Last Thursday: I’m having cocktails and appetizers with D., an old boyfriend. Interesting, how I no longer designate him an “ex.” He ceased to be an ex sometime in 2004, when he was married, when enough time had passed since our abrupt and ugly break-up in 2000. When we became friends, which we still are. Hence the cocktails.
We laugh, and catch up. He has the same beautiful wife he married almost a decade ago, three gorgeous red-haired daughters, and a successful design company. In the face of all this right-doing, I feel rather like a fourth, red-headed stepchild, but this is partly to do with the dynamic that’s always existed between the two of us. D. was like the liberal, artistic, sensitive father I never had but desperately wanted. As such, my actual father and he didn’t really jive. I was 18 and a freshman in college at Boston University when we began dating; he was 22 and had just moved to Brooklyn to work for a design firm. He painted– nudes. When I asked him, on our first date, “What do you paint?” he said, “Nudes.” One syllable. I jumped at the prospect to have myself committed to canvas. When we met, I’d just gone through a nasty break-up– one of my high school boyfriends left me for a leggy, busty blonde, who, he told me, was “meant for him.”
“What about her makes her ‘meant for you’?” I asked through my tears.
“She always resets the mileage when she gets gas so she can see how many miles she gets to the tank. It’s like, so sexy.”
How can you argue with that? This soul-crushing logic, combined with my very first sexual rejection, led me to a diet of cigarettes, Diet Pepsi, and the very occasional fat-free Yoplait for the better part of the month of August; as such, D. did a series of paintings of me entitled, “Em: Break-Up Diet,” wherein my nubile 18-year old figure is stretched out across huge canvases. In one, you can count my ribs. He gave it to me when he moved, years ago– it’s hidden beneath my bed. Not exactly the kind of thing you can hang in the living room alongside your senior portrait.
“I love you and my love for you makes any other life a lie.”
So says Louise to her Beloved, Our Narrator, who is nameless, genderless, without orientation, until he/she/shim meets Louise, of the red hair and the cruel and luscious mouth, the changeling, the constant, the keyhole and the key: a single orientation. There is no gay, no straight, no fickle in-betweens. There is only Louise. Try and contain Louise, I dare you, Our Narrator dares you. She will not be contained. She will spill out over her edges and into Our Narrator’s, into ours, our edges become hers– in bed with the ex, every time, every time, I would try, desperately, to keep those words to myself: I love you. “Why,” Our Narrator asks us, “is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation.” But Louise will not be quiet. There’s a terrible and beautiful truth to her, as there are to all real truths, all real loves. And all the impossibilities that come with that truth. I love you and that makes any other life a lie. We would make love, so easy, so spectacular, he would say crazy things, I would say them, too, and after, after–
(Through the glass of the living room window, through the screen of what happens behind closed doors, slatted blinds: a young woman leaves the house across the street through the front door, an unfamiliar woman, hair held in a loose knot with her right hand, which also holds her car keys, eyes shaded against the early morning sun with her left, tattoos on her back, a bevy of suns and moons, her wiry form sheathed in a loose fitting, backless black dress– oh, it is difficult to live with this heart, it is. She is braless, she is tanned, she is young and lovely, she has so clearly just emerged from a night with a lover that I almost laugh out loud. How many times have I been that woman? I give you my body in exchange for yours, in exchange for the forgetting of the mess that awaits me in the day. Over and over, I made this bargain, with dozens of men, a carefully plucked handful of women: Vanessa with the raven hair, Hollie with the milky skin, the shaved head. How long before the exchange forced amnesia not only of my outside life, but my inside, as well? The body as a stack of bills– how slender each greenback, how long it would take before its owner noticed a debit, before it was spent, bought, forced to become the sad, stuffy purse that had held it, the sticky gum of a discarded lozenge, the fiery lipstick in its case, partly responsible for this mess, this mess, this terrible, empty mess–)–
and after, in the thrumming quiet, my head against his hammering heart, they would not so much seep as leap from my mouth, I love you, I love you, I love you so much, I never stopped, I didn’t know, I was a fool all those years ago, how can I have missed this–
Last Monday: it’s not 7 am, and I’m awakened by my mother’s voice on the phone with her younger sister, loudly lamenting my cousin’s fiancee’s bridal registry, its odds and ends, its lack of fine china– How do you not register for china?!
I was married, once. I had a marriage. A bad marriage. My brain taps its toe at that phrase, wants to solder the two words into one: A barriage. A barrage. A barrage of desires, unanswered, of wants, of two people trapped in the same space. We were not birds in a cage. At least they retain their lovely feathers. We were greasy and unwashed, whatever drew us to one another has long since faded. I was inarticulate with want, desperate for an exit. I dreamt of faceless men, woke stupefied and weary. All my edges blunted. Somewhere in me lay a treasure map, its edges burnt and flaked, rolled tight as a drum and slipped into a green glass bottle, corked. Some nights, it floated toward the surface– I woke, choked, gasping for air, trying to speak, and failing– surely my tongue had gone missing, surely I was Friday: look, there was Crusoe asleep, impossible to wake, hushing me with the sheer weight of his snores–
D. and I dip grilled pita bread into tzatziki sauce, hummus, a spread made of eggplant that I am hard-pressed to reproduce the spelling of, and drink grassy Sauvignon Blanc. He asks if I’m seeing anyone. It comes out that he reads this blog.
“Can I take it at face value?” he asks, thoughtfully.
“Sure,” I say, and cross my legs, tan and bare but for a short black dress. “I mean, it’s all true.”
“You deserve better than that guy,” he says, and I see the ghost of my liberal-idealist dad sneak to the surface, mask his carefree face with the mildest of mild grimaces. That guy. The ex. The current lover. The best friend. The whatever the fucking whatever he is, we are, who knows, I am tired of trying to figure it out. I get my hackles up for just a flash, but then– wonder of wonders– I listen.
“Why do you say that?” I ask. I am aware that he’s protective of me. I am aware of the sexual attraction that still lurks in the space our bodies make, the years of history that fill that space like pages: we are two differing bookends holding it together, keeping it bravely shut– one wrong move, though, and here is the time I cheated, there is the time you told me you wanted to knock my fucking teeth out, here is the ease of our bodies entwined in Brooklyn, in light that is, in my mind, perpetually falling and orange and lit by an August sun–
“Because you deserve someone that adores you, without reservation.” Like he did. Like the ex did, years ago. Here, of course, I’m out, because they are the only two men that have ever been truly good to me. “Someone that is willing to tell the world the two of you are together, for real. The real thing.” He pauses. “You may have to look for someone slightly older.”
“He’s going through this whole bad break-up thing, he’s like, pining after his ex–”
“That’s bullshit,” he says. “It’s not even about her. It’s about him. Ditch him. Trust me. Ditch him now.”
“You might be right,” I say, and sip my wine. I feel curiously at ease with this conversation, with the possibility.
“I am. And eventually, he’ll realize how badly he fucked it up, and he’ll want you back. But by then, you’ll have moved on.” He reaches for a piece of pita bread, looks at me, and smiles. Did I imagine it, or was that a hint of malice, glinting, buried in the kind intelligence of his twinkling brown eyes?
When I was engaged to be married, my mother insisted I register for fine china, was furious when she discovered I’d neglected to do so. I take that back, actually. She is rarely furious, or maybe there is always a hint of suppressed fury in her manner, but it arrives packaged to the world as an ever-present, ever-humming anxiety, an effort to order and control what happens next.
“Mom,” I said, wearily, into the phone, probably plunked on my couch in my shoebox apartment in San Francisco, staring through the picture window at Golden Gate Park’s towering eucalyptus trees, “what is the difference?”
The exact answer escapes me, but she was always giving me the same sales pitch– this is the only chance you’ll get to receive this stuff, when you’re older, you’ll want it, you’ll regret it if you don’t, I never had the chance to do that–
The Crux of The Issue: my parents had a shotgun wedding, or the hipster 70s equivalent of one. My mother was four months pregnant with me. They had little money. The pictures are to-die-for cool. My mother looks stunning– and not at all pregnant– in a white organdy hippie dress and a floppy hat, my father wholly happy to be marrying her in his bell-bottomed, pale blue suit. My grandparents beam, the bridal party grins, everyone is tanned and healthy. It was August at the beach. The reception was at my great-aunt’s house on the bay, and my uncle’s jazz quartet played. Everyone has donned either a polyester disco dress or a porn mustache. Everyone is laughing. Everyone is drinking champagne. It has every hallmark of an unforgettable party.
But my mother has never recovered from the shock of not having a proper wedding, with a registry, and fine china. She makes mention of the lack of fine china at every holiday. Even now, when she could readily afford– could have readily afforded for the last twenty years– fine china from Macy’s or Bloomingdales or wherever her heart desired, she laments this. The shotgun wedding is the disease, the china cabinet its relentless side effect: empty, it echoes in her mind. The wind whistles through it. It is a house, abandoned, waiting for its family to return. A tiny woman, she ducks inside it like Estragon, sure its doors lead to a portal to the past, where she finally wanders the halls of a department store, spinning a single diamond ring on her left hand, running her fingers over bone plates slender as a woman’s wrist, painted, embossed, what is it you’re looking for, dear, congratuLATions!
I have never wanted fine china. What I wanted was a marriage like the one my parents have, unconditional, undying love for one another, and passion that may sometimes flicker out, but always returns to form. What I wanted was to be present enough to see things for what they really are, to know happiness in all its chipped and mismatched glory.
Last Friday: the ex and I have lunch. We are planning on going to the batting cages afterward. Something has gone awry between us, although nothing specific has changed or been said. All week, thunderstorms light up the sky. The air crackles. We are doomed. But weren’t we always? And really, who’s doomed, him, or me? I am the one that will hurt when this comes to its inevitable end. He will go on pining for another, feeling… what? What does he feel for me? What does he feel?
We leave the restaurant and drive. “You ready to go hit some balls?” he says, with a forced enthusiasm that makes me slightly queasy.
“Yeah, I mean… we can do that, or would you rather go have sex?” I say, testing the waters. Out with it, kid, I think. If you wanna drop an ax, have at it. I will not have fun swinging at baseballs with this unnamed something hanging in the air.
“Do you think that’s such a great idea?” he asks, the faintest edge in his voice.
I stare out the window. Tears roll down my face, almost on cue. We drive in silence. He puts his hand on my neck, in my hair. He pulls into his driveway, and we wander into his bedroom. We lie down. I know somehow that this it, the last time we will be together. We talk briefly about all the reasons this is a bad idea. “You’re my best friend, and my best lover,” I say, wearily.
“I know,” he says. “You are, too.” What can this even mean? My dear friend Rich said it best, the last time the ex and I put a stop to this: “After ‘I love you, I’ve never stopped,’ what else do you want? Why does it have to be so hard?”
“It’s so easy to be with you,” says the ex, running his hands up and down my bare legs, commenting on their softness.
“I designed them that way,” I say, snarkily, softly, already knowing we will be together one more time. And we are. And it’s so easy, and so exciting, and so perfect, that I forget everything else.
After, we lie in one another’s arms. “We can’t do this,” I say. I know it in my bones. This is it. I am not built for this. I am not built for loving someone fiercely and watching them desire another from the vantage point of their arms. I am not a placeholder. Anymore. “Take me home, now.”
In the car, I ask him for no contact– don’t call, don’t write, no texts, no emails, no YouTube videos of Prince, no inside jokes. You get all of me or you get nothing. It’s an ultimatum, I know, but it’s the only thing I can see fit to do, the only way I know to move past this.
“If that’s what you want,” he says, quietly. We drive in silence for the second time that day.
As he pulls closer to my street, I get angrier and angrier. “Why did you do this again?” I say. No response. It’s so easy to be with you. My best friend, my best lover. It shouldn’t be this hard… In a flash, I recall myself at 17, pining away for someone I’d never really known, much less loved, while the nicest, cutest, funniest boy in the world, who wrote me poems– good ones, no less– waited patiently on the sidelines until finally he would wait no longer. “You’re an idiot,” I say, without venom, with true frustration. “You’re an idiot. You had five years to do whatever it was you now claim to want with L., propose, buy a house, whatever, five years, and you didn’t do it, and you’re almost fucking forty– don’t you think there’s a reason you didn’t? Don’t you think there’s a reason you were always hesitating? It didn’t work, dammit! This shit with L.– it’s not even about her, it’s about you– and you’re too stupid to see it–”
Where had I heard that before?
“We’re perfect for each other. And you’re throwing it away with both hands.” We had reached the house. He put the car in park. “I love you, I do, but Jesus Christ, get your shit together,” I said, quietly, wearily, and slammed the door.
He waited to make sure I got in, and then peeled off. I sat on the couch.