This morning I woke up on the other side of an affair. My watch is heavy on my wrist. My boots are tight and I feel their leather wrapped around my legs. My pants cinch my waist. My green corduroy jacket pulls at my shoulders.
When someone pursues you who is already attached, the first feeling is of being flattered. This should not be the first feeling. The first feeling should be the shock of a burned tongue. But flattered you are. The second feeling is intrigue. Who is this person who so casually throws off the strictures of shame? It adds to the appeal. It should not. But the appeal is already there. The third feeling is delight. The attentions of an unavailable person are the purest in the world. They sparkle without the muddiness of bills and family attachments. You do not know each other’s mothers and presumably you never will. You know each other as though sprung from the earth whole and perfect. When you have passed the fourth and fifth feelings you will fuck and you will feel each other like mirrored beings, depraved and smelling like salt. You will fuck and you will fuck again and each time you fuck you will push a part of yourself away while you are more naked, more silent, more honest than you have ever been. You will suck on his cock and you will swallow his cum like it belongs inside you. You will tell him to fuck you in the ass. You will push his head between your legs and close your eyes and you will swim in your own sea, the life-preserver long pushed aside, drifting away from you towards the shore.
And then a few days or weeks after he goes home you will wake up on the other side. The penultimate feeling is love. That part of you that you pushed away will consume you and you will be like a house without furniture, fresh paint on the walls, and empty. The penultimate feeling should be righteous anger. But you gave in a long time ago. This is the longest feeling. It lasts through hot showers where you sit and watch your skin turn red from the burn. It hangs in your fingertips as you make the bed. You hide him on Facebook. You tell him you can’t talk. You sit in a coffee shop all day and you write to exorcise the feeling.
I take off my watch.
It is not the first time I have been a mistress. The first time the man was much older and I liked the idea of fucking in a hotel room and the idea of fucking him. The reality was just as amusing. When there was an attempt to bring him to my life, my neighborhood, my home, he became just another man, somewhat lost and cowardly. I want them and then hate them. I resent their weakness, the way they claw after my thighs like jackals. The skin is young but mottled. The ass is round. The pubic hair is trimmed but unshaven. The stomach is curved. All of it is mine. Each is a piece of a marionette I animate with contempt. Watch me dance. Listen to my voice. My words will inspire you. You will go home stronger and invigorated. You will have new dreams and remember that you once believed in the possibilities of yourself. I will remind you that you have control over your life and you are an individual, even though you gave her your days and hours and misery. I will lie awake missing you and wishing I had given in and loved you when I could.
There are the irrational hopes. I woke up remembering the way his sweat smelled in his armpits and how his hand felt over mine while I shifted gears in my truck. The irrational hope is that this is enough to begin something. It is a belief in the ephemeral, like God, the kind of swollen truth that hangs out of reach on the edge of my best ideals. Images of Christmas morning and unborn children. The smell of cut grass and gasoline. Laughter as we greet our dinner guests. Scruffing the neck of our dog’s hair. A whole life can be built in these fantasies. I cry them out when I am driving.
The problem is that he is my age. He is never my age. If he is my age then he remembers how the last ten years felt, even though his were lived with other people in mountains and rivers. He knows what it is like to sit at the table and hear the stories of friends who have married and are going to have children and realize that they cannot follow you where you will go and even when you want, for a split second, to follow them, that you never will. Not that way. Not on those terms. Not with those anxieties. He knows it as immediately as you do because he is sitting there with you. The problem is that we sat there together with his friends and some of them knew I was his mistress and some of them believed I was his love, and none of them were wrong. The problem is I woke up on the other side today. This morning I rolled over in bed and I felt him behind me because he was there before. He was not there this morning. He was not there last night. Or last week.
It was weeks ago. It took me weeks to wake up. He left in a rainstorm that became snow that became rain. My neighbor came over last night and held me while I cried. He is tall and has been to prison. He knows how you keep yourself yourself even when you have to shit in front of another man. He told me to take it one day at a time. He told me about when he found out his son was not his son. You wake up to new realities sometimes. You go to sleep a different person. I begged him to fuck me so I could feel something else. I was so tired. It was slow and long and desperate. He said I looked sad.
The man from the west walked with me down Park Avenue in the dark and he told me that unrequited love was just an obsession with ego. It made me paranoid. This couldn’t end like that. I can’t walk beside you and listen to that shit. Are you telling me what to expect? Are you diagnosing me before we have a chance? I am learning how to shrink into my own vulnerability. To lay wide and naked on the bed. Touch me here, from far away, slip your finger into me so that I can feel you rocking me again. Speak, memory.
When I was a girl I played paper dolls with my sister and we would hold the dolls still and dress them, carefully folding the tabs of the outfits over their shoulders. A paper doll changes jobs by changing clothes. Here is a stethoscope and now you’re a doctor. Try on the helmet and fight a fire. She gets dinner ready the same way. Put on an apron and the turkey is done. Wear the white dress and you’re already a bride. I was married before to a good man. I left him just in time to limit failure to a few years and not a decade. My mother kept a framed picture of me in my wedding dress in her sock drawer for three years after the divorce. When she ran errands I would sneak up to her room and stare through it. Pictures are artifacts of a moment, not the self. That woman in the dress was playing pretend. That’s what I say now, even though I know it isn’t true. Even though I know pretending is just another word for yes.
The fourth feeling is desire. It swells up from the ground and makes food bland. You forget your home. Only art matters. And death. And hurt. The fifth feeling is hunger. Your eyes bead and your jaws clench. You dream of gnashing raw meat beneath the moonlight, the blood dripping down your breasts. You howl and expect an answer. It comes like an echo, deep and hollow across the distance. Distance is the enemy. Not even the rain—
I have small hands. He noticed. His knuckles were spread and knobby and I could only hold a few fingers at a time as we walked through the MET. First we saw Balthus and his little girls and their hairy pussies. Then we saw Islamic tableware. Then Chinese triptychs of ruined landscapes. We walked through the textile exhibit and he told me his mother would love that one. He stared at the marching elephants on red silk and my breast knocked against his arm as I came up behind him and kissed his shoulder.
For dinner on the second day after the snow and rain I ate the leftover pepper steak and pork rice he ordered on the last night. We ate in the dining room and drank an $80 bottle of wine. It was a gift from a college friend. He said it was the best wine he had ever tasted. I had Kung Pao chicken and neither one of us touched our egg rolls. When I first moved to the city my husband and I lived on $40 for food per week. We ate beans, rice, cabbage, tortillas, boxed mac and cheese, canned peas, frozen broccoli, queso de papa, milk, coffee, cereal, sour cream, tomato paste tomato sauce, pasta, ramen, eggs, hotdogs, bacon, potatoes, Sriracha and Mountain Dew. Sometimes I splurged and bought SpaghettiOs and Pop-Tarts. A few times I bought a package of nice organic sausage rather than the cheap hotdogs we were used to. On special occasions we ordered Chinese food and tipped the delivery guy $5 for coming to the door of our fifth floor walkup.
That story has all the makings of a quaint just-starting-out, but that’s not where it goes. I left after the third chapter. One night at Hudson Bar and Book a handsome old surgeon was flirting with me while I puffed on my cigar and sipped my gin. He asked me why I left. I said that I had things to do.
Missing someone is not a feeling that gets easier. The hole never fills. The hole just becomes normal. The loss becomes a part of you, like the scar on your left ankle and the pencil lead in your right calf.
Being a mistress is not an act of selfishness. I imagine that there must be wives and other moralists who think so. If anything, it is an act of overextension, some belief that caring might be enough to assuage another person’s pain, and wonder that the pain you see was not seen before. An annihilation of self. No comfort in your own bed. All diminishing. And if you know that he goes home to a comfortless bed too—nothing is fixed. Nothing is bettered. All is worse.
My father had an affair. First he had an affair with me, but not the kind you imagine. I was the person he told about my mother’s mania, and how he did not think she understood him. We would take long drives in the comfort of quiet speech. He would start to fall asleep behind the wheel and I would hit his leg. We found out later he had sleep apnea. I have a different kind of sleep disorder these days. I wake at two and I stare and am alive and terrified until five. It takes three hours to get a handle on the hurtling mine car. I have no light to show the way. I squint, anyway.
When my husband and I first moved to New York we lived in Washington Heights. One day I was walking to the subway and a Dominican man came up to me and asked for my number. He said I had pretty feet. I told him I was married and he said, Where’s your husband? I remember being mad at that. I said, What, I can’t walk alone? He backed off. Only now when I walk in the city sometimes, I wonder the same thing. Where’s your husband? What, I can’t walk alone?
When I was a girl and played basketball my dad would be the only dad in a suit when practice was over and the dads came to pick us up. The other men would nod at him with respect, not because he was wearing the suit but because he was the preacher. One of the other dads worked on an automobile assembly line. He always came to pick up his daughter in a coverall like the ones my mother’s grandfather used to wear around his house. He had an eye patch and carried a knife. After he died, I heard my mother’s cousin say she’d never forget the time that Nanny served her oatmeal for breakfast and said, Well, your grandfather’s given me crabs again.
I’ve never had crabs, but I do have an STD. When I was a senior in high school my older boyfriend had a cold sore healing on his mouth, and he went down on me and gave me herpes. At the time, I didn’t even know it could spread like that. Like most things, I learned through experience. Then I thought I had another one. I thought I had HPV because I had an abnormal pap and they did a biopsy of my cervix to see if it was cancerous. They took a chunk out of my cervix and told me I would feel a distinct pinch. A year later they told me my pap was normal again and the HPV test was negative, and I thought about what normal means. Normal means no extra growth.
Now that I am in my thirties I wake up some mornings and think to myself that this is my adult life. I tell myself that. I tell myself that not because anything about my life is unreal, but because nothing about my life is like my childhood fantasies. I think this makes me old. Or maybe it makes me young, because I still remember those imaginary dinner parties and new carpet smell and here is the new countertop we bought for the powder room. I imagine that someday I will either forget or not care about those first dreams.
In the shower the man from the west crossed his arms in front of his belly like he was trying to hide. I wanted to touch him and tell him that those hairs and that skin are my favorite part, but I didn’t, because I couldn’t tell him much at all. It was too new to have him with me and too late to tell him why. When we were naked I registered what I could—his arm under my neck while I lay on my side, his body under my swung leg as we read, his cock as it entered me, slipping—but even in those I was like a tourist taking snapshots. And now they are all water damaged and color-run from the rain and snow.
But it wasn’t me that left. He was the one that came, divorced from his life for a week, and visited my life, a life that I paused and kept waiting so that I could try him on. And then he went home, which is the same as leaving, when his house is a place I’ve never been. I have heard of traveling marriages in other cultures where a man can come to a place and take a wife while he is on the road or in a town as he is passing through and neither the man nor woman’s reputations are the worse for it. But what happens to their hearts?
There is a moment in My Dinner with Andre where Andre Gregory talks about affairs as a way to keep your feet on the ground because the boundaries are known and the questions are small. Will she nibble my ear? And it is the long relationships with their open ends that are like leaping into the unknown. I have always treated even my long relationships as prolonged affairs. Maybe because I moved so much growing up. Maybe because it has taken me until this year to recognize, almost, who I am. I am usually suspicious of all their affections, thinking to myself that they couldn’t really love me because they hardly know me. And that is no one’s fault but my own. Here, look at the evidence of me: I have stories about being a tomboy as a little girl and I have pictures of me laughing, but is that the same as being? Is that who I am?
His breath smelled like loam. His sweat smelled like working in the yard in July. His hand on my ass in the morning felt like the first hello. I can’t wake and greet the day with the same kind of tenderness without that first greeting. My sister asked me once why I never would get into a long-term relationship or abide a temporary separation from a lover without finding someone else to couple up with, even briefly. I told her I had never met someone who was worth holding out for. It seemed like there was always someone interesting around the corner. But even that isn’t true. My ex-husband was worth it to me. I betrayed him out of anger, not out of boredom. I loved him even when I betrayed him.
Even comfort contains doubt and insecurity. I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and walk the wide rooms and stand far away from the Dutch Paintings and think of the maids and prostitutes and impoverished women who have been immortalized, long dead, their tender eyes dust in the ground. Even my eyes, the ones he said he loves, will dry up and disappear. I will be the skull as hard as rock, unseeing and done.
The last feeling you don’t know until it is over. And it can be over in so many ways. It can be over with an email. A phone call. A serious conversation. A fading away. A coming together. The latter is not always what you wish for. Sometimes you would be horrified if he was yours. And then you meet someone who is your person, even though he is technically someone else’s person, and you don’t believe it is possible he could have ever been anyone else’s person, not really, and so you rationalize it away.
And you hope for a coming together. The way that you hope for an afterlife. The yearning is indecipherable. Both promise the end of the present hell. It is a hell you get used to, like the morning backache that reminds you of old injuries. Last Thanksgiving when I visited my grandfather, he paused a local utility commercial and pointed at the screen, asking me if I remembered Sissy, their beloved dog. I told him I did and he told me the man on the screen was the man that killed her, that he was the man that ran over Sissy in the street. She was blind, he told me. She didn’t know better than to run out there.
Maybe I commit too easily to deprivation. Even a dirt yard becomes comforting if you stare at it for long. My father’s second affair happened when I was away at school and in love with an alcoholic. This is the affair that gave him his second wife. According to him they just embraced before he and my mother split up, but I still consider it an affair. We break bonds and create new ones. The fucking is ancillary.
I don’t have any excuses. I have lived long enough to know what a cliché I am. In my bones I know that we will never belong to each other, but we may choose to offer our allegiance for a while. Maybe that is all that we should hope for anyway. Anything more and you lose yourself. And once lost, how can we love? When I think like this I wonder if I am giving into cynicism or if I am being realistic. I want to be romantic. I want so badly to have faith in faithfulness. But I am not a person who believes easily, even though I love without caution. Love with masochism. Love with anger. Love with hopelessness. A tender touch in the night.
The first night he lay awake beside me, tense, staring at the ceiling. It was the guilt. The unknowing. We had collided. And now we had entropy. My oldest friend is an engineer and rocket scientist and he says entropy is all life is anyway. Entropy and time passing. I do not understand how we survive the accumulating. Without time each everything would stay the same. It is essential that I am on the other side now and it is essential that he has gone. But will he return? Do I know the answer to that already? Does the answer matter? It does and it doesn’t. It matters if I want it to. It matters if I require it to.
Some hours I wonder if it is enough to know there is a person in the world who will tell me it is Willa Cather’s birthday and who will send me poems by Denise Levertov and quote Kanye lyrics on his Facebook and we will be carrying the conversation on and on, in plain sight but away from view. I am not a person prone to constant attention seeking or hours filled with couple activities but I do savor thoughts made in absentia and I fall in love a little more every time I stare at the sky and think of our smallness.
I received this from an unknown number (a text message): “This is XXXXX’s girlfriend. I found out. I am devastated. I’m writing to ask you to step away until we figure things out. We have been together for four years, we have a lease, a dog, and a lot of mixed up feelings. We need some time, I’m asking you to respect that. Thank you.” She is so reasonable. She is so authoritative. She is so unlike he ever said or knew. I love her, more than him, in that moment, and I want to tell her she is worth so much. She has insight and fortitude and reserves of strength she is only now learning how to use. I imagine her in twenty years and how those wrinkles will be so beautiful. She will have lived. She will have memories of betrayal, as I do. She will be a woman.
Somewhere I had hoped he would break up with her without her ever knowing. Because I feel like I have nothing to do with her. That her and his relationship is separate, and must be dealt with separately, but the triangle is inevitable. The last link has been made. She probably knew weeks ago. I would have, with the time he was spending on his computer. With the nervousness of his return home. I feel stunned rather than guilty. I want to hug him. I want to run away and forget that I have a scratch on my back that he made. We choose to belong to people and we choose to respect that belonging, and I have not been chosen and the one I chose is gone.
I agree with her. I tell her absolutely.
When I was in Oregon during the summer of love, with D, who lives in Asheville now, we could not turn off my car because the starter would not restart and so we drove and drove all day, stopping and idling and taking pictures in the high open desert, and in the evening, when the sun was slanting across the tall, dry grass, we saw wolves running. Three of them. We slowed on the road and did not take pictures because it is important to hold some things in your eyes and hide them under your skin. The month before I moved to New York The Oregonian ran a story about how wolves had been discovered again in the eastern half of the state and I remembered the three and knew they were the first, and would never belong to anyone. I called D and he told me my Tarot and we talked about Elizabeth Bishop and Brazil and what a decade can contain.
My father used to say to dinner guests that the greatest disappointment of his marriage was that my mother would not drink coffee with him in the morning. He was lying. But it is easier to complain about a small difference than a real one. My ex-husband learned to drink coffee after we divorced. He drank chai tea lattes when I knew him, but he was never the kind of man to turn down a whiskey. We rarely held hands, and that was a mistake.
I remember sitting on our couch and looking out the front window of the house that he rented for us and thinking that this is not my beautiful house and this is not my beautiful yard and I do not know how to live here. Not anymore. I called my mother and I cried on the phone and I stayed at D’s house in Asheville the first night of my drive back to NYC. We smoked cigarettes on his back porch and swatted mosquitoes. I listened to his story about the last man he had loved and then we went inside and read the marginalia in an old book he had stolen from the library. The woman who wrote in it was dead, but she had traveled by boat down the east coast a century ago and she had been sad. That New Year’s Eve I went out with friends and got drunk and pissed in the snow between two cars before we all went down to a bar under the Williamsburg bridge and got in a fight with a bunch of coked-up 18-year-olds who had been pouring vodka and Kool-Aid in the bathroom. I broke my finger and lost a diamond out of my wedding ring and two of the guys we were with got busted up and bloody. At three AM we went home and drank whiskey and eggnog and patted their wounds with rubbing alcohol before I went upstairs and fucked one of them in an absentee housemate’s bed. The next day he and I went to McDonald’s and spoke about our families and how they didn’t have as much money as the parents of many of our friends in New York. Three weeks later I asked for a divorce, officially, and learned how to live with that. I didn’t know how it felt until years later. The door was shut too suddenly. When I opened it again, I cried every night for a month.
Sometimes I look at the other faces on the subway platform and wonder what they did on New Year’s and whether they have been married or divorced and what they carry with them behind the mute anticipation of the next stop. If I carried all my stories with me everyday I would never leave my apartment. Once when a tall artist with bad credit broke up with me I went home and stayed in my room all day, curtains closed, and watched Law & Order: SVU and ate miniature marshmallows and let my dog burrow under the covers to keep me warm. Sometimes I wonder how anyone decides to live.
The weekend after 9/11 I went to an underage gay club and drank lemon sodas and danced with my friends until two in the morning. No one else was there, but everything was neon and black and when we left we wondered when people would allow themselves to go out and dance again, and we wondered if we were freaks, but someone said, It’s your birthday; you can’t help it that terrorists ruined everything. We felt shallow but right. There is still no making sense of it all. We live or don’t live.
The first day when I picked up the man from the west he gave me a bear hug and then sat next to me in my truck. I took him to get a haircut and I sat behind him wondering if I would ever watch him get a haircut again. He looked at me in the mirror but I knew he was blind because his glasses were sitting on the barber’s counter in front of him. The day before I had submitted a short story about my baba yaga aunt to a writing contest that another friend had won the year before and as I sat there I thought about what it meant to be a witch. He was here, now, manifest. Could I conjure, too, a yard? Or a view? My magic is made from bits of discarded emails and stolen hours and yarn crocheted into scarves whose recipients are unaware. Cider on the stove on cold days and a broken children’s bike stolen from the trash. Suffragette signs framed on the wall and arms that have steadied a bleeding friend. Look, I want to scream, look my life was full and tasted like grass and leftover pie crusts before you arrived, but now that you are here I want to give you a taste too. I want to show you what the plains can contain when you look past the horizon and how the city can be so tall when you are walking at night between the buildings. Look, Wall Street is a fortress and Central Park is a playground. We are mice in the woodpile. We can write our own fairy tales.
When D and I did mushrooms together the last weekend of my senior year I remembered that I knew magic and we sat in a garden and he said that I was Eve and he was the snake and I looked at him and said, Then why are you acting like a snake? Snakes don’t have to act like snakes. We snuck into the library as we were coming down and smoked pot in the stacks before holding hands and riding the bus home. Later we both kissed the same boy and then ended up kissing each other in a dance club behind the stage. We are still always kissing each other even though we are always apart.
The happiest years I can remember are 1986, 1998, and 2007. In 1986 I was in preschool and had dinosaur lace-up Converse sneakers and I thought I was going to learn everything. Two boys at recess asked me to marry them whenever I sat in the sandbox and I always told them I would marry them tomorrow, because I thought it would be rude to tell them no outright. My best friend was my best friend because her last name was alphabetical to mine and so we sat together on the carpet. I painted blue on a piece of paper and called it sky and I painted yellow and called it the sun. Between that moment and the time I was buying barbecue potato chips before class in 1998, I was an interloper in my own life, watching what might happen and what might be done about it. I wasn’t supposed to buy chips at school or in between classes, but I was hungry, and I had the extra change, and so I bought them. And after I bought them once and let them melt on my tongue in the middle of geography class, I bought them again, and I learned that even rebellion can become habit.
2007 should be more vivid because it is more recent, but the happiness I remember from that year has a clouded, ethereal quality, as though happiness could be made from a humidifier brought into a dry room. I was in love and it was the year before I got married. I ate nachos every day and rode my bike home in the evening and there was no entering or exiting the rain or the delight we had in each other. Now we are years from then and I have learned, finally, that happiness is not something that can be caught or striven for. I wake up and take a deep breath and get in the shower and make my bed and I stand naked in the mirror and regard myself before I am dressed the same as after I am undressed in the evening. It is a way to imprint that I am alive and animate and these thoughts I have are contained in a body whose clothes I can change but whose boundaries are fixed. What is wrong with unhappiness? I feel like everyone talks about unhappiness as though they are failing. But we can’t live on top of the mountain; we’d get lost in the clouds.
My left ankle has a scar shaped like a circle because I refused to take a bath once when I was 9 or 10 and so I put on a dance leotard and went outside in the driveway and pirouetted until I was dizzy. I fell. My ankle snapped backwards and the skin popped and the blood ran out. My mother refused to take me for stitches because it wasn’t that bad she said and it healed inward, slowly, the way that mold grows on top of juice forgotten in a windowsill. Sometimes I rub my callused right heel over the scar under my covers as I wait for sleep and I think of skin, touch, and how we are made real.
I remember the taste of his cum, watery and mild like he was made for me to drink till drunk and satisfied, naked in the curve of our bed. At its essential, that is the fantasy. There might be an our bed. Rather than my bed. Rather than his bed. There might be an our. An our room. An our plan. A pile of our pillows. Fitted, naked, closely along each other. A Sharon Olds poem beside the bed, the one you quoted in your gchat status when we weren’t speaking that first week: “we are taking on earth, we are part soil already.” And it is now that I wonder are you having the conversation? Did she call you or did she decide to wait until you got home tonight?
There will be ruin. It is all the same until it isn’t. She has more information. I know how safe you felt in hiding, even with your panic. Guilt is easier to carry than change. Walking through the jungle is easier if you use a machete. I never wanted to be your knife. Let me be Kurtz, lost in my madness, let me be a disaster, let me be the screaming woman in your attic, let me be too far gone to save. I do not know if I am made for parlors and day time guests but you already know I speak the language of the moon. There are no stars I have not touched. I sprung from Zeus’ mind and made the fire in the hearth. I hide in the cave and grab your ankle when you fall asleep. I am Ganesha’s consort and Helen’s sister.
We ate at Cacio y Pepe and then sat by the fire in the back room of Art Bar, telling stories. Other couples kissed on couches in the corner and we sat knee to knee and watched each other’s mouths open and close with the beginning and ending of consonants. After two drinks we switched seats and it was hard for me to understand the waitress above the din of the music and your eyes. You whispered my name and I knew that you loved me then, the way you held it in your mouth.
I am not good at living with probabilities and abstractions. When I put my feet on the ground, I want to know what I am walking on and where I am headed. Living has been a continual unraveling of that surety. Every day is another step away from the wood floor. In the books I read, men have thrown themselves into adventure or enterprise, completing a series of tasks executed in solitude or camaraderie. Bridges are built. Enemies are killed. The soil is crumbled between dry fingers. Women weep in doorways. Nothing in me trusts a man enough to stand by and weep while he builds a bridge for me.
I don’t even have a doorway. I have forgotten how to build a home. What is a woman without children? What is a woman without men? Without a meaningful job? Without a consuming passion? The boundary is not drawn from without. These are the wrong questions. What is a woman? This rib is not made of mud or man. I contain multitudes and queens and cocks in dresses and breasts bare in the sunlight. There are oceans and there are cities beneath them where no one has looked. The language of rocks and roots and the rage of the extinct, this is my language. I dance to drums in the dark and sing a funeral song for the living. Don’t believe that I am simple or you will bleed before the 28th day.
The last feeling is embarrassment. Horror. How could you have been so naïve? There were never real intentions. He is so young he still thinks that love is a feeling. The problem with men who love literature more than themselves is that they believe violence is beautiful and they don’t understand that pain is just pain. After all the admonitions, how dare he? How dare he use my strength against me? He wants to be wanted, that is all. It is the first and the last selfishness. A fool’s version of depth and certitude.
You realize the conversation is moot. She can talk to him and he can talk to her and they can talk all day. They can talk about you but the conversation is still about them, just like when he talked with you the conversation was still about her. These are not hymns for the beloved. Every time he says he loves you he is digging your grave. I am not ready for coffins and whiskey in the morning. I have too much left to do. He has forgotten you had your own plans; no, he never noticed to begin with. He thought you never made room for him. He tells himself that to assuage his guilt. He tries to save face with her because he cannot look in the mirror. He thinks that being a rake is a matter of intention. He can quote the Sonnets but he has no wisdom.
Email: She contacted me. She knows. I think you know she knows. I can’t be around for this. I don’t think it is about me anyway. He responds immediately: I know. You and I were important, though. I never wanted my decision about her to be about you. It is something I have to figure out. I don’t know. Can I write you in the New Year? You respond: You can always write me.
And you think: It doesn’t mean I’ll have anything to say.
Not to him.
What follows is muscle and determination. A sucking in. I think of Anna Kavan and the alternative: a hot place full of disillusionment and imprisonment. At least disillusionment on its own can be endured.
I was mad at my husband because he moved with me to New York and left himself behind. I was mad because he didn’t keep up with me. I was mad because I didn’t know what I wanted and I knew I was going to hurt him. Even spring flowers die in the cold. When I am feeling like forgiving myself, I blame us on youth. When I am feeling like I am unforgivable, I blame us on me. He went to therapy. I think he doesn’t bother with it anymore. We talk and it is like catching up with an old friend. There are things we don’t talk about and it is better that way.
When I lived in Queens after I left him I would go on the roof of my building and watch my neighbors in their lit apartments in the evening. A young couple across the street would fight and then the young man would take his guitar and climb from the fire escape to the roof of their building. He would play without singing and after a while she would crane her head out of the window and call to him. He would remain. Then she would climb up and join him and she would sing while he played. After a little while they would go back inside and I would still be on the roof, watching the moon and wondering if this was it for me, and if it was, could I be okay with that.
My grandmother went to the same college that Flannery O’Connor attended, and when she was a student, Flannery came back—ravaged by lupus—and read some of her stories. The students gathered afterward and my grandmother’s English professor said to the class, I just can’t believe a nice girl like Flannery would ever write stories like that. When she told me this story, my grandmother repeated these words with approval and then asked me what my writing was about. I said it was about being an adult. She asked me, how adult?
The man from the west pulled me to him in my room and I asked if he was going to kiss me. He did and his lips were soft and he kissed the way that I kissed, like we were introducing ourselves and wondering who we were. We moved to the bed and he pulled me onto him and I asked him if he was sure he wanted to and he said yes and so I kissed him there. And at every stage I asked him are you sure yes darling girl and first he put his arms on my ass yes and drew me down to him so I could feel my breasts against him all aftershave yes and my heart was going like mad and yes he said yes I want Yes.
If there is something true about surrender there must also be something true about withholding. It would be so easy to just click his name and gchat with him and talk about wanting each other and did you see X movie and what did you think? And we would pretend, like we did, that there was no one else and I would go home and go to sleep knowing he pretended the same thing with her. I have forgotten how to enjoy playing dress-up. My heart hurts too much.
My dog has an arrhythmia and if he gets too excited, sometimes he’ll go limp and fall over like he is dead. The medical term is syncope and total collapse. If you pick him up his head will flop over like his neck is broken and his whole body will conform to you until his heart resets and his limbs stiffen and then he’ll raise up his head and lick you. An irregular heartbeat isn’t fatal until it can’t reset anymore. He has to do it himself. All I can do is hold him while he wills himself to live.
I cheated on my husband before I left him. I cheated on him with a man who is the kind of man who is always ready when a woman is ready to cheat. We were going to eat mushrooms but the mushrooms were old and dried up and so we just took a blanket to Inwood Park and found a spot off the trail. The sun came through the trees and I took my clothes off and we did it because we both wanted to, because when you are there, for a second you think you shouldn’t, but mostly you think: this is my life and I need some comfort in it.
Once I went to the beach with my husband and his friends and they played bocce on the beach and I wandered off and took pictures of them with the tide coming in and the gray storm clouds making all the greens and blues darker in the light. At night everyone played video games and I kept looking for something interesting to read but whoever owned the house only read romance novels so I took out a garish one and looked for the dirty parts. When I found something good I read it aloud and my husband laughed, but I think the other couples thought I was perverted. She felt him press against her as they danced—
The man from the west said something to me a friend said to him once; he said, you make the lonely feel less lonely. Everything he said that was supposed to be kind made me hate him because he couldn’t give me kindness, just words. My sister says that I have been too democratic in my tastes, as though people have dating styles the way governments have power. Democracy is a messy system to begin with; at least that’s what I remember from Alexis De Tocqueville. He saw what America would become and still he loved it. I have the same problem with men, except my optimism is evidence of my foolishness. Loving a country is nobler than loving bone and blood and hair.
I met my husband on a plane. On the flight we told ghost stories and talked about giant squid. When I first saw him stand up, he was shorter than I thought. We exchanged email addresses and in baggage claim he asked if he could give me a hug. On a Wednesday, I dropped the man from the west at curbside check-in and did not wait to see him fly away. I know I will never see him again. When my father flies, he still sends me his itineraries like if I know his path, it will be the same as traveling with him. I have always hated flying. I need fresh soil and rocky ground. I need scraped knees and blackened fingernails. Give me the cradle of a forest; I will make a home. I stand in front of the mirror in my room as I undress and regard my skin, my breasts, my thighs—soft and comforting—and I am alone, missing nothing.
Laura Jean Moore is the 2014 winner of the Cobalt Review’s Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry, essays, and stories have been featured in [PANK], the Brooklyn Rail, and Corium Magazine. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. She is suspicious of most things.