We lay in bed, Joanie’s boyfriend and I. He’s really not my type, and every time I see him naked, I am reminded of this fact. I can’t help but draw back a little, and, as a reflex, my upper lip curls.
Joanie and me have been friends since the second grade, and we tell each other everything. Except, of course.
If Joanie knew, she’d kill me. And I wouldn’t blame her. And yet.
He’s a bad kisser-all teeth-and he slobbers all over the place. And the sex. It’s not worth it-tame, at best. I lie there, listening to him, waiting for him to get situated, then waiting for it to be over.
That thin layer of sweat, slick under my hands, at once cool and warm. The smell of a man who needs a shower.
Fingers on my skin like the beam of a lighthouse, wandering, searching, making it glow.
And after, his heart beating so fast, and mine so normal you’d never even guess. And I think, with my hand on his chest, over his heart beating fast fast fast, how easy it’d be, how unsuspecting he is. So tired, so content, and me lying there hating him and almost not hating him.
He likes to cuddle, and I let him hold me. I hate the cologne he wears, but if I can get past it, it’s sort of nice, lying there with him, my eyes closed, pretending he’s someone else. Listening to his heart. Listening to him breathe.
He kisses my forehead, my eyelids, my neck. He plays with my hair. It’s nice, despite the fact.
When my great-grandmother died, she left me her wedding ring. I wear it sometimes, when I’m out by myself. I am not married. I’m not very eager to be married. I don’t have any prospects, except Joanie’s boyfriend-if you count him, which I don’t. It’s not a ploy to throw off unwanted advances from strange men because there never are any. Ring or no. It’s for the smug lovers out there, the happy couples. The ones you see kissing on street corners or feeding each other French fries at McDonald’s. Walking the dog, always a little dog, one of those that barks at everything. It’s for the people who are in love, who you hate when you’re not in love yourself. I wear the ring to repel their pitying looks, reflect their happiness somewhere else.
I wear it to the park. I hold my book up high, for everyone to see, for everyone to look. To say to anyone who happens to notice it, See here? See this? I am loved.
A woman walks by, and I recognise her immediately, even though I don’t know her. You see her everywhere, in different varieties. The woman in exercise pants, the one walking four well-groomed dogs, the one who stops to talk to everyone she sees. The lonely one. I feel a kinship with her. I want to talk to her. I want to form a union with her, a lonely people’s union.
I have two dogs, myself.
She walks by and I smile at her, and she smiles back, the kind of smile I must give to those couples with the pity in their eyes, the kind of smile that says, You don’t understand. And suddenly my ring, my stupid ring, feels like a betrayal, like a lie. Which, of course, it is. I want to fling it into the duck pond and run after her yelling, ‘Yes! I understand! I am one of you!’
But is it true? What, with Joanie’s boyfriend.
It was not romantic. That is not how it began. For one thing, you can’t get romantic with someone you can’t stand. Chemistry doesn’t apply.
He was drunk. I wasn’t drunk, so it doesn’t really make an excuse. But I feel it is important to mention. He was drunk, and Joanie was out of town. Why we were together, I don’t remember. But we were sitting on the couch, blue corduroy. We were sitting there and he put his arms around me, drunken, floppy arms that hung heavy off my shoulders.
‘I love you,’ he said.
What were we talking about before that? Up went my lip, like Elvis.
I was going to hit him, I swear. I was planning on it. But he pulled me closer and repeated it. ‘I love you.’
He wrapped his arms around me and I shuddered. But they were arms, around me. Me. Strong, male arms that came with a pledge of love, whispered in my ear.
We pulled the couch out of the living room, after. I made him call his friend Joe and the two of them hauled it down the stairwell and to the curb. I watched it sit on the curb, dead leaves gathering on the fabric for two days, staring up at me like an accusation, until someone picked it up the same day that Joanie got home.
Joanie’s boyfriend spends the night at Joanie’s place most nights. Which is fine with me. I could care less.
And this is nothing to do with him.
Only, when he’s gone, when my bed is half empty, I can’t sleep. Which means, I’m an insomniac most nights.
Thing is, when he does sleep over, or when I go to his place, my favourite part, almost, is leaving in the morning. Getting out of there.
I say almost because if I don’t think too hard about it, if I pretend it’s someone else, my real favourite part is falling asleep with arms around me, legs tangled in my legs, the rhythm of someone else’s breathing.
Joanie calls me up and invites me out for coffee. Her boyfriend took her to New York a few months ago, and she finally got the pictures developed. She wants to show me. I don’t particularly want to see pictures of Joanie’s boyfriend’s thumb blocking out Joanie posing in front of the Empire State Building. Or photos of the two of them, grinning fake tourist grins for the stranger holding the camera. And maybe Joanie’s boyfriend’s got his arm over her shoulder, or maybe they’re giving each other a kiss, and there’s the Brooklyn Bridge behind them, or Times Square. But I can’t say no. So I say okay.
We’re in the puffy chairs at Starbucks, vanilla soy lattés on the table between us, and I’ve got the packet of photos in my hand, flipping through them. And there’s Joanie riding the Central Park Carousel, and there’s her boyfriend’s thumb cutting off Lady Liberty’s head, there he is exchanging a fist pump with a city fireman, there he is leaning over the camera, and I realise it’s a picture of him having sex with her.
Joanie makes a grab for the photo, but I pull it away, feeling a sudden impulse to bury her in it, and take a closer look.
‘I know that look,’ I say without thinking about it. ‘What?’ she says, and I blush.
‘I mean, they all make that face, don’t they?’ And Joanie snatches the picture back and shoves it back in her bag, her face mulberry.
But I do recognise it, that specific look on that specific face, the animal look, the look of a copulating dog, a rutting pig, an ape mid-coitus. The wandering, glazed eyes, the neck stretched long to accommodate the arched back, the hair hanging in his face.
There, but not there, staring off. Not the most attentive lover. He probably didn’t even realise she was taking a picture of him, maybe noticed the flash somewhere in the back of his mind. I wonder if he even knows the picture exists.
We both know that look. She knows it, I know it.
Joanie’s boyfriend sits across from me at the little round table in his cramped kitchen. He made toast for breakfast and the crumbs are scattered across the table like constellations. I want to think that there’s a story in them, some kind of meaning, but in the end, I know they’re just crumbs scattered on a table.
He sits across from me in his shorts, staring, and I feel nauseated. It’s not the toast. It’s him, and me, and his shorts, and me in the same clothes I wore yesterday. It’s the kitchen, and the breakfast, and the unmade bed, which I can see over his shoulder.
I shudder. My lips shudder. Like I stepped in dog shit. Joanie’s boyfriend smiles.
He shakes his head. ‘What?’
‘It’s that thing you do, with your lip.’ ‘What?’
He raises his upper lip. ‘That.’ ‘So?’
He shrugs. ‘I dunno. You do it a lot. It’s just.’ ‘What?’
‘It’s kinda cute.’
I don’t know what to say to this. I’m disgusted by him, and he finds it attractive. ‘Why is everything I do cute to you?’
‘I guess it’s cause I, you know, love you.’
‘You don’t love me.’ I don’t believe him, I don’t want to. Not anymore.
‘I do.’ He reaches his hand out across the table to grab mine, but I pull it away, put both my hands in my lap.
‘You don’t. You love Joanie. You told her. You told her first. Then you told me, when she was gone.’
‘I lied to her. I don’t love her. I lied.’
‘Why do you stay with her then?’ I ask. I’m getting angry here. I don’t like hearing that he lied to Joanie, even though it’s hypocritical in a big way. Considering.
‘She likes me.’ He gives me a look here, and I turn my eyes down. I stare at my palms, at the crumbs on the table, at the dust bunnies in the corners, anything but Joanie’s boyfriend.
When I was in third grade, my Aunt Sophie got a divorce from my Uncle Carol. They were married before I was born, and they had four kids.
I don’t remember all that much of him. I remember my mom sitting me down and telling me that Uncle Carol was not in our family any more, that if I saw him, I was not to say hello to him, but to pretend that he wasn’t there. I don’t remember her telling me why, and I don’t remember asking. What I do remember is thinking that it was strange, that someone was your uncle one day, and you went to his house and he pushed you on the swing and made you a hot dog on the grill and rented the PG-13 movie your parents wouldn’t let you see, and the next day he wasn’t even in your family any more, you weren’t even allowed to acknowledge his presence in the gas station, or at the park, or if you saw him at the ice cream place. But we never did see him again after Aunt Sophie got divorced. She married another guy, who was my new uncle, Uncle Alfie, and he was nice enough. My cousins never saw their dad, their biological dad, after that, either. And after a while I even sort of forgot I ever had an Uncle Carol.
Until I saw him at the grocery store last week, in the freezer section, and my first impulse, even after almost twenty years, was to obey my mother’s orders and walk the other way. Instead, I walked right up to him and said, ‘Uncle Carol?’ like I wasn’t sure it was him, but I was sure. He looked at my face for a moment, searching, and then he recognised me.
‘Marnie.’ And then one of those pauses where the space between you grows even though you haven’t moved, because you’re not sure whether or not you should hug. In the end, we don’t, because I am still remembering my mother’s instructions. But he pats me on the arm, like he’s still supposed to do something.
‘Well, you’re just all grown up.’
‘Aren’t you?’ ‘Yeah.’
‘How old are you now?’
‘Twenty-six years old.’
‘And you still ride horses?’
‘No. No, that was my sister.’
‘So,’ I say. ‘Uncle Carol.’
‘Uncle Carol. You don’t have to call me that anymore. I mean.’
‘I’m not. Right.’
It suddenly hits us then, the absurdity of it, being ex-relatives, like you really could just not be family any more, like family is something that can be cut off, and I suddenly feel very insecure.
‘Well, I don’t know what to call you now, I guess.’
‘Carol. Just Carol. Or nothing, I guess. I don’t expect you’ll see me again.’
‘Why are you here, anyway?’
‘High school reunion. Almost didn’t come.’
‘Well, it was good to see you.’
We stand there a moment, feeling like it’s wrong just to walk away from each other like that, never see each other again. But then he starts one way and I go the other way, and that’s that.
For some reason, in the checkout line, while the cashier’s ringing up potato chips and bottled water and microwave pizza, I start to think about Joanie’s boyfriend. And I don’t hate him at first, until I realise what I’m doing, and then I hate him even more.
‘That fucker cheated on me with one of his students. Bitch was barely eighteen, or I’m sure her parents would’ve pressed charges.’
It’s like hitting oil. You push just the right spot and BAM! out spews a fountain of thick, black, gook that’s been ruminating, under immense pressure, for forever. That’s how it is, talking to Aunt Sophie. I mention that I saw Uncle Carol and she goes running downhill with it.
I sit on the other end listening to her, and I wonder what makes her hate Uncle Carol so much. The extent to which her loathing stretches, the venomous tone of voice she uses when she speaks about her ex-husband, seem unfounded. Overkill.
‘But Aunt Sophie,’ I say, ‘You used to be so in love with him. I was shocked when you split up, even at eight. You used to feed him ice cream at family gatherings. He used to give you piggy back rides and you used to run your fingers through his hair.’
I can tell she’s still there because I can hear her breathing, little puffs of air like a horse when it’s angry.
It takes her a minute. ‘Mmm?’
‘How can you hate him so much now if you loved him so much then?’ This time I really am afraid she’s hung up, because even the sound of her breathing seems to disappear.
But then, ‘I don’t think I could hate him as much as I do if I didn’t love him so much.’
She doesn’t qualify her statement with a ‘then’ or a ‘so long ago.’ She just leaves it hanging there.
‘Do you still love him?’ I am almost afraid to say the words, but I feel, all of a sudden, an urgency, a desperation to know. Is it possible to love someone you hate, even as you are hating them?
‘There’s a thin line,’ she says.
Joanie’s boyfriend takes my face in his hands and kisses me. He smells like latex. He mumbles something in my ear and I can’t quite make it out, but I have an idea. My heart speeds up, and that’s when I know. Something’s changing here.
I kick him off me and get out as fast as I can, which is fast, and he doesn’t even follow me.
I go to Joanie’s, drive to her house, running the red lights, which shouldn’t be red, not at two-thirty in the morning. When she lets me in, I tell her everything, and I tell her it’s all over.
She stares at me for a moment, or maybe longer. It seems long and not long at the same time. Like, I could’ve waited longer.
‘All this time,’ she says. ‘All this time you’ve been—’
‘Let me explain.’
‘All this time, you’ve been railing on him.’
‘Telling me how creepy, how terrible, calling him Pig.’
‘I have, yes.’
‘I thought you hated him.’
‘I did. No. I do. I hate him. He makes me sick.’
‘The whole time, every time, I just kept thinking how disgusting. I’d look at him and think, “You pig.”’
‘Yes, I did. But he said he loved me and I—’
‘He said he—’
‘Loved me, yes. So I stayed. I slept with him. I fucked him. I want you to know. Your boyfriend. Because I needed-’
‘Because I needed someone to love me. I needed contact. Even from him. Even from your boyfriend. From a pig.’
‘He said he loved you?’
‘He loves you.’
‘I’m sorry, yes. That’s what he said.’ ‘But you don’t love him?’
‘I hate him. I always hated him.’
Then she does something, and I don’t blame her: she slugs me. And being pushed out of her apartment, the door slammed before I’m even completely out, I feel something of what my Uncle Carol must have felt, driving away from his and Aunt Sophie’s house, their life together, all his stuff in the back of his car, her face watching him out the window. I feel like an asshole. I feel sorry for her. But not sorry, not really, about what I did.
I answer the door and he’s standing there, on my doorstep, wilted. My impulse, as always, is a curl of the lip, but I suppress it because I feel sorry for him. No, that’s wrong. I feel sorry for myself, but it’s the same as feeling sorry for him. He looks terrible. Really bad. Not enough to let him in, though.
‘I miss you,’ he says.
I am not moved.
‘I’m miserable,’ he says.
Good, I think. ‘What do you want?’
‘I love you.’
He knows, I think, that this is what gets me, every time, and this time is no different. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
I let him in.
We had a long conversation once, Joanie and I, about her boyfriend. This was before I started fucking him. He had cheated on her with somebody else. She told me, and I was angry. I told her she should leave him.
‘What about your self-respect?’ I said.
‘It’s just sex,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘What about your body?’ I said. ‘What if he gives you syphilis?’
‘He’s careful. I’m careful. We’re careful.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said, ‘how you can be like this. He’s a pig.’
‘A pig, yes. An animal. Only animals can’t control themselves.’
She leaned back and sighed. Like someone trying to explain something very simple to someone very stupid. ‘I love him.’
I said, ‘That’s a shame.’
And she said, ‘Why should you care when I don’t care?’
‘Because I love you,’ I said, ‘and I think you deserve better. Perfection.’ And she shook her head and gave up, understanding that there was no arguing with me. Because I hadn’t yet learned that perfection doesn’t exist, and we all have to settle for what we can get.
A little bit, I envy that me. The one who didn’t understand.