Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cold front


In my psychology class at community college, the professor talked about an experiment in which a baby monkey was tricked into believing a device was its mother. I forget how the scientist tricked it, but somehow he got the baby monkey to cuddle up, again and again, to this cold metal object. Worse, the object would occasionally emit electric shocks to the baby monkey -- but despite the shocks, the baby monkey would keep coming back. The scientific community was horrified by the cruelty of the man's experiment, my psychology professor said. But the experiment showed that the baby kept returning, even when it meant getting shocks instead of love.


I'm determined to not let you know how much I'm hurting.


On Christmas Eve, in the afternoon, I was walking out of my apartment to wait on the sidewalk for Rita to pick me up. I was wearing my bulky winter coat with the faux-fur-lined hood, about to walk out the door, when I saw there was a message on my cell phone. It was from you. I stopped to listen to it.

You sounded upbeat, even though we had decided to end our affair just a few days earlier. You and your wife were visiting your relatives in Omaha. I pictured the whole Norman Rockwell scene as your voice described it: Everyone lying around patting their bellies, full of your mom's home cooking; going down to the Old Market part of town to buy last-minute gifts; Monopoly and a Sudoku contest. I imagined strings of multi-colored lights, the tree, the contrast of snowy outside with overheated inside, everyone with hot cocoa. In snowflake sweaters.

You ended the message saying you were going to see if your son, who's my age, wanted to join you in a pool game, that your dad has a nice big pool table in the basement. Your son was the first person you taught to play pool, and I'm the second. In a quick, visceral impression, I felt rather than remembered the way you lean down and squint, your glasses sliding down the bridge of your nose, the sure, rapid stroke of your pool cue.

"Doreen's taking a walk, so I got a chance to call you," you said.

I hit "7" to delete your message. I walked to the bathroom and lay back on the cold white-tiled floor. I undid the fly of my jeans and got off because I missed you. In my furry-lined coat, lying on the white floor like that, I was like some Eskimo or Russian fallen back onto the snow, shot accidentally by a reindeer hunter or frozen to death. After, I got up, cleaned up my wetness with toilet paper, and zipped up my fly. Then a funny thing happened. A teardrop fell from my cheek and made an audible splash on the bathroom tile. I mean, it was so quiet in my apartment that I actually heard it, a little pat sound. I stood staring at the dime-sized puddle, self-pity outweighing the urge to laugh. Rita honked out front, and I hustled out to meet her.


I took that psychology class last semester, the same time I was in your English class. Remember when you were teaching us about Dante's "Inferno," and you got to the part where Dante and Virgil go down to the second circle, smaller than the first one, a dark place filled with the lamentations of souls doomed by their carnal lust? Cleopatra, Dido, and Helen are down there in this, the true beginning of hell, where the beast Minos judges each soul. The day our class talked about this section of hell, your face burned and you avoided looking at me. We had, of course, begun our affair by then.

In my Sociology of Death class, taught by a morbid little old man who was always dressed in safari khakis and told us stories about working for his family's small-town funeral parlor during the Depression, we learned about the stages of grief. Denial, bargaining, all of those. I'm not sure what stage I was in the night after you broke up with me, when I met up with Rita and her boyfriend at Red Lobster and drank three "Lobsteritas." "Lobsterita" is Red Lobster's cutesy name for a regular margarita, and when you order one it comes draped in these red Mardi-Gras-style beads with a gaudy lobster charm dangling from them. Rita and Aaron cheered me on, and I got a necklace with each drink I ordered, piling them around my neck. They drove me home. It was only eight, and I was feeling restless. So I got in my car and drove to Richmond to see Bob.

I must have sped, because I got to his place before ten. It was a Thursday. His roommate, Head, answered the door. I've never asked Bob why his roommate's called that, but I assume there's a dirty story behind it. Head grinned at me, condescending, lascivious. "Hey man, look who's here." Bob emerged from somewhere, appearing behind Head. My "liquid courage" had long since run out, so I said, "Do you have anything to drink?" As if I'd announced that I'd wanted to play a familiar game, Bob took my hand and led me to the fridge, and Head said he was going for a walk. It's exactly what they used to do before, back when I lived in Richmond and went to VCU with them, back when I had a crush on Bob and he invited me over and felt me up a few times when he was bored and horny, and I was drunk. This was before I dropped out and moved back up to Maryland.

"Screwdrivers, right?" They happened to have orange juice and vodka in the fridge. Bob seemed excited, like someone who's been watching a fly circle the room, and now the fly has finally landed, and he's going stealthily for the fly swatter. I waited in Bob's room for him while he made me the drink. It had been more than a year. Nothing had changed. The dark-green futon instead of a bed, the Winona Ryder screen-saver on Bob's computer. The garlic-and-musk boy smell of the apartment.

Bob played a CD of a group he'd just discovered called Saint Etienne as I downed my drink. As always, he'd deliberately put in too much vodka. By Track 4 I was swaying. When Track 6 started, I slammed my glass down on Bob's dresser and started talking in this breathy, husky voice like some cartoon vamp. I said: "Sit down. I've got something to show you." I laughed, like it was the most hilarious thing uttered ever. He flopped down on his futon. I started to undress.
The first of my secret dates with you was at the Baltimore aquarium. Shimmering aquamarine light everywhere. Mythical creatures floating in and out of view in glass panels. You read the placards that told you the creatures' Latin names, their natural habitats, other facts. I watched the hypnotic shimmers play on the lenses of your glasses, on your face.
Bob kissed my naked body.
Another time, you took me to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. It was a gray, drizzly day, so we spent all our time at the carnival rides and games they have set up there by the boardwalk in the summer months. You spent hours throwing basketballs and darts, trying to win me a giant stuffed animal. We laughed at the cheesiness of the "Tunnel of Love" ride, and you slipped your hand up my skirt as we drifted through the darkness in our little boat. At the end of the ride, there was a man taking pictures of the couples as they stood in front of a huge heart beneath a Cupid with bow and arrows. "Sir, if you and your wife could just take one step closer to me--perfect!" the photographer said. We didn't correct him.
I tossed my hair and struck a catlike pose, smiling up at Bob coquettishly. I slithered down his body and took him into my mouth.
The best time was the poetry conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas. You'd invited me to come along and share your hotel room. You even bought my plane ticket. During the day, I sat in on the discussions, and at night, we made love. To be cautious, I went by an alias -- "Sophie" -- at the conference. We laughed about how it was my "spy name." You taught me sexual positions, ordered us hardcore porn from the hotel's pay-per-view, even brought me a pair of handcuffs lined with faux leopard fur, and a small pink vibrator. You liked me in black thigh-high stockings, stilettos, and red lipstick, said I looked like a 1940s pin-up in them. We made love in the mornings with the curtain pulled all the way to the side of the sliding-glass door that led to the balcony, yellow autumn leaves outside and sunlight pouring in on us. It was the first time I had ever made love. When we made love, you filled me up to a fullness I never before thought was possible.
Bob fumbled with a Trojan wrapper. I went loose-limbed and let him enter my body.
You and I didn't just have sex in Hot Springs. We hiked along the trail on a nearby mountain, marveling at the hot springs steaming up from the earth in mystical tendrils, wandering for hours in those yellow leaves, yellow leaves above us, all around us, strewn along our path, the light made golden by them. There were times when neither of us said anything, and we walked, me at your side or slightly behind you, each of us immersed in our own thoughts but definitely, unquestionably, together.
I puked in some bushes outside Bob's apartment, then made the two-hour drive home.


Lately what helps is to imagine all that happened between you and me covered over with a thick pelt of snow. Quieting, soft snow. It covers footprints, roads, houses, and cars. It erases all traces that we existed and returns the landscape to a primeval state. Snow falling in my heart, chilling me to numbness.


In my purse, I still have that crystal you got for me at that art gallery in Hot Springs. A group of conference attendees went to dinner and gallery-hopping downtown. At some point during the gallery walk, my confidence slipped, and I worried about not being fun enough for you. I broke off from the group to get a drink at the bar across the street. When I came back, you all had moved on to another gallery. One artist had been giving out little pieces of crystal, and you got me one. I put it in my purse, where it still is, and for the next hour I laughed loudly at nothing, and I'm sure I embarrassed you.

I wonder if you still have the junky little gifts I gave you: the baggie of green sea glass, the little Mexican couple in a box that says "Amor Eterno" on it, the carved wooden frog, always in boxes spilling with confetti. The print-out that says you're sponsoring a school of jellyfish at the aquarium for one year, the miniature black-velvet Elvis painting I thought was funny, a chicken figurine wearing a sombrero. Junk, all of it, none of it practical.


A few details from the night I drove to Bob's apartment:

As he kissed my naked body, he accidentally left a hickey on my hip. "I'm sorry," he said, but I told him: "Go ahead, mark me. I'm yours." It was a stab at your memory. (Remember how you told me to put on my red lipstick and mark you?)

In order to have an orgasm, I thought of things you and I have done together. It's become my habit to do that when I'm getting off, and I had to do it with Bob, too. I squeezed my eyes shut and blotted out Bob, his apartment, the swirling glow of his Winona Ryder screen-saver. I saw the honey-colored light of our Hot Springs hotel room at night when we had all the lamps off except one.

Instinctively, as I was about to climax, I licked my fingertips and reached for your phantom nipples the way you used to ask me to right before you came. When I realized I was doing this, I began to cry uncontrollably. The headlights of other cars on the drive home were bright white smears in my vision. I cried for two hours.


The day after Christmas, you called me again on my cell phone. I was sitting in my car outside Barnes & Noble. You were in Houston, where your wife was visiting her relatives. You were sitting on your hotel bed, watching Harry Potter on HBO and drinking beers. We talked for a long time, our first conversation as "just friends." The most fascinating tidbits from your life spill out when you're drinking. You told me about one time in high school when you cut a hole in a grapefruit and fucked it, because you'd heard something about the suction feeling good. And you mentioned that you'd hitchhiked to Kansas City when you were 17 to stay at a monastery, or some religious place. I meant to ask more about that, but the conversation went in another direction. I want to write your biography. I will never look at a grapefruit the same again.

Part of your allure, for me, is your past. Did I ever tell you that? When we made love, I would think about the things you've told me, about the girls you yearned for in high school and in college who broke your heart, about the year you went without looking in a mirror once as an existential experiment. About that period of your life when you were single and so lonely that you filled your blow-up doll with teddy-bear guts to make it more huggable. I would think about your books and poetry and the songs you wrote on your guitar. The Buddhist juzu beads you strung together yourself and carry on you. The seedy hotel room with its heart-shaped hot tub that you rented by yourself when you visited Japan. I would think about the way you do funny voices for your brother who has cerebral palsy. I would even think about how you string up Christmas lights over the bed you share with your wife, how you two pretend the lights were put there by fairies.

I took you into me, and I took all of you into me.


The other day I looked good, and I wished you could see me. I was wearing a short dress I'd gotten for Christmas. It's the same color as my eyes. I wore my hot-pink lace bra underneath, the one that pushes my breasts together so I almost have cleavage. I thought about taking a picture and e-mailing it to you, under the pretext of just wanting to show you the dress I'd gotten for Christmas. But now that we're just friends, I don't think we do things like that.

I e-mailed you too many pictures before we broke up. That semester, you were always busy. I know now that it wasn't just schoolwork; you were taking a step back from me, rethinking our affair. That's when I got lonely and started sending you erotic photos of myself, trying to stay on your mind. That's when I started drinking too much and clogging your voicemail box. The last picture I sent was of me with my jeans pulled down, using that pink vibrator you bought me. In your e-mail reply, you said that "the worst thing that can happen to lovers is to become boring to each other; let's not let it get to that point." So I left a message on your cell phone saying I knew you needed us to break up. It was a bluff; I was hoping you would disagree. You said yes, we needed to break up. The next night, I had sex with Bob.

"Do you think my pussy is 'boring'?" I asked Bob after I'd stripped down to nothing. "God, no!" was his lust-clouded reply. Stab, stab, stab at you.


Sometimes I wonder if I'm an emotional masochist. I find myself daydreaming about visiting you, now that we've broken up, and begging you to take me back. I think of giving you a blow job as hardcore porn is playing on a TV over my shoulder, feeling you grow hard while you're looking at the porn actress's body, and swallowing it all. I think of going to a strip club with you, buying you a lap dance, and forcing myself to watch unflinchingly. I even think of watching you make love to another girl, while I'm sitting naked and neglected off to the side. Why, why, why do I think of these things?

I think I know why. I think it's to heighten it so that, in the daydreams, you can't possibly not see how much you're hurting me, and then you have to take me into your arms and love me. I'll have earned your love because I'll have suffered for you. You were an altar boy, and you still have an ascetic streak, something in you that believes you must suffer before you get to be rewarded. I had an affair with you, and I knew you were married the whole time. I must be punished for that. I want you to pick me up, broken and sobbing, and tell me that now I deserve you.


My plan is to stay away from you. Once I'm gone, and you're no longer deleting tipsy voicemails, or getting long-winded e-mails and silly pics of me in your inbox, you'll miss me. If you call me, I'll be mysterious. You'll be dying to know what's going on with me, what my life is like without you, how I'm feeling about it all, but I'll be a sphinx. When I feel myself weaken, I'll think of snow.

I got a quick, friendly call from you today. You weren't drunk like last time. The conversation was normal; you asked whether I have any New Year's resolutions. I'm no good at normal conversation. I like it better when you talk about fucking grapefruits.


When we were in Hot Springs, I was conscious of how lucky I was to get you all to myself for four days in a row. I kept thinking of the word "now" and of how greasy it is -- as soon as you try to pin it down, it slips away into the past or slides ahead as you anticipate the next moment. On our last day together, we sat in a diner as the sun set, and I watched it turn the hairs on your arm golden.


For New Year's Eve, I went to a nightclub in DC with Rita and Aaron. There were four levels of people dancing, bouncers outside the VIP lounges, girls in dresses so short that their ass cheeks showed. Rita and Aaron made out brazenly on a chaise longue in front of me. I drank Moet & Chandon and sat on a black leather couch. I spotted an aquarium built into a wall across the room from me. Fish, turquoise shimmering light. A busty Asian girl with heavy eye make-up plopped beside me as someone placed a birthday cake on the kidney-shaped coffee table in front of the couch. Someone else took a snapshot. In the picture, there will be a party girl cutting huge wedges of cake with a plastic knife, and, to her left, a girl in a short blue-gray dress she got for Christmas, holding a glass of champagne, black mascara tears running down her face.

By then I hadn't called or e-mailed you for weeks. It felt like a hunger strike, but it also felt good. It made me think of pristine snow with no tracks in it. I didn't want to disrupt the scene.

I tried to not call you on New Year's Eve. I was afraid I'd say something stupid, like, "I can't do this. I need you. I'm so in love with you, so in love with you..." I sent a text message instead: "Can u get text messages if so happy 2007 from sophie." I don't know how to punctuate on my phone. I made myself smile when Rita asked if I was having a good time. I put on one of the stupid cardboard Moet & Chandon promotional top hats that were lying all over the club, and danced with Rita when she beckoned for me to join her on the dancefloor.


Last night everyone thought we were going to get snow in the DC area. School closings were scrolling across the bottom of the evening news. I felt as if I'd summoned the snow myself, that it would be appropriate to see everything covered over with frozen white blankness. It didn't snow; it rained instead. The weather man said, "There was precipitation, and if it'd been just a little colder it would have turned into snow. But there was too much warmth."

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