“Mm-hmm,” Z. says, sleepily.
“Kiss my shoulders,” I say; before the words have left my mouth, his lips brush lightly against the skin he once called “soft and sweet smelling” in a text message. Oy, those lips. Especially that lower one: it looms large in my imagination: I can practically taste the impertinent spot where it juts out, that luscious border from lip to chin. The way it fits perfectly between my own, lesser mouth, the way I hold it there for a timeless moment, let it go. The last time we were together, just over a week ago, I asked him:
“Those pictures on your Facebook, the ones where you’re kind of mugging for the camera, sticking your lip out?”
“You took those of yourself, right?”
“Yeah, I did,” he says. “So what?”
“What are you, a 15-year old girl? You took pictures of yourself for Facebook? Sticking your lower lip out? C’mon, you’re killing me!” I punch him lightly in the ribs.
“It just sticks out, Em,” he says, sheepishly.
“Sure it does.”
This is something I’ve noticed I do with him– sarcastic affirmation. I’m like the love-child of Daria & Stuart Smalley. I really want to see you, Em– Sure you do. Eyebrows at half-mast. I dig you, Em, I do– Sure you do, kiddo. Now be quiet & fuck me. I’m a working single mom on a schedule, & it’s 11 pm. I mean, who has time for all these feelings?
Apparently, I do, Dear Reader, as against– way against– my better judgement, Z. & I are having our first sleepover. Suffice it to say, no one is freezing anyone else’s underwear, or sneaking out at 3 am to spy on the boys next door, although he did excuse himself at one point to make & consume a turkey sandwich & some cherry pie (“Do you want a sandwich?” “No, I’m cool.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, absolutely.”) Oh, the awkward days of early sleepingsover– do you snore? Do I? I don’t think I do, but– was that my stomach? The idea that he thinks I would even consider consuming a turkey sandwich in front of him at 2 am speaks volumes about what he doesn’t know about women. & yes, Reader, yes, I recognize how much I sound like some kind of suburban feminist-intellectual incarnation of Carrie Bradshaw, but I am nothing if not honest– this is, after all, the person I once turned away from my bed because my legs were one whole day unshaved– sure enough, as this soiree was unplanned, when I go to wrap my short limbs around his long waist, I realize they’re prickly, & literally say aloud, “Argh, I didn’t shave…” The jig is up. If we’re doing this, we’re doing it. Feminist? Who am I kidding? The jig is most certainly up, alright…
But if he minds, he doesn’t let on, & before long, we’re engaged in the lazy, sweet sex that turns my brain to mush. There is no small irony in the fact that his lovemaking inspired me to write a blog: when we fuck, I barely think, have twice in the last month alone gripped his skin so tightly during the act that he yowled like a cat in pain. “Sorry!” I gasped, & carried on with what I was doing. & Reader, really? Since it’s staring me in the face– what am I doing? What are we? This question bugs me so thoroughly that, lying next to him in the pitch black, I say,
“So, ah. I kinda like, dig you, Z.”
“I dig you, too.”
“But, um…” Oh, Christ, where am I going with this? Pick a point, Van Duyne, you need a complex thesis & some support, c’mon, you teach this shit, get on with it–
But I’m at a loss:
“I mean like… I like you. A lot. & it’s not going to go away, so…”
He doesn’t shift or flinch, like I thought he might. Instead, he says, “Are you saying you wanna go steady?” in a tone just arch enough to make me wonder if I’m really hearing it. Or if he’s considering the possibility.
“No, I’m definitely not saying that.” I’m not, right? That wouldn’t be possible, anyway. What with the different schedules, & the kid, & his proclivity for marijuana, &–
“So, what, you don’t want to see me, anymore?” I am amazed at his tone, the total nonchalance. If that was me? In his shoes?
Panic. Capital P.
“Oh, no, I totally do,” I say. I am curled on my side, wearing nothing but panties, my right arm tucked beneath my ear. His hand grips my ass firmly, my short legs are tangled in his long ones. & this is the moment I realize it– I am a changed woman. Not in some literary, epiphanous way– I’m not gonna stand up & walk out, demanding he respect me or else! Nor am I suddenly free of the bonds of desire, a liberated woman who can fuck him & walk away, satisfied, never caring what happens next: indeed, it’s the opposite. I am invested in him. I care. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise– after all, what is there to lose but my own chattering heart, with its smushed & swatted beats, its nine lives? No, the change that comes is not some settled certainty, but rather, a total understanding of the opposite, an acceptance of our deeper, dimmer waters: I am suddenly reminded of my old friend, Sam, from California, who told me she & this rich boy were “expiration dating,” something I, a diehard romantic, refused to accept– love must have been lurking somewhere between them. If it wasn’t, why bother? This is the equation I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to apply to my & Z.’s situation since the advent of this blog– “Oh, what the hell, what’s the harm, we just like to fuck, what’s the difference?” But it’s not that simple. It doesn’t, as I told him that night, go away. “It’s” been actively not disappearing for the last three months, or so. It’s getting stronger. Christ, this sounds like a sci-fi novel: It’s multiplying!
But, it is.
“I can’t date you,” I tell him, meaning it literally. “If you date me, you date my family,” I say, & a wave of exhaustion hits me as the words leave my mouth, which has more to do with the weight of their truth than the fact that it’s almost 3:30 in the morning.
“That’s ok with me,” he says, & I am shocked at the sincerity in his voice.
“I don’t know if it’s ok with me,” I say.
Behind me, in the dark, his presence is a charged weight, a prickling comfort– I won’t sleep well, tonight, I’m too stimulated. We talk & talk & talk, & as we do, one thing becomes clear– part of the wall between us is social class, position. I suppose this has always been true, but it’s never seemed more stark than it does tonight– he regales me with tales of people we grew up with, people I knew peripherally but he was close to– at one point, he brings up two schoolmates, brothers, who lived across the street from him when we were kids. He remembers his mother saying that she hadn’t seen a light on in their house in days– upon investigating, she discovered their father had abandoned them weeks ago. “They lived with us for like, a while,” he says, & my heart breaks at the image of those two kids, whose young faces I can still see, at Z.’s mother with her kind eyes & beautiful face, her dark hair, who raised him, alone, whom he loves with a fierceness that seems to inform everything he does, taking them in without a second thought. He isn’t shy about telling me how much it means to him that I’ve taken on the task of raising Hank, alone– “That’s a sacred thing to me,” he once wrote. Sometimes, I go back & read that, for comfort, for strength, for chutzpah, for whatever– God knows Hank’s father’s never said anything resembling it, has no idea, I don’t think, what it even means, on either an intellectual or a gut level. We comb through our shared & distant friends, lovers, classmates, in the dark, until he describes recently seeing my very first boyfriend literally begging for change, repeatedly, on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City. A total junkie. Probably dying. With my eyes closed against this horror show, I can see him as he was in 1993: already over six feet tall, a gold crucifix flat against the hollow of his throat as he danced with me, held my hand at the mall, or dangling over my chin as he kissed me. Half-black, half-white, with fair skin like barely sweetened chocolate milk. An athlete who excelled in football & track: already, his biceps were strong, & defined. He took me to movies, & bar mitzvahs; he smelled like Drakkar Noir. He never once tried to do anything but kiss me. My heart breaks, a little; Z. holds me tightly against him. What future can we possibly have? What future does he even want? I turn to face him, kiss his forehead & his eyes, his prominent, lovely “Karl Malden nose,” which I tell him, in a weak moment, that I love.
Well, it’s true.
Then, we sleep.
When I wake, it’s Thanksgiving morning. “You did pretty well,” I tell him, back, in the daylight, to my old self: “I half expected to wake up & find you frantically smoking cigarettes in the corner of the room, saying, ‘You gotta go.'” He laughs, genuinely, as I stretch out against him. Am I my old self? That self has been wildly flexible, ungrounded, these days, swinging from old mores like a circus performer: Ladies & Gentlemen, step right up… I am a woman who likes definition, an adversary, A Thing That I Must Grasp. If I’m not fighting for something, I’m… well, I’m just not. But in the dark of the previous evening, all of that has changed. Here is someone, something, without borders, an amorphous delight that will not be defined, an argument I cannot make. Desire, embodied, right down to the freckles that, as he sits up & leans forward, I kiss, one by one, on his lean & wily back.