Eileen And Her Principles

Short Story by Martin Tucker

The thing about Eileen is her contradictions. She's got so many they double up on her and it gets exciting trying to figure them out. She tells me she sometimes spends hours remembering-or trying to remember-what isn't right to do because it's supposed to be the right thing to do. Some people call her a rebel because she's like she is-she's not to be tied down, or "typed". That's her big NO word.

I genuflect to that. She taught me that big word. Only I say, "I'll genuflect to that" because I want to please her. Humor her. Try to impress her. I'm trying to get her into my bed, even her bed (which is larger). It doesn't happen much. Mainly because she says she doesn't want to toy with our friendship. Which, she adds, is what has with me.

"Don't you see, it'll spoil everything if we get complicated."

"Two neurotics having an uncomplicated affair?" I ask.

She takes my hand and strokes it. I can sense there's real feeling in her action, but for someone who preaches spontaneity she stops in the same place regularly.

Eileen and I have known each other for five years. She was my high school English teacher, and I had the hots for her in my senior year. Even though she assigned all the pseudo-dirty books like ULYSSES, LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVE and CATCHER IN THE RYE (nobody read them but we raised our hands to give our opinions), she wouldn't think of seeing me after class. "I have my principles," she told me five years ago when I asked her for a date. I told her our principal wouldn't mind. He was seeing another English teacher and he was married. "I'm not married, and I'm not going to be, till I'm 40 when I'll be just old enough for one child," Eileen replied. Eileen was-she still is-full of these standards, that's her word for what she thinks. I don't complain, because after graduation she did come onto me. I mean, we went on a date to the movies. She insisted on paying for her ticket. "I'm an independent woman, and I'm not robbing the cradle. Those are two reasons you're not paying for my ticket."

"This is a date," I told her.

"Lou, I have my principles." She took my hand-I remember it was five years ago, and stroked it. "I like you. I want to keep on seeing you. You're bright and cute and I enjoy being with young people," she said.

"You're not even thirty-one, for god's sake," I said.

"I'm thirty-two," she blushed, "but please don't tell anyone.."

"Who would I tell?" I had asked, but the moment for answering passed. Eileen's and my pacts were silent ones, we accepted each other. That was the beginning and end of it. And it would be the end of any beginning if I didn't go along with her principles. Anyway, they were hers, not mine, and what had I to complain about? I'm still a plumber's assistant, I still work in a shop with a uniform and a name tag on it. I don't mind the work, and I know someday I'll earn enough to get married and raise a family. I'm unconventional, too. Otherwise, I wouldn't be still going out with my high school teacher, and a woman-attractive as she is-who's twelve years older. Besides, I'm flattered by the situation. She takes me to places I'd never get to see the insides of, and she's not upset about my dirty fingernails (I don't always get to clean them before our dates). I can't dress in expensive suits, which she doesn't mind, because she's bored with all that kind of world. Fabric she calls it. Besides, she says she's eccentric, she's got enough eccentricities to build a bridge on. That's another word she uses. Eccentricity. Like, genuflect. And saturnine. She loves that word, saturnine. Says it's Tom Cruise all over, and she loves Tom Cruise. He's super saturnine. "You are, too," she said to me that one night she drank three Scotches straight-malt whiskey in a bar, but she paid for it. I have to admit I kept thinking of the price as she downed them. Her principal was giving her a bad time, she said. "Your principles get you all jammed up," I told her. She laughed that night. "Principal. Principles." She laughed right in my face. "Let's go to bed," she whispered.

Which we did. That was one night she forgot both her principal and principles. There's been a few of them, and they're worth waiting for-because I love her confusingness. It's almost as good as sex, feeling my way out of her jungle. And there's something pure-that's the word-about the way she wants to be a free woman. It doesn't make any difference to me-all I want is her love. I was going to say, friendship, because love is that, too, even for a young guy, and I think I'm still young. I'm not thirty, and she's fast approaching forty. But that's what I admire in her-respect isn't too strong a word, either. She's going to be forty, and she's still sticking to her principles. No sex with younger men till they admit they're serious. Sometimes she'll bend the rule. Like with me. Three times. She understands when I go off, but I come back and she's waiting for me with open arms full of principles.

And I tell you, I've grown accustomed to her paying her way. It's economical. I don't make that much, and she's taught me how to eat. I mean, all this stuff about knives and forks (the small fork for salads) and what to eat. Not to mention that hot air about wines. Would I have ever eaten artichokes or snails without her? Not that I dislike them. Actually I don't like them but it's not important, my liking them or not liking. It's like a principle to try something before knocking it. And she's not pretentious when she talks about that gourmet stuff. That's another word she's put me onto. "I love you because you're not pretentious, like the snobs I have known all my life. Love as in friendship," she adds in case I get the wrong drift.

I'm even getting to like going to art galleries with her. You meet interesting people there (and exchange addresses with the more interesting). Eileen's losing interest in them. Losing interest in art, and I'm getting interested. Funny, isn't it? "I'm getting bored," she told me last month. "I'm beginning to yearn for my old conventional days. Men paid for my dinners then, took me in cabs to the theater, sent me flowers. Those things are attractive, you know."

"I try to do them, but you don't let me," I protest.

"Yes, you do try," she says. "And I appreciate your gestures. I'm not complaining. You've got a life before you, that's why I don't let you pay for me. I mean, once in a while is okay, for my ego. When I'm down."

"I love you," I say.

"I love you, too. Like a friend," she replies. And she puts her hand on my lips and rubs them down. It's almost more than I can take, but I don't want to risk losing her by demanding more.

Tonight we're at an art gallery for a lecture. Eileen hates lectures-she says she gives enough of them, she doesn't have to listen to any more of them. But this is a friend talking tonight. A Korean friend. Eileen is into multiculturalism, the way she's into feminism. There are principles you uphold and speak about in rallies and galleries. She even buys paintings from what she calls "progressive" galleries. She's got money and she uses it for that kind of thing. Her father's rich (she's never told me how rich), and it's clear she's ashamed of his wealth. Sometimes she asks my forgiveness for her being rich. I told you she's full of contradictions, but I admire her for her principles even when I wish she didn't have them and we could just go to bed. Maybe even raise a family.

She is going to be forty next year.

I'm thinking these thoughts as we're at the bar. It's a cash bar tonight, a benefit for Planned Parenthood (Eileen gives them money. Two months ago, at another of their money-raising rallies, I told her she was choosing prevention over cure, because she wasn't even married yet, how could she plan parenthood if she didn't have any kids? She was annoyed at my crack, but she laughed, and then laughed some more. That proved to be the third night of our non-connubial bliss.) Tonight Eileen has her money in her hand to pay for her drink. I have my money in my hand to pay for my drink. I don't quarrel with her anymore, even if I'm embarrassed about it.

"Eileen," someone is shouting. "Eileen Somers." A woman in a pink linen suit is running toward Eileen. The suit is something I once saw in a Talbot catalogue in Eileen's apartment-it's something Eileen told me every one wore in the 1950s and some people never stopped wearing them.

"How are you, dear?" the middle-aged woman is saying (I'm being kind, for she's at least sixty). Behind her is a gently smiling man, whose smile doesn't leave his face for the whole three minutes we will be talking. The woman is Eileen's mother's best friend, and she's visiting because of this Planned Parenthood gala, and she is delighted to see Eileen and will send word of Eileen-and how great she looks-back to Eileen's mother and father. Eileen has to introduce me, because I'm standing there. I guess she could ignore my presence, pretend I wasn't there, but that would be bad manners and in Eileen's parents' world that would be a sin. Eileen once told me that's what's wrong with her parents' world, that the greatest sin for them is manners. "I mean," she said, "there are so many greater sins."

I chat with them-Eileen's mother's friends-and show off by speaking about Jasper Johns and Motherwell and Kandinsky (I told you I pay attention to what Eileen tells me at these gatherings, and even if I don't believe it, I remember how to say the key words. I mean, I'm a good study, and if it impresses Eileen, that's one step closer to winning her over.) I can see her friends (I mean her mother's friends) are impressed, along with being puzzled. (I'm in my jeans and plaid flannel shirt, I've not had time to change, and besides Eileen gets a charge out of tight jeans. She thinks it's not so much cool as a proletarian protest to a bourgeois world.) Suddenly there is another couple joining us, and Eileen is obligated to introduce her mother's friends and me to this new couple. I'm delighted to meet her principal, who looks like a pleasant clown in a three-piece suit; his wife looks like an over-the-hill Jennifer Ashton.

We're all talking and not listening, when I feel Eileen pressing my hand and forcing it open. She's slipping a crumpled bill into my hands and not letting anyone see the transmission. Eileen is smiling at me, whispering, "Pay for me, I'll pay you back later." No one hears her, even I don't hear the words whose meaning I surmise through her significant other expressions. Our drinks, I can see, are waiting at the bar counter.

"Excuse me," I say to the group. "I want to get Eileen and my drinks."

I've got Eileen's twenty in my hands and my ten as well as I reach the counter. I'm registering the total, not of the bar bill, but of the addition of Eileen's reaching out to me. Eileen, the woman of principles, has become a recidivist. That's another word I've learned from her. Someone who returns to old habits. Someone who goes back to addictive things.

I think suddenly Eileen may not have left her parents' world, that world that's interesting to me because I've not been in it. The thought annoys me. I've been her plaything, I can't help thinking even as I deny the charge; then I think maybe it's true. Then I think, if it's true, she's been my plaything too. As I pick up the drinks, I think Eileen's turning forty, she's out of the woods where she used to hide from people she didn't like, she's going to find it difficult to keep on hiding. That makes me think I've got more of a chance than I thought.

I'm pretty cool as I bring Eileen her drink. I'll give her the change later, knowing she is going to have to bargain with her principles. That's not so easy when it looks like you're going to have to compromise. On the other hand, I don't mind a little bit of compromising, not when it makes the goal easier to score. I mean I think I can make Eileen see she has to admit she's into a little bit of dependency.

Everything takes time. I can wait.