This Is How You Lose Him
You walk your kid to the beach, alone, although it’s Sunday, and for the last six weeks or so, Sundays have kinda been your thing—the four of you—your son, three and a half, plopped all gangly-legged, blue eyes glowing in the summer sunlight like freaky marble orbs, into the jogging stroller with its tray sticky from last week’s ice cream, despite the hose-down you gave it; his daughter in tow, five and a half, in her pink, heart-shaped sunglasses, her hipster bikini printed with wall-eyed kittens, her face wearing its perpetually curious expression, brows sloping down in their pitch-perfect imitation of her fathers’: she counts the white stripes of the crosswalk as we trudge along in the heat;
but that was last week, or the week before, or any other sunny Sunday when the two of you were off, together. This week, storm clouds gather on the horizon all morning, so all morning, you fart around—walk on the boardwalk with your perpetually-in-motion mother, who seems, these days, to want to spend her time proving at least one law of physics is #thetroof: she cannot sit still, and even in her lack of sitting still, questions whether she should be moving somewhere else, or moving more, the two of you plop your kid back into the aforementioned jogging stroller, head for the boardwalk to exercise, and you’re not two blocks out, barely over the rickety drawbridge that separates your part of the island—a little funky, a little low-rent—from The Island: St. Leonard’s Tract, Atlantic Avenue, Margate with its clusters of high end boutiques; you live in, have always lived in, “The Heights,” an ironically titled place, since it’s the lowest stretch of local land, and was more or less taken out by Hurricane Sandy—so you trudge over the drawbridge, and silently note the flood tide in the bay, how good it would feel to dive beneath the water and swim for a long, slow length of indeterminate time; writing this, now, you stare at the swiftly running clock, recall you have no long, slow lengths of indeterminate time, recall how only those fantasies feel stretched out and slow, indeterminate: you sink beneath the heat of the day, the salt water is cool and coarse, and the light buoys you up to the top where you begin to swim in long, sleek strokes to no place in particular, delightfully alone—but the reality is your mother, talking over the public bus that roars past you on the drawbridge, so heavy it practically bounces the linked wood planks you’re pushing your son over, and your mother is complaining that you need to pick it up, then cautioning you about the storm clouds, how we’re about to get wallopped, maybe we should turn back–
and on the way home, still dry, clouds receding, you run into his father, with whom he and his daughter, much like you and your son, live—his father, always on a bike, awkward, chatty, says too much, complains about his son in the way you know your parents complain about you—difficult, edgy, lazy, a pain in the ass, tough, temperamental, the long and varied list of shit you’ve been playing in your brain like a looped sample since you can remember being conscious that you were anyone at all—you’re rounding the corner onto your little barrier island street when you see him, and sure enough, he stops you, with a faint gleam of nastiness in his eyes– Go get my son up, will you, and moving, and out of my house, Jesus Christ—and rides away as your mother looks the other way and smiles, awkwardly, which you interpret to mean she’s not surprised he sleeps so late on a Sunday, and with a daughter at home, I mean, look at him, I mean, really, did you think this was going somewhere? Oh, the fantasies you play out for your poor mother’s brain, your poor father’s—nothing slow and indeterminate about those: they can hack you down in no time at all—
For months after he moved in, you didn’t speak to him, but you wanted to, and you knew he wanted to speak to you, too, although he is supposed to have had a girlfriend, then, a six-foot skinny blond, but you have no memories of ever seeing a six-foot skinny blond hanging around, and Christ knows you’d have noticed, especially after you finally called it forever quits with your lame-ass on-again-off-again-perpetual-ex-boyfriend with whom you’d been fucking around for the better part of—literally, now—two decades. Even as you write this down, it seems impossible, but there it is—nearly fifteen years of dating the same non-committal dickhead, with a brief stopover to marriage to a gay man, and a wild love affair with a sociopath that resulted in your beautiful son, in between. Shit, girl, you’ve been through it, he said to you, once, the morning after you told him you loved him, your face buried in his chest, arms and legs smushed and tangled together on your parents’ chaise lounge, the babies asleep in your respective houses, their windows facing one another—I didn’t mean to, you say, it just happened—but he shuts you up with kisses, as he’s been doing now for months. He loves you, too. You can tell. And you didn’t mean to, tried, in fact, to safeguard yourself against it, knowing all the while it was impossible, having fallen in love with the way he spoke, and moved around, the long, lean muscles of his legs rippling with artfully colored tattoos as the two of you climbed the jungle gym with your kids and he made some under-the-breath off-color remark about seeing your panties, and then vaulted off and chased after his squealing daughter, your squealing son—you tell yourself repeatedly this could be disastrous, this could hurt really, really bad, that it should disturb you how easily the four of you seem to fit into a little, lovely, funky family, but the only disturbing thing about it is how not disturbing it is, how it just falls into place—mid-summer, you’re housesitting for a friend, finally alone, the kids on the floor with juice boxes, watching Ghostbusters II, the two of you tucked into one another, your head against his chest, and it’s not fifteen minutes in before you look at him and say, Being here with you and the kids gives me feelings—
(this is one of his jokes—You should watch that movie, but it might give you feelings)
I know, he says back, me too—later that week he stands at the window in the early morning, before the kids are awake, without his clothes on, and you are actually astounded at the tenderness you feel for his body, with its art and its scars, his olive skin, his lean, tapering fingers—there is something happening inside of you that feels like it’s slowly splitting you in two—does your heart have to break to fall in love? Is that the only way it can learn to be big enough to topple the colossal wall of shit you build around yourself to get through each day? You recall him telling you, as the four of you walked along the Atlantic City boardwalk, that when he was 15, he worked as a human target for a paintball company on Steel Pier, how this led, almost by accident, to him telling you about living on the street for a month, or was it two, 15-years old, his family falling apart, having nowhere to go, sleeping in soccer fields, on the monument bench, frozen in the wet salt air of March, and you want a time machine, just for a moment, a ripple in the air’s continuum, so you can save him, even if he saved himself, so you can love him hard enough to make up for all the people who failed him, hold his head in your lap and stroke his hair, throw him in the front seat of your car and drive him to some, to any, warm place where you can love him for an indeterminate length of time—
You get home from your Sunday walk with mom. You wander over to his house, and yell up to his window. You can see his face through the screen—he’s shirtless. If you knew it was the only glimpse of him you’d get all day, you would likely have said something flirty and saucy, or yelled how you loved him like some sort of gender-flipped Jersey girl Romeo, begging him to come down and kiss your sunburned, sweaty face. But you’re annoyed that he gets to sleep in, annoyed that his dad said some shit in front of your mom that made him seem lazy, when you know he’s not, when you know he does everything he does because his heart, too, is bursting with love for his daughter. You’re tired of people in your life refusing to see what is so clear to you. The colossal wall of shit has a fresh row of flinty bricks this morning. Get up, you yell, it’s too late to be in bed.
I’m not in bed, he says, quietly, and you can tell he’s annoyed, and maybe hurt. You lay another brick on. You’re annoyed, too. You’re tired. Maybe you need a break, and don’t know it. Maybe you’re terrified. Oh, how it would hurt to lose him, to lose his lovely daughter who you already love, to lose the goofy way your son lisps his name, to lose the way he covertly grabs your ass every chance he gets, and makes you feel happy and comfortable eating French fries and ice cream, the way you get to lay back against him and smoke one delicious cigarette when your son is tucked safely into bed, the way he just makes you laugh, everyday, all the time, the sheer impossibility of staying mad at him for even five minutes—
Whatever, you say, and walk away, alone. Which is how you’ll stay for the rest of the day, walking over the bridge, the tide going out now, the sun beating down, feeling wholly like this is a perfect summer day, when someone might fall in love, or be killed in the breakers by a hungry shark.
An Ever-Fixed Spark
Why is the measure of love loss?
Last Friday: My 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. He doesn’t know what happened to her. I recall a man I met in my vet’s office 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 he 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, 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 one rarely gets, 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. I turn the pages of 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. 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, Lauren, always kind of half-assing it: one toe in the water. One foot out the door. Lots of talk, but no bended knee, no diamond ring, no no no. Until finally she’d had enough, and ended it. 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 none of my business. But when 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, 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 eight times.”
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 that Bruno Mars’ 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 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 ex loves my body, or at least proclaims to love it with a sincerity it’s difficult to argue with, almost to the point of fetishization. Probably he loves all of his ex-girlfriends’ anatomies in this manner. He’s a one-woman guy. He doesn’t cheat. I don’t even think he wants to. He often claims to hold considerable admiration for my ability to navigate between more than one man, or occasionally, woman, at a time. The night of my sister’s wedding, we went to a bar, and then, at his behest and my enthusiastic endorsement, a strip club, where I’d flirted with a Russian stripper and he’d watched with a kind of weird, happy envy. My hair was still in waves, my lips were painted a fierce, fiery red. Back in his car, he put on “Little Red Corvette” and I waved my arms in the air, my hands through the open sunroof, my hips swiveling in ecstatic time to the music. “This was YOUR doing,” I told him later, after we’d fucked rather desperately (when he kissed me, I literally said, “Oh, thank GOD—”).
“IT WAS NOT!” he said, his hand half-twisted in my fading curls.
“Oh, PLEASE, you put on ‘Little Red Corvette!'”
“Will you just let me hold you?!” he said, amused and furious. And I did. The next morning, sleepy, a little hungover, we sat on his stoop, puzzling out what we should do— or not do—next. What we were. What we are. Who we are. Does it even matter? He told me he envied how “good [I am]” at life. I snorted. He told me how much he loved my ass, how much he loved my mouth, staring straight ahead as he talked. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “I just got an erection thinking about your mouth.”
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.