It's my lover. He rarely calls me so I ask if he's ok.
"There’s a problem."
He’s stingy with his words.
"I kind of got together with this woman last night."
I never forget the words men use to end relationships because usually the words are so very trite. But now mine are. All I can say is, "Wow. And for a little variety, "Oh. Wow."
"Think of it as enforced moving on."
"I've never been any good at that," I tell him before I hang up.
I stare at the phone and will myself not to cry.
My hands are shaking. To steady myself, I light a cigarette. When I feel calm enough to speak, I call my cousin Lisa, who lives across the street. "I need a drink. Meet me out front."
If I didn't know her so well, she would be unidentifiable under the winter bulk. Her short hair is completely covered by a fleece cap with a pom-pom on top, scarf wound around her mouth covering the flat brown mole above her upper lip, black leather coat that weighs about the same as a live cow, the usual Levi's and snow boots. I am similarly bundled and bound. We stand there a minute, our breath under scarves steaming our glasses, obscuring our vision.
Eli's is only a few blocks away on Hennepin Avenue, but it's below zero. We drive.
At the bar I tell her what happened.
We sit in silence and I watch her lips purse and relax, as she discards words in her head. What makes it to her mouth is: "Well. You know you're not going to get any sympathy from me. You always said sex was all you really had in common."
"Still, four years is a long time," I say, watching my cigarette smoke shimmer in front of my watering eyes.
"Look at this as an opportunity to find somebody who actually talks to you."
He did, I think, but the only clear communication was when our bodies bonded in the quiet of night.
Instead I say, "Lisa, it's been a half an hour since he broke up with me. It's a little soon to see this as a positive occurrence."
She ignores my comment and asks where he met her.
"You see? He met someone pursing his spirituality. Though why a white guy…" I am waiting for her to launch into a diatribe about Caucasians co-opting other cultures but she fixes me in her sights. "…What are you doing with your life?"
"Jesus Christ. How many times do we have to have this conversation? At the age of thirty-eight, I finally have a career. Now I can pay off my debt and start a retirement fund. Anyway, I applied to grad school."" I stab out my cigarette, deciding it's my last one ever, grab my gin and tonic and take a swig.
"A job isn't everything."
"Talk to me in nine years when you’re my age."
I'm grateful for my job as the Advertising and Marketing Project Coordinator at King Koil because it keeps me working at a frenzied pace. This morning, late as usual, I hurry to my cubicle and search my messy desk for the thick folder that holds the paperwork of my most pressing project; I am working—via telephone—on a two CD advertising set. I make my contribution to the world by helping our factories hawk mattresses. Finding the folder buried under some paper samples, I pick up the phone to call New Jersey.
"AllMedia, Joe speaking."
"Hola Jose. I'm flying out to finish this project up."
"I'll pick you up at the airport."
"I don't know what you look like. E-mail me a picture?"
When I open the Jpeg I see a blurry little square in the upper right hand corner of my computer screen. About all I can tell is that he's blond.
I head down the hall to tell my boss Hector Jesus how close we are to completion, but he's headed for the back door, pulling on the necessary layers to survive Minnesota’s frozen February hell—especially for the two of us native Californians.
He shoves a pink Post-it note into my hand.
"Here," he says. "Alan's e-mail address."
I am following him down the hall, past the 1970's scary clown painting.
"Why would I e-mail your friend in Phoenix?"
But I know why. Hector has decided that since my lover left me last month, I will marry his friend Alan—a nice Jewish boy who lives near my parents in Arizona. He has taken to calling him my fiancé because he worries that I am still husbandless. I have told him that getting married hovers near the bottom of my to-do list, just above staying in Minnesota, pregnancy, menopause, osteoporosis, and dying, but as a practicing Mormon, he can't believe me.
At noon, it is seven below. I’m sitting in my car wearing two pair of socks, snow boots, long underwear, flannel-lined jeans, Hanes briefs—they cover more skin, an undershirt, turtleneck sweater, down jacket—good to thirty below, a hat and gloves. I am a prisoner of my clothing. Living close to relatives is not worth frostbite and immobility. Maybe I should have moved to Phoenix with my family when they left California. But I'm sure the University of Minnesota will not accept me to their creative writing program so I just worry about the bills. Sometimes I ask the credit card companies if they will accept my first born son in lieu of payment. They tell me no. I tell them I have no son anyway.
I curse myself as I work at digging my cell phone out of my pocket with my encased fingers.
I call my ex-lover at least once a week at lunchtime. There are things I have to say. Except I'm not sure what. Or why. So when he comes on the line I babble, "I quit smoking, I'm going to New Jersey for work, Hector got a job offer in Salt Lake City and wants me to go as his assistant."
"Are you going?"
I sigh. "I don’t know. I have so few friends in Minnesota and without you, sex, or Sundays at your house, it’s intolerable." I consider telling him I'm thinking of pitching myself into the Mississippi. It's frozen now; surely I'd break my neck. But the first and only time I made reference to chucking myself in the river, he took me seriously and I had to explain black humor in the proper Jewish context. Instead, I say, "I want to thank you for the last four years…" I feel my voice starting to quaver so I take a deep breath. "…You gave me something nobody else did."
Good God, Is that interest I hear in his voice? I say, "Great sex." We both laugh. But then I’m serious. "A spot of pleasure and passion in my week. It’s funny, the things I most dislike about you are the things I like the most."
"Your stability. I knew what I’d be doing every Sunday. Movie, dinner, sex." I’m going to cry, so I say, "Find me a replacement."
He laughs again.
"At least you can vouch that I’m good in bed."
"Yes I can," he says with a fervor that amazes me.
"Is there anything you want to say?"
Nothing like having a Chemical Dependency Counselor for an ex.
"My function is to listen," he says.
I sit in the car watching my breath fog the windows, surprised at the curiosity in his voice. Over time I have forced some of the details of my life on him: I write stories about him that he won't read; I love humidity at night; I eat cookies at 2:00 in the morning when I can’t sleep—he wouldn't know because we spent the night together only twice.
On one of his rare visits to my apartment I caught him looking around at my books, the pictures on the wall, my clothes strewn across the floor. Something I identified as interest crossed his face. What did I say to prompt his next words?—words I can't forget: "I don’t want to know you." But after four years he does know me. And I know him. It's impossible to hide oneself completely when naked.
Sundays are the hardest, made worse without my friend nicotine. A frenetic energy fills me up and pours out in an urge to rid myself of the possessions that crowd in on me in my small apartment. But it's hard to find what I want to lose in the chaos, so I start to clean and pick up as I search for what can be discarded. All the while, Eddie Small Devil Kitty thinks we are playing a game. He burrows in the bag of cast-off clothes and jumps out at me when I drop a sweater on top of him. He hides in the bathtub and pounces on the hand that clutches the red toothbrush I'm using to scour the grout between the tiles of my bathroom floor. He crouches under the bed, and peers out with round eyes when I lie down on the floor to see how many dust monsters are living in dark spaces.
Hours later, I climb into my $2,000.00 bed—the latex luxury model I got for free from work—exhausted. Eddie lies down on the pillow next to me and falls asleep. But I cannot shut off my thoughts.
He only had to take off his clothes and I was ready. Always the first one naked, I'd lie in bed and watch him peel off the layers. He'd stand there for a moment, long brown hair illuminated, body back-lit in the smoky lamp glow from the living room behind him. Climbing into bed, he'd reach for me. He knew just how to touch me. He pushed into parts of my being that I hadn't known existed, and my body still wants him, longs for the one physical certainty he's always been for me.
Today it is ten above. I call my ex-lover from the parking lot of the "Out to Lunch" deli. I say, "I’m still depressed, I still miss you, I’m never going to find anybody, my biggest fear is that I’ll die cold and alone in Minnesota, well, that and dying in a snow bank."
"You’ll be fine."
"I say it so you’ll laugh, but I’m serious."
"You’ll be fine," he repeats.
I am not fine. In my car I clench my fists. I don't know how to purge him from my system. I feel as though I am a hostage, broken down slowly over years, still connected to my captor, invisible ropes binding me, even now as he has set me free. Who will enforce this moving on? I can hardly slog through the ice encrusted physical world without falling down.
Tonight I am folding my laundry. I used to do my wash at his house but now I'm reduced to the industrial washer and dryers in the dank basement of my apartment building. I look over at the small wicker chest of drawers with the pile of mateless socks on top: one red chenille, one grey Wigwam, one nubby purple, one white silk liner, at least ten others. My socks are at his house I think, along with my missing underwear that used to get tangled in the sheets at the foot of his bed. Because I wouldn't always be waiting naked as he expected me to be. He wanted the immediate contact of skin on skin, but sometimes I would rebel. Over time, he learned if I were still partially clad, it was my silent signal that I needed it slow.
And I think about his mostly wordless instruction. If I didn't understand what he wanted he would cement it with one sentence, "Let's try something new tonight." And I'd let him. And like it.
I pick up a few of the socks I care least about and throw them in the trash. I left a lot at his house that I can't recover.
Eddie stretches out on the still warm socks and goes to sleep. I lie down, alone on my bed, turn on the TV to a detective show and try not to wonder what he's doing now.
Every time I went to his house he had a new project he was mastering: a kayak he built in the garage of his house—the house he bought to have space to work on, and display, his Bonsai trees; the stone wall he constructed around his garden with rocks he had collected; once, walking into his living room, picking my way around stacks of books and objects of his latest infatuation—anything to do with Indians—I noted one book that spoke to his own heritage—something about the Irish conquering the world, and found him with porcupine quills sticking out from between his lips. Naturally, I had to ask what he was doing.
"You have to suck on the ends, then flatten with your teeth."
"What are you going to make?" I asked.
"A medicine bag maybe," he said pushing himself out of his white leather chair—the pale, stunted offspring of a Lazy Boy. The chair he wouldn't let anyone else sit in. The one he bought just before his best friend Carl came to die in the living room. He sat in it for hours next to Carl's hospital bed, holding Carl's hand, rubbing his feet, feeding him food and medicine to ease the pain.
Once, I overheard him tell Carl, "You'll never be alone here." His words, the look on his face, stopped me mid-stride and I stood unmoving in the entryway to the living room, gazing at him kneeling beside Carl's prone form. I had never felt such tenderness from him in full light. Only in darkness had that tone briefly touched me. Only in shadows had I seen it.
He yelled at me, probably "Wait in the kitchen!" I'm not sure, because his face—which he struggled to compose when he saw me staring, had mesmerized me. Banishing the gentleness I had been witness to, the embarrassment at being seen, and last, the anger. I ran to the kitchen as stunned by his fury as by everything else.
It was the only time I ever saw him lose his temper.
On the television, two detectives are arguing. One says the missing woman left of her own volition; the other says she has been abducted. The TV drones as I fall into sleep, dreaming about girls getting kidnapped and held prisoner, someone attacking my cat, snow in a part of California that has never seen it, and my ex-lover kissing me—he feels the sound that travels from my mouth through my body. The world is freezes in that moment.
I wake up to Eddie purring in my ear. When I ignore his polite pleas for food, he steps on my head, walks down my body and bites my toes through my down comforter, until I get up, go to the kitchen and fill the food bowl.
A week after I found him kneeling next to Carl, I walked into his the living room to find him watching Carl who was sleeping fitfully. The house was filled with family and friends—all day, all night. Before I could take off my heavy coat, he said, "I need an ashtray. Let's go to the store."
I looked at the large glass ashtray on the table overflowing with his Winstons.
"Okay," I said.
The Country Market was glowing harsh white light on us as we wandered the aisles aimlessly.
"Is it wrong," he asked, "to tell people not to sit in my chair? I don't want them to ruin it."
We wandered down the rows picking up juice, pudding, soft foods Carl might still be able to eat, while he continued to worry about the ruination of his chair. Finally, we made our purchases and drove back to his house.
He pulled the car into the garage.
"We probably have a few minutes," he said, pointing to the back of his Subaru station wagon.
Familiar with me and all my layers, he found what he needed. I lay on my back, spread my legs and pulled him into me, one hand still clutching the bag that held the cheap plastic ashtray.
The day I leave for New Jersey it is six below. Joe picks me up at the airport. I spend the day with AllMedia making sure everything is organized and nothing is left off the CD. Yes, here is the jpeg of the Queen Size Tight Top Turn-Free Mattress. Yes, here is the Blue King Koil logo. Yes, here is the Mattress Bonanza ad. Yes, please do put the African American Woman on the CD cover insert so I can thumb my nose at all the factory owners—mostly older Jewish men, who always insist on putting a perky blond shikse on our advertising material.
When we break for lunch I call my ex-lover.
"How are things going with the Sweat Lodge Woman?"
"Do you talk to her?"
"No. My job is to listen."
But it was only after Carl died that he didn't get up out of his chair and leave the room if I spoke about something beyond the weather or my cat.
At the end of the day, Joe takes me back to the airport.
I look at the soundless movie on the small screen that has dropped from the bottom of the overhead compartment but I don't see it. Instead, I see us: lying on our sides, face to face, my right leg over his hip, pulling him in. I hear the words murmured in between sighs and thrusts: "Deeper..." "Are you going to come for me?" "Don't stop." My eyes open to find him watching me. He smiles before he brings his mouth to mine.
Trapped in the middle seat, I feel the ghost of his body still subsumed in mine.
I sign up at an online Jewish dating service and go on a date with a potter. It’s like finding lox buried under lutefisk. I can hold off calling my ex-lover for a while, but I can't quit ruminating on how so much electricity existed between me and a man who could only speak deeply to me with his body. If I knew, I would be released.
I used to think what passed between us was invisible, held firmly inside unseen walls, but Carl's sister saw it.
"The two of you are together, aren't you?" She asked.
"How could you tell? He barely talks to me. Never touches me in front of anyone."
"I feel the energy between you."
"Let’s go Sugar Plum," says Lou the Potter after dinner on our second date.
As we are walking out of the restaurant, I ask him for a cigarette.
"I know you have a pack."
"I’m trying to be supportive of your not smoking," he says, pulling his cigarettes from his coat pocket.
We stand on the sidewalk smoking. It’s like sex—it feels so good. I lean against the wooden retaining wall, inhaling deeply, knees weak.
He stands in front of me, boot tips a half an inch from mine. I watch him try to figure out how he’s going to kiss me without being awkward. What he doesn’t know is that if I kiss him back, it means I will sleep with him at some point in the future. This is my rule.
When he kisses me, it’s much better than the cigarette.
I bite his lower lip just before I pull away.
A week later, I am out with Dimetrius.
We met by the mailboxes in the hall of our apartment building, complaining about the weather so bitterly that a minute into the conversation I knew he was not a Minnesota native.
"Where are you from?" I asked staring at his hair. His dreadlocks, not long yet, peeked out from under his winter cap. I wanted to reach over and tug on one.
"New Orleans," he said his eyes fixed on my long, curly hair.
Now, sitting in Eli's bar with Dimetrius, I'm not sure if we are on a date, because a guy with a Masters Degree in Social Work, living in a one-bedroom apartment—with a male roommate—in Loring Park is probably gay. But over drinks I discover he is straight, sweet, cute. And ten years younger than me. I give him a kiss on the cheek when we get back to our building.
The next day I call my ex-lover on the telephone.
"I’m dating two men."
"I told you you’d be fine."
But I'm not fine though I feel as if I should be. I have two talkative men who are able to speak to me fully clothed. I no longer have to disrobe for communication and small morsels of conversation that could only be allowed to happen naked. But I have been changed and have forgotten how to use normal language.
I call my ex-lover after my fourth date with Lou.
"You’ve wrecked me for other men," I say.
But I am remembering the first time I slept with him.
That night—that first time, we were talking as we slathered his walls in high-gloss white. Or I was talking, anyway. I half think he started kissing me for some silence. He pushed me back on the floor, started taking off my clothes, probing me with his tongue and fingers. Too good. Too fast.
"Stop," I said.
He didn't stop.
"Not like this," I said. Not pressed against plastic that covered the whole floor of his apartment.
He didn't stop.
"Let's wait," I forced the words around his tongue, distracted by pleasure and fear—I had not known the two feelings could co-exist until that moment.
His hand was slick with me and he wasn't going to stop.
So I gave myself up to him that night on the black plastic paint tarp as I did a thousand other times, a thousand other ways, in the years that followed.
In the tiny one room efficiency where I first knew him, almost everything was white. We transformed the cigarette stained walls and even the 1940's salmon colored refrigerator. But not the closet—wood slatted on the outside, spanning one small wall but only hip high. Not good for much, I thought but when I swung the two hinged doors outwards, the inside was painted midnight blue with silver stars. He dipped his paintbrush into white and started for the blue on the inside. I said it was the one lovely thing in the apartment and to leave it unchanged.
He called the building The Crack House. The three-story structure, originally a one family home, was now broken into closet-sized studios. The narrow hallways looked as though they were collapsing in on themselves. I had to brace one hand against the wall to climb the uneven stairs.
Opening the front door to his apartment and stepping in, I only had to turn my body to end up on the bed. In that apartment, in that bed, I absorbed his rules.
He would rent a movie, usually an action flick I didn't want to see, and we'd sit up in bed, our backs resting against the black iron headboard that dug into my shoulder blades. If I got to the bed before he did, I'd take two of the four pillows—one thick, one thin, to lean on.
Walking over to the bed he'd say, "Where's my pillow?"
"There," I'd say, pointing to two pillows.
"No. My pillow."
I'd trade him the fluffy for the flat and he'd arrange himself, keeping a twelve-inch channel between our bodies. As the movie rolled through scenes of people being captured, escaping, shot, killed, and our hero's ultimate triumph, he'd move closer until we were touching thighs, hips, shoulders. In the beginning, I'd slide over to his side of the bed, lay my head on his chest or rest my hand on my leg. I can still feel the stiffness of his body. After a few minutes, I'd move back to my side and wait for him to cover the distance between us.
At the end of our sixth date I ask Lou if I can have a cigarette for the road.
"No," he says.
Is he serious? Just in case, I say, "I said I’d buy you a pack."
His hands are gripping the steering wheel.
"Get out!" he shouts.
"What? I’ll buy you a pack."
"Sometime when we have the evening ahead of us, I’ll explain."
Does he think I’d go out with him again? I slide out of the van without a word, walk across the street and buy a pack of cigarettes.
I light up before I even make it through the door.
Near the end of March, I open up my mailbox and pull out the envelope. I stare at the University of Minnesota logo contemplating the cost of printing custom colors. But as I rub the envelope between my fingers, despite the cotton weave, I can feel it's not heavy stock. I guess they send the chintzy paper to the people they reject. I open the envelope. Scanning for the words, "We're sorry to inform you…" I don't see them. I jump up and down, "Oh my God, oh my God!" And then, "Oh, fuck! oh, fuck!" I am here for three more years.
The first person I call is my ex-lover.
"From great pain and suffering comes great art," he jokes. But he sounds serious when he says, "I know I caused you pain and suffering."
When I hang up, I wonder if he feels guilty for the way he was. He sent me home in a snowstorm one night because staying the night was against his unspoken but always clear rules.
Was he that cruel or that afraid?
At work, I tell Hector Jesus about Lou.
"I have to stop messing with the locals," I say.
He shakes his head. "They don’t know what to do with emotions. When they actually have one, they can’t identify it and it comes out in some strange way." Then Hector brightens up. “Well, I guess Alan still has a chance. Your fiancé.” He smiles.
I smile too, but I’m hearing Dimetrius saying my name and imagining the feel of those springy dreadlocks between my fingers.
The phone rings and I answer.
The voice says, "E-llen." Dimetrius puts the accent on the first letter and my name just rolls off his tongue. "What you doin’ pretty lady?"
"Going to dinner with you," I say.
At the Greek restaurant, Dimetrius has his arms crossed on the table. His head is tilted down but he peers out from behind dreadlocks and stares straight into my eyes. I notice a black fleck in one of his brown eyes. He’s shaking his head making the "Mmmmm… Mmmmm… Mmmmm" sound that serves as an exclamation point.
Walking home after dinner our mittened hands brush against each other and as soon as we are inside our apartment building Dimetrius wraps his arms around me and pulls me in. One of his hands is sliding underneath my sweater and up my back, and the other is tugging at my hair. He’s lifting me off my feet and kissing me so hard that we almost fall over. I pull away, tell him I have to get up early for work, and walk down the hall to my apartment.
"If you get restless, call me," he says.
As I'm getting ready for bed I wonder why Dimetrius' unrestrained passion makes me nervous and wonder if it's because we have no structure yet. I don't know where I fit. With my ex-lover I always knew although sometimes I would set myself the task of getting him to give up a little control and choose a rule to break. After I made him dinner for the first time, he wouldn't see me for three weeks. I kept cooking for him, and in time he accepted my wordless expression.
But once, when he broke one of his own rules—he touched me in affection—I was taken aback. He came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. I was standing at his stove, stirring the mole sauce. The shock of non-sexual touch didn't allow my mind fully register his words, something about dinner. Instead, it was the warm tone in his voice that penetrated. And I, I just stood there, frozen—like my cat who hides behind plastic bags. If I don't move you can't see me.
Sometimes I despair at how we are all held, willingly and unwillingly to our own personal set of laws—conscious or unconscious, articulated or unspoken.
I want to be sure, so I wait a month before sleeping with Dimetrius and now I'm sure of nothing. Each time, the bed ends up halfway across the room, as if we're engaged in aerobic combat. In the middle of it all I am shocked at the feel of a tall, heavy body on top of mine instead of my ex-lover's slim, compact body. As the bed is jerking its way across the room, I remember how well my ex-lover knew my body, always uncovering something new and surprising in me. The bed never moved anywhere. But we did. Together. I'm not sure where Dimetrius and I are headed but after we're finished having sex we always lie in bed, spoon fashion and talk for about an hour, which is nice. Then he gets up to go back down the hall to his apartment. Sadly, that's nice too.
I call my ex-lover from my car. Officially it's spring, but it's not warm enough to roll my windows down.
"It’s hard being with someone new," I tell him. "Were the first few times with your new woman strange?"
Silence. Then, "Yeah."
"Everything’s uncertain," I say.
Tonight at yoga, lying in Shivasana, I can feel the stinging behind my closed eyelids, the burning in my nose. I am supposed to be relaxing, concentrating on my breath and white healing light. Instead, I am trying not to cry. I lie here on the floor, refocusing my energy, breathing in, breathing out. Breathing him in, breathing him out, floating free in the wordless space we created. In the silence where his body spoke to mine.