. Was this my dream? He was a man so emotionally tortured that he couldn't spend an evening with me. His needs had nothing to do with having a girlfriend or being in relationship. And my needs? I could see no future with him while he was still putting his emotional life together.
He lay with his head against the couch until his breathing steadied, and the pallor of his skin returned to normal. The lines around his eyes and mouth aged him. He looked at me, and he gave me a half smile. "It's time for me to leave," he said, and he slowly raised himself off the couch.
I walked him to the door and kissed his cheek. "Call me whenever you want; we can have coffee or go out to eat." As I closed the door, I wondered if I would ever see him again.