Last Friday: The ex and I are having lunch at a hole-in-the-wall taqueria on Arctic Avenue, next door to the famed White House Sub Shop; even in the downpour, a line of tourists billow out into the street from its hallowed doors, willing to wait. We sit across from one another as a petite Mexican woman assembles the most delicious tacos I will, very shortly, ever have the privilege to eat– corn tortillas made to order, chipotle from scratch, lengua so rich and tender it melts on my tongue in a delightful and ever-so-slightly gruesome moment of carnivorous recognition.
What is the proper use of tongues? The ex and I are talking about missed chances. He tells me about a beautiful woman he took on two dates and failed to kiss, twice. He doesn’t know what happened to her. I recall a man I met in the reception area of my veterinarian in San Francisco, an adorable person who I laughed with for an hour straight, waiting. I was married, at the time. Months later, I was in Golden Gate Park having a bake sale for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign when the same guy wandered over to the table– “The girl from the vet!” he said, amazed. We talked. We hugged good-bye. I will never forget his face, and likely never see it again.
The rain falls incessantly, heavily, the food disappears from our plates. We stand to leave– I make fun of the awful Spanish the ex speaks to the woman behind the counter, and she laughs, gleefully. We head back to his house. In his room, the first thing I see, tucked on the edge of the bedframe, is an old paperback in red and black– Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. My copy, from college, read and reread by my eyes, by his. I’d left it there when I moved out of our old place, all those years ago. I open it up and discover her forced and forcible scrawl, in bright blue ink: To Emily, Jeanette Winterson. She’d signed it at a reading in Boston, back in 2001. I’d forgotten. I’ve been realizing, lately, spending so much time and conversation with the ex, how very much I’d forgotten about that time in my life– the last time I was at this house, the night of my sister’s wedding, he handed me a vintage movie poster for Lolita, framed. “I got this for you, years ago. But then we broke up and you moved to California, so. You know.”
“You got this for me?” I said, incredulously. It’s the kind of gift I rarely get, one that nails my taste perfectly: Dolly Lo in her heart-shaped glasses, the titles in French.
“Well, no, I mean, you bought the poster in France, I had it matted and framed for you,” he said, and suddenly it all came rushing back– handing over 3 euro to the cranky old man in the Latin Quarter in the wan March sunlight, my always practical sister, inscrutable and silent, nearby, probably mentally tallying how much money I’d pissed away on trinkets since we’d arrived. Still. A good gift, nonetheless. Back in his room that rainy Friday, I turned the pages Winterson’s novel, one of my college favorites, one of those mind-bogglers that changes the way we see the world, to the opening salvo:
Why is the measure of love loss?
I’d been asking myself the same question for a while, recently. I’d even, earlier in that week, asked it of the ex in a lengthy email, albeit in far less efficient prose. He’s in the midst of a wicked break-up. For five years he was with his other ex– we’ll call her L.– always kind of, at least according to him, half-assing it: one toe in the water. One foot out the door. Lots of talk, no action. No bended knee, no engagement ring, no no no. Until she finally said she’d had enough, and they broke up. Of course, these things happen, and when they do, they generally bring about plenty of difficulties, many of them mere logistics– sure enough, when they split last October, they were locked into a 9-month lease that didn’t let up until May 31. Sure enough, they decided, what the hell, it’s a two-bedroom, let’s just stick it out like the civil adults we are. He told me this over beers and Belgian fries about a week after the ax fell.
“That,” I said, dipping a thick-cut, salted piece of potato heaven into jalapeno ketchup, “is a fucking terrible idea.” Admittedly, I was already plotting to get him back into my bed, but I was speaking with the utmost sincerity. Break-up means break-up. If you’re still living together but just not sleeping together, you’re merely in a relationship that lacks its chief perk, and you’re not doing anything to get over your ex. Who is, let’s be honest, not your ex at all.
He gave me a laundry list of reasons it was, indeed, a fine plan, all of which rang completely false. I didn’t press the issue. It was, after all, none of my business. When, however, their move-out date was upon them, he fell apart. Begged her to take him back. Realized everything he’d done wrong. Got quite an earful from her, apparently, and got turned down.
“It’s like she broke up with me twice,” he told me, his voice cracking.
“Please,” I said, “she’s got nothing on me. I broke up with you like eighttimes.”
This managed to elicit a giggle.
I had– have– great sympathy for him, but am also generally irritated by the situation. It’s so like a man. Just last night he texted me about how much he loved Bruno Mars’ newest song, the one where the speaker laments all the things he should have done for his girl, who has now moved onto “dancing with another man.”
“I love it, too,” I said.
“It’s reminds me of a modern ‘You Were Always On My Mind,'” he wrote, which sent me into a tailspin. I hate that song, and I told him as much. What I wanted to tell him was, The fact that you like that song is half your problem! but I didn’t. Instead I went on a mini-text tirade about what a flaming dickhead (I think I used those words) the dude in “On My Mind” is: I didn’t love you like I should, I was a distant dick, BUT HEY– I was ALWAYS thinking about being less of a dick! That counts for something, no? It’s like, NO. No, it does not. That guy is a liar.
Perhaps I was a wee bit tipsy when this came barreling out of me, but even now, stone sober, I still think it’s true, and it’s the ex’s chief problem. Always waiting for his real life to start, always with one eye on another. Taking everyone that adores him for granted. But what, really, is he waiting for? What constitutes “real” life? And if he is “so like a man,” then man, was I ever like a man for many, many years. In my email to him, I asked myself a question: why, for so long, did I always end up in long term relationships with men who didn’t do that “thing” to me? Who didn’t make my heart skip beats? Why did I only stay with the ones I felt safe with, comfortable with? It’s only recently I’ve come to understand– that emptiness– it’s its own kind of stupid yearning. Desire, to me, was an empty, aimless vessel. I felt what I felt for those beautiful idiots that abandoned me because they abandoned me. I measured love by its lack. And safety, comfort– that, folks, was love with open hands, which I left empty.
For year, I was his lack. I knew it. I exploited it, treasured it, ignored it, pretended he couldn’t possibly feel the way I knew in my bones that he did. He measured love by my absence.
As now he measures it by hers.
And who is she, this other, this other woman? Having never met her, I picture flashes of someone tinier, lovelier, funnier, blonder, darker, whatever I lack, she is, rising up over him as I watch from the shadows and gnash my teeth. Salt licks lead to bitter envy. Twice in the last week we’ve made love in this bed; twice in the last week, in mine. I ask what his mother, who he is very close to, thinks– she’s letting me chart my own course, he says back, and before I can think, the words It is an ever-fixed mark tumble out of my mouth. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Platonic forms– maybe love is ever-fixed, out there in the ethers, waiting for us to finally clear our eyes enough to see it for what it is, empty our hands enough to grab it and cling and let it envelop us for better or worse. He tells me, when I broke his heart, all those years ago, he heard Tony Bennett sing “I Wanna Be Around,” the Johnny Mercer song about wanting to watch the one who broke your heart get their heart-broken, from a front-row seat, and wished it upon me, furious at my ability to wreck him. “Except,” I say, sprawled on his bed, naked, my nails running up his biceps, down the tattoo on his arm, “I’m the one with the front-row seat. Watching you.” It’s like she’s in the room with us, sometimes. It’s like she’s laughing at me. It’s like a terrible, hilarious play where everyone loves the wrong person. It’s like life. It’s like the best thing that ever happened to me is happening to me again, except now he can’t see it for what it is– the rain outside, the late afternoon, the dim bedroom, his hand on my naked haunch, the way he never forgot how to touch me, even though I’ve changed. He tells me that after we split for good, and he started a new band, everything he wrote was for me. He strums his guitar. He tells me L. used to complain that he never wrote a single thing for her. He used to complain to me about the same thing– and now, look at love’s ridiculous inconsistencies, its farce: 3000 words about him in the last four days alone, and a poem, a good one, to boot, and a second one in the works. Damn it. I hate this. Except for how totally pleasurable it is, how it tugs at my mind, my heart, my body–
And speaking of–
The brain is such a strange place, strange organ– here we were next to one another in broad daylight. My mouth was his for the taking, in all its sunlit glory. But it’s the image of it that arouses him– who knows what my mouth is in his brain? Technicolor, likely, and brimming with beautiful, beguiling filth. What does my mouth whisper to him when he imagines it? What does it take in? How many years has he spent picturing it? Who is the woman behind it? Me? Her? Who is she? Blonder, tinier, poutier, better at life, better at sex, what is the proper use of tongues? Why is the measure of love loss? Why can’t I just be quiet, for once?
Back in his car that rainy Friday afternoon, we are quiet. I clutch Written on the Body like a lifeline, practically itching to open it and reread. Louise. She’s a redhead. Maybe…
He twirls his iPod endlessly, trying to decide on music for the five minute ride to my house; I finally take it from his hands, wordlessly. I give it a spin, pause momentarily on Nina Simone, think about playing “Sunday in Savannah,” realize it will make us both depressed, probably for different reasons. Instead, I broadcast Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy.”
“Really?” he says.
“I love this song,” I say.
We ride along in silence. Something in me withdraws. Outside, the rain has stopped, but the island has flooded, partially, and we have to avoid several streets– everything is momentarily transformed.
But what else is this ride but a moment?
I don’t hold his hand. I don’t want to. He pulls up to my house, and I kiss him brusquely on the cheek. Something is different. Momentarily changed. But how many moments change before you, before I, are a different entity? I know very well who you are. The problem, I think, is you don’t. As I exit the car, I want to look back at him. I don’t. Earlier, some lovely, distant, possibly dead person sang to us from another time, Won’t you tell me where my love can be…?
Right here, my heart beat, loudly, and to no avail.
Everybody’s somebody’s fool.