In the morning you wake up with the sense that all night long you’ve been holding up the roof of your house with your breathing. You picture this heaviness in your chest as junk: a rusted, oily can of tuna, a crushed diet soda, an empty carton of frozen food, and you imagine heaping everything up between your arms and stuffing it into a huge, black garbage bag, and there, be done with it, down that chute and out of your life. But before you know it you’re thinking about it again, how he groped the girl, how he kissed her just as she walked in through the door. And you know that you are supposed to be just friends. You know that sex between you two has ceased to have meaning for him a while ago. But it was only last month that he remembered your birthday and picked up the tab on your dinners, and when he talked about tomorrow or next month or next year he didn’t talk around your name like a curse as he does now. So then when you saw him with that girl you couldn’t help but feel like someone punched you in the ribs, even when she sidled next to you on the couch and smiled through her fake greetings letting you know she hated you almost as much as you hated her.
You think about egging his car, smearing superglue on the door handle. You think about filling out a change of address form and have his mail sent to Mississippi or Nebraska. You want to clog his email at work with fetish gay porn advertisements. There. It should all be so simple. Boy does something abominable. Girl leaves him and never thinks about him again. But you keep thinking, and thinking, and thinking, and the hours go by and you haven’t slept, so you turn over in bed and turn over again, and finally possessed by a belated rage, you grab the phone and dial his number, then dial it again, and again, until it’s not the answering machine that tells you in English and Spanish what number you have reached, but his groggy, gravelly, almost sorry voice that says “Hello,” with a pitch and a tone that communicates to you his knowing it is you who have called, you who have silently haunted his answering machine this week, you who now want him to be awake because you yourself cannot sleep.
So you hang up. And the dirty words you didn’t speak wash down the drain of your throat and settle like silt and rust in your stomach. Your weak knowledge of homeopathic medicine warns you that one day this backwash may turn into cancer in the same, but reverse way, that laughter sometimes cures the terminally ill. And this, of course, brings you right back to that same night one week ago when you clambered into your car, your hands shaking, your breath stinking of beer, and your mind cloudy with pot you allowed him to blow into your mouth because you thought it was sexy. You hadn’t smoked since high school and the numbness hit you so bad you could barely hold the car keys in your hands. You knew you shouldn’t have been driving, but you were ready to park your car at a gas station if necessary and settle there for the night. Anything. Anything but remain at his house, with your ex on the doorsteps asking you weakly weather you were ok to drive, and that woman whose name you will soon forget, that woman who soon will cease being a woman in your mind and become that troglodyte, or that-tacky-whore-with-the-tacky-raid-nails -- with that woman, that whore, that girlfriend of his sprawled on his couch, her vulgar mouth accepting everything, his kisses, his lies, even the hands that touched you only an hour before. “Will you be ok to drive?” he said, his words clipped with his annoyance. As you yanked at the door handle you wanted to tell him that he saw you drool beer over your chin, and that he knew you were not fit for driving even better than you knew it. But your hands kept fumbling with the keys, kept stabbing at the door lock until finally by magic you said, “I’ll manage,” and the car door opened and he, just as weakly – or worse, indifferently – said, “All right. That’s all I wanted to know.”
For a week, those were the only words he spoke to you.
You think your love deserves better than that simple dismissal, deserves better than your stumbling home at four in the morning, frightened and amazed that you have survived yourself on the road, your rage, your hurt, your drunkenness and stupidity which put at risk not only yourself, but also anyone who might have been on the highway with you…. You deserve better than stumbling through the door of your silent apartment, in which the strewn clothes you tried on and discarded and the lipstick you left uncapped by the bathroom sink and the bottle of perfume you forgot to take with you still emanate so much promise it bites you in the ribs… You deserve better than stumbling through the doors of your apartment in that drunken mewling that woke up your neighbors right after you stupidly pressed the play button of your answering machine, certain, expectant, triumphant that he would have called, because surely he would have been worried, surely he would have wanted to know right away that you got home all right, the guilt keeping him from thoroughly enjoying sex with the other woman who already in your head has become the troll, the troglodyte, the cheap number. But there was no message in your answering machine. And that was worse than anything you could have imagined.
The next day you avoided getting online. You supposed his waiting for you with his instant messenger on, clueless to your rage, ready to stumble into your trap, certain he’d have sent you a message asking you why you left so abruptly when you’d said you liked trying new things and being surprised. (And you will recall with a shudder how right before the whore showed up, he took your hands in his, and running the tip of his fingers between your knuckles, lovingly he pressed his lips to your cheeks and asked you, breathless, Take a chance with me tonight. Later, at some saner moment, you will recall your foolish calm and cry out in your car, and beat your steering wheel with your fists, and hate yourself for your acquiescence, and despair that the only time your lover asked you to take a chance with him was only to indulge in an adolescent sexual fantasy). You had planned to either not answer at all, or answer with so much sarcasm that through your written words would ooze an oily venom that would irritate and burn his skin like poison ivy. You wanted to whip him with insults like nettle. Or else you would have said nothing at all; let him be tortured by his doubts.
But when you finally did sign online, your heart pounding in your chest, your anticipation strangling your breath in your throat, he neither tried to message you nor did he leave any email for you to read. Three days gone by and his life continued unaffected. He cared nothing for your welfare. He had no opinion to share with you.
Before this man, you went through several failed relationships and you are too wise, too old, too smart today, and too hurt to kid yourself about what it all means. Yet you have managed to do just that for months. Your self-deprecation surpasses even your delusions. You hate the way your fingers click so eagerly on your laptop keyboard, the way you hold your breath when the modem tries to establish a connection, the way you browse through those email handles that have left their message on your inbox, the way your eyes fill up with silly, womanish tears, and the way you put yourself through this six, even seven times a day.
It’s better that he didn’t write. You won’t be tempted to answer him. How many times have you already said you’d as soon swallow live snails than take him back, and how many times have you then crumbled at the soft sound of his voice, at the sorrow veiled behind his long, breathy pauses and the unspoken pleas behind his awkward, stumbling words? How many times have you crafted love letters, beating and chiseling each word out of the hot mold of your bruised emotions, the hammer of an unceasing and childish love pounding out your crippled reproaches?
But you, for months you continue to suffer the puzzled expressions of your friends, their upturned eyebrows and pitying mouths speaking words that only talk around an unspoken criticism. And you, you stumble for explanations, telling them about the songs that he wrote for you and the magnet-poem that he left one morning on your refrigerator door, and about the quiet exultation you felt when you drove together from Iowa to Illinois, a dome of perfect peace and distilled love sheltering your shared tales of the fantastic novels that painted your adolescences with time-machines, magic spells, and epic battles of good versus evil fought by giants, gnomes, and elves.
Even as you try to convince your friends of your reasons, you know that each trinket, birthday card, love letter that grace the walls, the bookshelves, the desk drawers of his home bare no correspondent in your home. You thought it was your own failing. After all, a man who nursed his mother through cancer right down to her last day, a man who collapsed in your arms without fear of his own tears, a man who confessed to you every nightmare that haunts him, could not be a sadist, an ignorant oaf, a juvenile creep the way your outraged girlfriends describe him. He could not be the same man who held you in his arms, his breath catching in your hair, his body rocking against yours, and then forgot you on his living room couch when the doorbell rang and another woman walked in, and he held her the same way he held you, whispering the same greetings, his eyes shut and his face bathed with that same desultory and easily fabricated bliss he shared with you.
When he returned to you, to the couch, his girlfriend at his arm, you thought you no longer loved him. It was all a mistake, a huge misunderstanding. There was nothing left for you to do but leave. You weren’t even angry. His hand held her breast and his arm wanted to keep you from getting up, and you, you stung at the nipples from the way he laughed at her jokes, and her hand on his crotch, the long, red, acrylic nails scratching the fabric of his boxers, brought an acrid taste to the back of your throat. Before you even thought of what you were about to say, you told her, “It was nice meeting you.”
Later, for weeks -- for months -- that will be the part that will hurt you the most.
But now you hold your arms wrapped around your chest and rock yourself through morning. You haven’t slept this night, either, but when it is time for you to get up the world is too vast for your fragile legs, the air is so heavy it cannot be breathed properly, and the garbage of your thoughts has been piling up so high overnight that you feel radioactive and poisonous.
Every day that you spend under your sheets, reaching for the phone then hanging up, feeling too used up for words is another day you gift him, another useless trinket that he will discard or lose (as he did that camera you bought him for his birthday). Still you can’t help yourself.
You project yourself into his future, one day from now, then ten months, ten years, trying to catch a glimpse of yourself, a morsel of regret, a chance encounter, a random, straying recollection, but you only find a scented trail of sex, an amalgam of your metamorphosed self and other women surfacing now and then above the obscene and overlapping fantasies he will conjure during masturbation. He will not remember your love letters, or the gifts you could not afford to buy him (the list of which is painfully remembered in your credit card debt), or the poem that you wrote for him last Christmas, or even the cold words with which he put an end to months of your best efforts. He may, however, remember your blowjobs.
This thought becomes a pallid consolation: the troglodyte woman may not have been as memorable in bed.
So, let that-road-trick-with-the-long-red-nails have him, you tell yourself. She has gained nothing, really. Like you, she has left her self-respect hanging like a hat on someone’s cock. Unlike you, she has forgotten where she’s left it. You cling to that one consolation, a leaky float through a seaquake.
That, and other small bits of pride, will carry you through your fitful nights.
You close your eyes and try to imagine the beginning of your love together. But soon enough he returns to you another way: breathless, he kisses your lips, and you, you run a hand through his hair, and gently, almost afraid, you tell him, “I want you to know that I’m crazy about you.” He tilts his head enough so that your fingers have to untangle from his hair, and he says, “That’s a nice thing to know.” Only now you hear behind the words: he doesn’t love you, but he accepts whatever bit of yourself you are willing to spare. The meaning of that moment must have slipped away from you between the pauses, the breathing, the light, almost ethereal pressure of your fingers on his ear. Now you see. At the door, a moment later, he hugs the other woman, his body pressed against hers, his arms cradling her gently. The only surprise you feel is that you could have fooled yourself so long.
In some future life, ten years ahead, in some idyllic moment that you imagine spent at the side of a good man, a professor of literature perhaps, your new husband, who strokes your hand as you listen to Bessy Smith and sip French chardonnay in your candle-lit living room -- in that warm, fuzzy projection of your future self, this incident will seem funny to you, and the other woman, you will pity her then as much as you pity yourself now.
But love does not go out of you in one day. You promise yourself you can be patient. You toss and turn in the sweat and scent of your self-betrayal knowing that once you intoxicated your good senses with a liquorish dream and gave yourself up to a poisonous addiction. There will be an end to your craving. But for a while, at least, you will console yourself with the dream of the sleepless.