dtverson, a good friend, recently wrote a story using the play “Tea and Sympathy” by Robert Anderson as a backdrop. I have never seen the Deborah Kerr film, but I have read the play and seen it perform on stage. Something has always bothered me about the Anderson play. The main character engages in adultery with if not a minor a very innocent young person. She acts not from passion or love but compassion. Her betrayal of her husband is presented as an altruistic act, a selfless sacrifice for the benefit of another.
What follows is my somewhat long exploration of a conflict between love and altruism.
The commissioner of health services finished the glowing testimonial to this year’s recipient of the County Physician of the Year award. He spread his right arm wide, directing the honoree to take the podium for the presentation of her award. She was a devastatingly beautiful redhead who looked a decade younger than her thirty-three years.
Simone O’Reilly was a tall woman whose mane of red hair descended to her pale shoulders like ringlets of fire dropping on ice. She was easily the most stunning person in the room, and she was my wife. I’m James O’Reilly, known as Jimmy to my friends. I’ve been married to Simone for ten-plus years. I was twenty when we wed, and she was twenty-two.
Simone often jokes that she married a child. The truth is that, in most ways, I’m the older, more responsible party. From an early age, my wife was studying to be a doctor. She shut herself off from the part of life that involved boys and parties and focused everything on becoming a physician. Thus, I found her as an inexperienced virgin of twenty-one at the wrong kind of frat party. She had been dragged there by her roommate to celebrate their mutual admission to medical school.
It was spring term of the school year. The Deltas were being nice and invited the Sigmas to their spring bash. Six or seven of my Sigma brothers decided to take them up on the offer of free beer, and they took me along. The party went well into the night. In the early-morning hours, I noticed three Deltas pulling a tall redhead toward a back room. She was very drunk but still resisting.
Well, I couldn’t just stand there, could I? I intercepted them and tried persuading the three large men—who were themselves a bit worse for the drink. One big fellow objected and took a swing at me. It was the last thing he did that night.
I only hit the jerk once. It was my frat brothers who stepped in to start breaking Delta heads. I may have saved the girl, but, in the end, she had to save us. The campus police showed up to break up the fight. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived, a couple dozen Deltas were down, and my brothers were mopping up the rest.
Yes, I was one of those Sigmas, the bad boy on campus. The redhead was somewhat sober by this time, and she was persuasive enough to convince the cops that we had saved her from sexual assault. After that, Simone—the redhead—and I were on a path that was to end in a wedding, and it came only a year later. Right at the end of her first year of medical school.
My wife was older in years and more mature in career, but she was my junior in worldly experience. Her medical degree, my law degree, and two kids later, she was physician of the year. A designation that my pediatric surgeon wife had earned by spending the prior year with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières).
From the beginning, I realized how fortunate I was to have stumbled into Simone at that party. Chance is a strange thing. Or was it chance? Was there some divine force guiding our fate? Back when we met, Simone was all potential, the nerdy pre-med student waiting to emerge from her cocoon. The chrysalis about to turn into a butterfly.
I wasn’t the only one to think this. My cynical frat brothers all shook their heads at my good fortune.
“Why does a good-for-nothing Irish jerk like Jimmy O’Reilly get a woman like that?” they thought.
I was, after all, nothing special—just average academically and athletically. On the other hand, I was, if I do say so myself, way shrewder than the average college boy, and I very astutely held little faith in my fellow man.
Simone was the opposite, she believed in the greater good and the nobility of human beings. I will admit, I found this aspect of her character more attractive than her physical beauty. She was gorgeous, but, as every one of my fraternity brother would confirm, it was what was beneath her skin that shown like gold among the dross.
The word “altruism” was coined to explain people like Simone. She was in medicine not for the money, prestige, or security; Simone was out to help others. She could never stand by and watch another person suffer. If one of my many truly awkward and shy frat brothers needed a date, Simone would fix him up with one of her nerdy girlfriends.
When my fraternal brothers drank too much, as they often did, Simone wiped the vomit off them and helped them to bed. She put iodine and bandages on their wounds after their frequent brawls. Unlike other girls, she never criticized, nagged, or scolded. She simply advised against bad behavior, like an indulgent mother. Guys were attracted to Simone for her looks, but they loved her for her soul.
My relationship with my future wife was somewhat different. Once Simone got her hand in mine, it was set there permanently. We were a couple. I was her first and only seriously relationship. We were instantly exclusive. Simone would not tolerate any dalliances.
“We’re together—a couple, right?” she would ask.
I was no fool. I was not arguing this point. Having been selected by some divine intervention to be with Simone, I was shrewd enough to know when to cash in as a winner. And, of course, Simone had captured my heart. She does that. If you have the least bit of good in your soul, you can’t help loving Simone.
So, on that Thursday afternoon, I slipped out of my office early to attend the meeting of the County Medical Society. I had not been invited. The wife of the County Clerk was a hospital administrator. When I went to record a deed, he congratulated me on my wife’s award. I pretended I knew all about it.
My wife had not told me about the award or the meeting. As was her practice, she separated her family and professional life. So, I was crashing the affair. Normally, her not inviting me to a medical association meeting would have raised no questions in my mind. However, her failing to mention the award had elevated my eyebrows.
I wanted to see her get the award and hear her acceptance speech. I’m very proud of Simone. But since her return from abroad, she had been distant and reserved. Our former warm familiarity had been replaced by a wintery chill. At first, I saw it as a result of her fatigue. She returned to us a worn shadow of her former robust self. But as Simone regained her vigor, we did not regain our former passion. The woman had come back, but the wife was still traveling.
Simone seemed to regain her relationship with our daughters, Vicky, eight, and Beth, six, but with her husband, there seemed to exist some barrier she could not or would not cross. For three months, I waited for my wife to return to me. I missed her and the warm, loving relationship we had. Something had changed our relationship, but what it was I knew not. I was aware of nothing that would explain the current distance that had developed between my wife and myself.
I had stealthily entered the large banquet hall of the Gideon Hotel. Simone hadn’t begun to speak yet. The room was filled nearly to its capacity of fifteen hundred. In the back, I eased in next to the bar, which had been set up for the cocktail reception. The bartender had stopped serving when the speakers had begun; however, two tall, good-looking men still stood, leaning on the bar rail and nursing their drinks. One of them I recognized Tony Curoso, MD, a gynecologist at Memorial Hospital where Simone worked. The other had a swarthy complexion and a slicker appearance, but he was one handsome fellow. He wore an expensive tailored European-cut suit.
I assumed fancy suit was also a doctor. He had the appearance of a player, as did Curoso. The not-so-good doctor Curoso had never met a young nurse he did not want to bed, and he did not let a wedding ring deter him. I knew of several passes he had made at Simone, one of which was right in front of me. She had always shot him down, but he kept coming like the Energizer bunny.
I was behind them at the back end of the bar. They were facing into the room, as was I, and apparently, they didn’t see me. But I was close enough to hear their conversation without straining.
“I mean to get me some of the that,” said the man in the sharp suit as he nodded toward my wife.
Simone was approaching the podium to start her acceptance speech.
“Don’t let the red hair fool you; that is one frigid bitch,” Tony replied.
“Maybe once, but not anymore. I heard she spread it around rather wide in Africa. She was a very fiery number indeed,” said the second man.
“Well, that would be a big change, but that was over there,” said Tony.
“Yeah, but once they taste strange, they never go completely without,” Dr. Slick told Tony.
“Care to wager on it?” said Tony.
“Sure, how about we double what you owe me for that little fix job I did?” Mr. Slick said.
“Done, and just to make things interesting, I’ll take a run at her myself,” Tony said as they both gave a smug laugh.
.... There is more of this story ...