The first time I went to your apartment, I wanted you to show me each room and demonstrate something you did in those rooms. “I like to imagine what you’re doing all day when you’re here,” I said. “I like to think of you all the time,” I said.
In the kitchen, I watched you make coffee. In the bathroom, you sat on the toilet seat for me. In the living room, you did some jumping jacks. You sat at the dining room table and ate a carrot while I watched you. In the bedroom, you slowly changed your clothes without taking your eyes off me.
We are both divorced, with one kid apiece. My son, Vince, was ten when we met. Your daughter, Maxine, was nine. We both have old school loans to pay. We couldn’t remember exactly what we went to school for. We said things like, “Life gets in the way,” and we laughed like it was a punch line.
We went to see a friend play music and there was only one chair left. I sat in it and you sat on my lap. We drank strong beer and felt the alcohol numb our blood. My legs fell asleep, and then I imagined that you were attached to me. There were eight legs—four wooden ones and four human ones, but two of the human ones were dead and useless. They just dragged on the ground. I imagined us wandering the aisles of a grocery store like that.
As I listened to the music—a grand and sweet and beautiful lilt—I read the label on the beer bottle and saw the brewing company was founded in 1896. Then it felt like I was a mummy and you were a mummy. We were one drunken mummy, in love with our own wrapping.
“I’ve never hated saying good night more than I do with you,” I texted you the next night.
“You feel that way, too?” you replied.
“Yes. It’s too much like good bye and I never want to say good bye to you,” I texted back.
A minute later, you texted, “I know. It's depressing the way dinner is depressing.”
I laughed about that but didn’t know if you were joking or not. I wondered if you would be depressed every time we ate dinner. It didn’t seem like a good state of mind to deal with every night for the rest of our lives.
“Let’s just say, happy Easter or merry Christmas or happy Halloween instead of saying good night or good bye,” I texted.
“I like Halloween the best,” you replied.
“Okay,” I responded. “Happy Halloween.”
Twenty minutes later you texted, “Happy Rosh Hashanah.”
One night, you said you just wanted us to be friends. I was trying to be understanding but felt like I was on the defensive. This was over the phone, with the added frustration of not being able to see you or touch you.
“That’s okay,” I said. “But I will still want to tell you that I love you.”
“No,” you said. “Don’t even do that.”
“I just think it’s dumb when people don’t say what’s in their heart,” I said. “I know things will get better for us, even if we have to wait for months or years to work it out. To be together.”
You didn’t say anything. Your silence almost had an angry hum to it.
Finally, I said, softly, “I just don’t believe in saying never.”
You answered back, “But I want to say never.”
“What?” I said, not sure of what I’d heard.
“I want to say never,” you said again.
I wish I could make you magically appear before me whenever I want you. Do I just want to know where you are at all times? I ask myself twenty questions that are all answered by yes. Do I love you? Do I enjoy being with you? Do you make me anxious and frustrated? Do I want to die with you?
Here is a puzzle: If you were to move halfway around the world, to China or Pakistan, wouldn’t we also be living half a day apart, so many miles and so much time separating us? If it were three in the morning there and three in the afternoon here, I would probably assume you were asleep. My mind could rest easy and not race with concerns about you doing something to hurt me. But if it were the other way around, I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep because I’d be wondering what you were doing there, who you were seeing, and what you were wearing. I wonder what the difference between love and control is, but I’m afraid to look those words up in a dictionary.
Do you wonder about these things too?
Do you want a machine that’ll make me appear before you whenever you want?
Do I make you anxious and frustrated? When you’re with me, do you want to take fewer pills, or more pills?
Do you want me to go to bed at a certain time, wearing a full set of pajamas?
Do you want to monitor me with an electronic ankle bracelet?
Do you want to smell me when I get home, the same way I want to smell you when I come home from work?
Do you think of me when you’re shelving books at the library?
Do I make you laugh? In a good way, I mean.
Do you love me?
Did you answer yes to all of these?
I remember once you told me that it was hard to say no to me. We always seem to float toward the yes in any situation, without thinking too much about it. But should we be more careful? More under control?
What should we do with our urges?
You picked me up for lunch one day and I could see you’d been crying. Your divorce had finally gone through. The bill was in an envelope between us. An open bottle of anxiety pills sat in one of the cup holders. You told me to look at the bill. “Tell me the damage,” you said.
The envelope was nice, a slightly textured paper that reminded me of bleached teeth, and the law office name looked regal in the left corner. I pulled out the bill and saw that it was for $2,900. Moneywise, this wasn’t good timing. We both had a lot of debt at this point, as well as a new dentist bill, a speeding ticket, and overdue credit cards. You’d even checked out a book at the library about how women’s emotional distress leads to money problems. You said you couldn’t read for pleasure anymore.
“Tell me it’ll be okay,” you said.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“But it’s not okay right now,” you said. “I’m fine with that. I’m dealing. I just want to know that things will be okay. In the future. Like, some day when the library gives me a decent pay raise.”
I held your hand and watched your eyes turn bright and wet again. “It’s funny,” you said. “The more I watch Maxine grow up, the less I think about myself. I can fake my well-being. I can live hungry. I can take on a shitload of problems. I just can’t stand the thought of her having an unhappy childhood.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, although I wasn’t sure if I had the same willingness to sacrifice.
The first time I met your brother, Daniel, I could tell he was checking me out, sizing me up. You had told me that he was hard to predict. When you were just starting college, he had already stolen two of your boyfriends and had even tried to seduce one of your dad’s friends. But he also took you out to dinner and talked to you whenever you were having problems. He loaned you money often. He gossiped about guys with you. He brought you soup and flowers when you were home sick.
“You get to stay at the hotel for free whenever you want?” he asked me. We were at a restaurant that he had chosen. It was too expensive for us, so we just had appetizers and water. He sat on the other side of the table and you held my hand on your lap, where he couldn’t see.
“No,” I told him. “But we do get one free weekend a year if we need it. And discounts.”
He laughed a little, more like a smirk. It took a while, but we found something to talk about over the cheese and bread plate—boxing. He was a big Mike Tyson fan. “I like his voice,” he said. “I like how he beat people in the first round all the time.”
Under the table, I accidentally brushed my foot against his leg. He didn’t flinch at all.
We had the drug conversation one night. I’d only had this talk with a couple of other past girlfriends and my ex-wife. It made me feel the same way the question How many people have you slept with? makes me feel. It’s almost like asking someone how much indescribable pleasure they’ve had in their life. One past girlfriend went on for so long about how much she liked ecstasy that I started to feel like I could never measure up.
One ex told me that she never did drugs, but I eventually found out that she was an alcoholic. Another one didn’t count the antidepressants that she almost overdosed on six months later. My first girlfriend was addicted to Lucky Charms cereal (she would keep a Ziploc bag of it in her purse).
You told me you used to like cocaine but switched to pills when your dealer got busted. You gave me a long list of the pills and I had heard of only a couple of them. You described the different combinations you’d tried, the various effects. But you also said you were trying to become more healthy. You were running, doing yoga, buying crossword puzzle books, and watching more documentaries.
All the documentaries you watch are about drugs.
Moving in with someone is like pruning yourself. Two people turning into a multilimbed, two-headed, two-hearted being. There were things to be considered, like colors (my mismatched dishes were given to Goodwill), bed sheets (yours didn’t quite fit my bed), and food choices (everything with high-fructose corn syrup had to go).
Plus there were the kids, who were excited to live together, despite their lingering confusion. Just months before, they’d had both biological parents going to their teacher conferences, eating dinner with them, and tucking them in at night. I wondered if they sensed any of the cracking, the shifting, or the trepidation that was happening in us—you, me, our exes. We tried to “act normal.” As if breaking vows happened every day. You asked me, “Do you think we’re sending the wrong message by falling in love?” I didn’t know how to answer that.
Maybe my perspective was a little skewed, but it looked like everything in the Goodwill pile was mine.
It felt like more you than me in our new place. We were both moving from our own cozy houses to a slightly cramped apartment. But by the next day, I was okay with that.
Here we were: eight legs, eight arms, four hearts. Neatly packed in a white wooden box. Sometimes I stood outside and stared at the chimney on top, slowly puffing smoke.
As we started to figure out our new living together routine, I often wondered which one of us had a darker, gloomier spirit. You always wore black and listened to bands like Swans and Psychic TV. You had seen all the movies about serial killers and even showed me the YouTube video of the politician who shot himself in the head at a press conference.
I used to watch the Faces of Death movies, and thought G.G. Allin was funny. I had a Joel-Peter Witkin photograph in my bathroom.
But since Vince was born, I had become surprisingly sensitive to some things. I was getting soft. Sentimental TV commercials would make me cry. If a movie was sexually suggestive, I’d turn it off until he wasn’t around. If someone was using bad language at a basketball game, I’d ask the person to stop. I was suddenly a concerned dad. Mr. Clean. A polite papa. I was responsible for a son. And now, in a lot of ways, for Maxine too.
But when we were alone, after the kids were sent to bed, we let our dark spirits out—and they came out with a vengeance. Like they had been repressed all day long, forced to watch the Disney Channel and read The Velveteen Rabbit out loud.
We drank and swore and made sexist and racist jokes about everything on the late news. I’m not even sure if you could say irony was present in these jokes. We’d unload them like it was a competition. If you said something offensive, I had to one-up you. We laughed a good long time and turned the TV back to the kids’ station before turning it off. We went to bed, and in the morning we woke up clean again.
When we first met, you were still married but separated from your husband. It was not the ideal circumstance, but it’s what we found ourselves in. You told me he still loved you but your feelings for him had changed for some unknown reason. His name was Sage and he would send you gifts and leave messages for you. You didn’t want to tell him to stop because you secretly liked it. But deep inside, you knew that you couldn’t love Sage in the same way.
I often wondered if I would be in his position someday.
But I had no right to think that. I was also married when we met and my feelings for my wife had changed too. I never told anyone exactly why, but it came down to one thing: disappointment. I became disappointed in her and I was disappointed in myself. Our relationship was infected with disappointment. It ate away at me.
You and I found each other and tried to run away from our poisons and sadness. You looked for freedom. I looked for escape. Once a leaver, always a leaver. Sometimes I feel like we we’re just keeping an eye on each other.
You have a locket that holds a photo of you with your brother and mom and dad. You’re nine years old and your hair is in a ponytail that juts up behind you, just under your dad’s chin. You have other lockets with old photos in them too—you with your best friend, you with your family dog, you with Santa Claus.
I asked you why you don’t have lockets with current photos in them. “Because these are like treasures,” you said. “Because I admire the innocence in these pictures. Because I like to wear them close to my heart. Because people are always curious what I was like before now.”
I gave you a locket with an old photo of me, when I was about fifteen. “I like this so much,” you said, tracing your finger around the photograph. “I feel like this answers a lot of questions for me. Like I knew you then, even if I didn’t.”