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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Other Side
From the windows in the apartment I share with My Boyfriend I can see a brick wall, so close I could almost reach out and touch it. Between our windows and the brick wall, there is a shaft of light, a small alleyway that leads out to the street. There is only one window in our apartment that looks out toward that light, in a little alcove where we’ve put an armchair, a lamp, and an ashtray. On the days when I do not take classes or teach, this is where I work, my annotated copy of a postmodern Irish novel, or a stack of student papers, or poems from workshop spread out on my lap. My Boyfriend walks to work in the morning, and at noon he comes home for lunch, though we only lie down in bed together and nap. At night, I write poems while he paints, or replants his aquarium, or designs at his desk. If he reads one of my poems, he says things like, The image at the end reminds me of what Blavatsky says about the finite’s relationship to the infinite. And then he goes to pull a book off the shelf and shows me an illustration and then we are having a conversation about that.
At night, I stay up long after he has fallen asleep beside me in the bed, his arm draped over my waist, listening to the voices coming through our window from the alleyway, the men and women, all drunk, stumbling out of the bar downstairs. Now a woman yells, You’re an asshole, a fucking asshole! Her voice growing hoarse with the force of every syllable. I remember that hoarseness, how it scratches from my throat into my chest, into my fingers and toes. I remember how The Man I Used to Live With stands above me, his red face contorted, the veins full to bursting in his forehead. He’s squeezing my face in his hand. Now the woman cries softly in the alleyway. The man calls her baby. Baby, he says. C’mon, baby. From this bed, where I am almost sleeping, it makes a kind of sense: this is why I could not love him the way he wanted to be loved.
My sisters and I spend the holiday together, like usual: all of us on Christmas Eve at Mom’s house, all of us on Christmas Day at Dad’s. Mom’s house—the house she shared with my father, the house she got in the divorce—feels dark and empty this year, even with all of us here: all of the doorways closed or covered with blankets, the heat vents in my old bedroom closed, the floral-print couch pulled into the dining room off the kitchen. My sisters and I exchange questioning looks. It doesn’t usually look this way, I whisper to My Boyfriend as we sit down. I’m happy, Mom tells us over dinner—a pot each of chowder and chili—happier than I’ve ever been. She’s sewing more than ever. She’s taken a part-time job. She’s dating someone from church. My Boyfriend asks to see something she’s working on and she shoots him down with a look. Don’t expect me to get attached to you, she tells him, as my sisters and I file off to bed. I’ve learned nothing is permanent.
Dad greets us at the door in a new sweater: pine-tree green. Fern-shoot green. A smile stretching from ear to ear. His New Wife emerges from the kitchen to hug us all, even My Boyfriend, though this is the first time they’ve met. In the Victorian house they’ve bought together, glass beads hang on strings from every window, casting prisms around the rooms. Dad insists we sit on the new gray corduroy couch: me, each of my two sisters, My Boyfriend. His New Wife pours glasses of wine. My grandmother arrives and we all sit down to dinner: spaghetti and meatballs, a loaf of crusty French bread, a salad of spring greens. This is not what I would consider holiday food, my grandmother says, in her way. She turns to My Boyfriend. Now tell me: What kind of man are you?
Four years after the kidnapping I learn I’ve been accepted into a prestigious writing program in Texas for a PhD. My Boyfriend and I trade in both of our crappy cars for one that can pull all of our belongings in a U-Haul trailer. My Boyfriend finds work quickly in our new city. He drives the new car to work each day while I catch a ride to campus. In the evenings, my classmates invite us out to dinner, where we talk about semiotics or the ubiquity of ampersands in workshop lately, or the landscape as form in avant-garde poetics. At these dinners, My Boyfriend talks to the spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends of my classmates about more interesting things. They plan to make a band together called The Significant Others. None of us know how to play instruments. YET! As a present for his birthday, I arrange a behind-the-scenes tour at the downtown aquarium, where a short executive with shaved hands leads us through the rooms and rooms of filtration systems and lets us peer into the tops of giant glass tanks. In the pump room for a 150,000-gallon aquarium in the restaurant, the short executive with shaved hands introduces us to a scuba diver, who is preparing to jump in. It happens sometimes, the short executive says. Let’s say a couple is dining at the restaurant. He wants to propose. For a nominal fee, the scuba diver will jump in and hold up a sign: WILL YOU MARRY ME? The scuba diver nods, shows us the sign. The executive asks if we want to go down to the restaurant and see. I think, Is it us? Is he proposing to me? My Boyfriend holds open the door of the pump room, follows me down the stairs. The short executive with shaved hands leads us down into the dining room, where a man is already kneeling in front of a table. The woman is crying, nodding. People in the restaurant are clapping. My Boyfriend claps; he’s watching the man stand up. He looks at me. He takes my hand.
He asks for nothing in return.
Five years after the kidnapping, a friend from my writing program throws me a birthday party at her house. I buy a dress to celebrate all the things that are suddenly going so well. There is music and food and it seems like hundreds of people. All of my new friends are there, and My Boyfriend’s friends from work. At midnight, my friend brings a cake out with twenty-seven lit candles and everyone sings, just to me. It makes me so happy I could nearly explode. They ask me to toast. I say something a little silly, a little drunk, about how I am feeling so very grateful.
As everyone raises their glasses, My Boyfriend interrupts, insisting he also has something to say. He says, I love you. I want to spend my life with you, and pulls a velvet box from his pocket. I am completely surprised, completely not expecting it, struck completely mute. I am crying, covering my mouth with my hand. I take him in my arms and say Yes yes yes.
In the photos of our wedding, we both look radiant and happy. We gather at the park with our family and the friends we have made in this city. My parents stand beside me, Dad with His New Wife, Mom with the man she has married only weeks ago. Beside My Husband stand his father and sister and godparents and aunts. The vows we exchange are simple.
I promise to treat you as my equal in all things.
Lacy M. Johnson is the author of Trespasses: A Memoir. The Other Side is forthcoming from Tin House Books in July 2014. She is currently Director of Academic Initiatives at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston, where she teaches interdisciplinary art. She lives in Houston, TX.