Here was there and there was Aberdeen, Scotland. I lived in New York City, USA. Surely he was kidding, just proffering the beginning of a joke in which I ran off to Scotland with a man I met on a dating app. At that point, our relationship consisted of ten days of texting, a few international calls, and a meeting of the minds on nearly every relationship issue there was. Connection aside, what kind of woman heads across the world to be with someone she barely knows?
“I’m very serious.”
His name was Henry and he was “very serious” about me visiting him while in Scotland on business. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t be returning to New York in little more than a week. Maybe his trip was getting a little boring and he needed some company after hours. Perhaps he was just that impetuous and prone to grand romantic gestures. I puzzled over my situation as Henry sent his next missive.
“I’ll fly you over here. I just really want to meet you.”
Part of me was flattered. Wasn’t it a big deal, finding someone who’d shell out some dough for the pleasure of your company? Henry was turning out to be the romantic he claimed to be, and I was definitely smitten. But I also wondered how sane it was to want to spend a week with a near-stranger. And whether he could be a serial killer.
If you believe the police procedurals on TV, serial killers have a type. All the victims share commonalities. Maybe it’s hair color or age. Maybe it’s gender or socioeconomic status. Serial killers search for the victims that they want, monitor their behavior, then lie in wait until they get their opportunity. They’re often sociopaths who woo their victims with charm and sass. And they are mostly men who mostly kill women. Aside from the eventual murder, how, then are we to distinguish a serial killer from a serial internet dater?
The next time we spoke, I told Henry that I couldn’t possibly meet him in Scotland. True, I was swept up in the intrigue of it all. He’d professed his romantic nature and the desire to sweep me off my feet. He talked about his relationship with God and we shared aspects of our faith. He professed his desire to marry a woman like me, a good woman from a good family who was funny and caring and pretty. It all sounded great, and I thought I deserved it. Henry was the first man I told about my mental illness and he accepted it. When he read my published work, he was full of compliments. After dating my share of disinterested losers, I was relieved to be talking to someone who paid such careful attention to me. But still I couldn’t make up my mind about going to Scotland. Even when he started sending me love songs that reminded him of me. It all just seemed too good.
After all, serial killers have a tendency to have dazzling personalities. Ted Bundy was always described as charming and handsome. Charles Manson had a coterie, a “family” of followers mesmerized by his speeches and theories enough to kill for him. Glen Rogers, “The Cassanova Killer” used his charisma to pick up victims at singles bars. These men are probably the reason that women are taught not to go to a second location with a man we don’t know. Or to be alone with a man we don’t know. I was starting to wonder if Henry was one of these magnetic sociopaths, trying to seduce me to my death with kind words and wonderful fantasies.
No matter how wonderful a man seems, we think a private location could be where he maims, rapes and murders us. So we date like we’re dealing with serial killers. We meet in public places. We give our friends the names and phone numbers of our dates in case anything happens. We Google and background-check to ward off the possibility of criminals in our dating pool. We’re distrustful of men who seem too nice, or too charming, or too much like what we want because it could be a trap. But isn’t nice, charming, and appropriate exactly what we want?
For days, Henry pushed the issue of my impending trip. I reiterated that I couldn’t go because a trip overseas wasn’t in my budget at that moment. He rejoined by offering to pay for the trip and for the hotel where we’d stay. I’d heard about men who fly women to exotic locations. I knew some of these women, beautiful, vivacious women who’d been treated to vacations. With Henry’s invitation, I was becoming one of those women. Someone to be desired, whose worth was seemingly more than the cost of a transatlantic plane ticket.
But I started to wonder, as you do, if Henry was too good to be true. I decided to tell my girlfriends the whole story, about meeting a man online and having him invite me out of the country only two weeks later. They, too, were taken by the romance, thinking about the interesting stories I’d be able to tell about my trip. We fantasized until my friend Nira realized a critical piece of information. She’d been approached online by Henry as well.
Now, the world is incredibly small and the chances of two women being approached by the same man are pretty high, especially if the women live in the same city. But this was an eerie occurrence because Nira and I have so many things in common. We went to the same college. We’re both curvy in stature—in fact, we wear the same clothing size. We’re both Black women who wear their hair natural. We’re the same age. At first, I thought that it was funny. Henry had a type, and it was clear what that was. Then I thought that the similarity was strange.
Presumably, men looking for women online have a type. A set of characteristics that they look for time and time again. Tall women. Women without children. No fatties or crazies. These male daters comb through dozens of internet profiles to find a woman who meets their standards. In my experience, I’m rarely anyone’s type. I’d been languishing on the proverbial vine for so long that my grapes, it seems, are no longer good for wine. My vintage has passed, or never was. My category was closed for business. Or so I thought until I realized that maybe Henry had targeted me—and my friend Nira—as a particular variety of woman.
I started to feel like a mark, a type of woman that Henry had chosen for other than romantic purposes. I asked him if he’d ever dated Black women before. He said no, that I was the first. That didn’t sit well with me, considering that he’d approached my nearly identical friend. I shouldn’t have been that suspicious. After all, Nira had shared with me her exchanges with Henry and all of the details checked out. Still, I was beginning to think that all of Henry’s kind words were just a ploy to woo a seemingly desperate middle-aged, overweight Black woman into some subterfuge. A type of woman who was among the least desirable groups on dating sites. A type of woman who might start to question her desirability after thirty years of dating without so much as a marriage proposal. Maybe Henry was manipulating me into a situation of his own creation. Like maybe a trip to the U.K. with a tragic end.
Listening to my intuition, I started to act on my suspicions. I tried to Google Henry, but no results came up. Sure, I found other men who shared his name but none who bore any resemblance to him. I reverse-searched his phone number. I did a Google image search on his profile pictures. I tried to do a background check. No results from any state that he claimed to have lived in. One day Henry told me that he had to call me from a pay phone, and the caller ID read “Nigeria.” Not Scotland. Not even close.
When I confronted Henry about not being able to find him online, he started to give me excuses about being a private person. He explained away the Nigerian pay phone call, saying that payphones often had out-of-country numbers. Was I supposed to believe that? I asked him to prove that he was who he said he was by sending me a photo of himself or talking to me via Face Time. He refused, saying that he still used a flip phone (really?) and that his tablet didn’t have photo capability. Convenient excuses they were, even if they were lies.
It turns out that Henry wasn’t a serial killer, if Henry was his real name. He was a catfish, and he baited me with a hook of sweet-sounding lies of love and forever. Shortly after I confronted him, he asked me for $1500. Apparently he needed the money to close a financial deal that would net him a five million dollar million payday which we would use to begin our life together. Just like the rest of Henry’s promises, this sounded too good to be true.
Of course I didn’t give him the money—how could I give a significant sum of money to a man who couldn’t even prove his identity? I held fast to my position and, like a true sociopath, Henry tried to make me feel guilty for not helping him, turning on me for rejecting his affection, claiming that he was heartbroken. I deleted all of his contact information, wondering who I would’ve met had I accepted the trip to Scotland.
Dating can be a minefield of emotional pitfalls and fears of danger. If only we could skip past the uncertainty of meeting someone new and get to the meat of having a relationship. But then we wouldn’t experience the rush of new love or the excitement of new possibilities. And there are only a few serial killers lurking among the honest dating profiles. So I’ll make another go of using Hinge or Bumble or another dating app. I’ve probably depleted my share of fake suitors with Henry, so I’m due my happy ending.
TRACEY LYNN LLOYD has been a marketer, a writer, a mental health advocate, and a sarcastic smartypants. She lives in New York City where she drinks lots of coffee and fights her cat for access to the laptop. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, The Establishment and xoJane.
It’s winter; I’m in Sheffield, England, where I have accompanied my husband on a semester’s teaching exchange. I’m alone most days in our tiny temporary house, and I’m supposed to be writing, which I am doing (see, right now, I’m doing it). But frequently, I find myself walking out into the city by myself, with no particular destination except the pretense of an errand, and no one, not even my husband, aware of my whereabouts (although he trusts I’ll be home for dinner).
There’s an urge in me, call it procrastination (which may be its truest name), call it restlessness—but it feels like curiosity propelling me most days, to assess the forecast (always the same, cloudy and just above freezing, with a fifty percent chance of rainbows), to assemble the frumpy all-weather ensemble I have fashioned to survive an English winter (new Wellingtons, old leggings, wool skirt, undershirt, sweater, anorak, umbrella, backpack, bandeau) and to take a long walk down our quite steep hill (Sheffield boasts seven of them, and we are on top of the most perilous, requiring some courage to descend) in order to, I don’t know, look at England.
I haven’t been in the country since 1991, when we cycled for an entire summer all around the British Isles together. I feel as though the last time we were here, though we slowly traversed a great deal of the Old Sod—villages, towns, moors, downs, dales, shores—I didn’t really see it.
What was I doing? Trying to stay on my bike, for one thing, and to not get wet (pointless—our sleeping bags wouldn’t dry, and I believe there’s a twenty-five-year-old drop of Scottish rain still battering my inner ear). Dying for a decent cup of coffee (impossible to find in Britain then), and trying not to be angry at my husband, who seemed insensitive to my suffering (he enjoyed climbing hills and fighting wet winds—a true cyclist, which I will never be).
I was looking at my marriage, too, and brooding a lot, as my wheels reluctantly turned over whether it had been a good idea (we had been married five years by then) to marry so young, to hitch my ride through life so firmly to another person’s journey. Mostly I felt slow, slower than him, and he had to let me ride ahead to keep from speeding off and losing me entirely. My journal from the trip, useless as material, is a tedious record of such petty laments.
Now we’re married thirty (the sleeping bags dried). We’ve done a good deal more traveling, together and with our children, with stays in Italy, France, Spain, Miami, Qatar—on bikes and boats and planes and trains and automobiles; in tents and campers, houses, apartments, gîtes, and B&Bs. Traveling is at the core of who we are together, for better and for worse, with many stories and shared adventures (“The Day of the Bora (Croatia),” “The Night of the Avalanche (France)” to chew on as we approach the evening of our days together.
Though young, I’d traveled a lot before I married, too—to Yugoslavia, where my father’s family is; to Paris, where I learned French on a study abroad; to New York City, where I interned for a summer. I was a young bride for sure (just twenty-two), but I was also a woman who could speak a second language, had lived in major capitals, had been in love before, and was not afraid of new experiences. And we had them, the two of us, together, one after another after another. I’ve always thought of our trips as the best part of being us, of being married—having a faithful traveling companion.
But here, alone and on foot, in this new city, I start to wonder. A new kind of attention, like a compulsion, flows through me. What’s this all about? I’m fifty-two years old. I’ve been around the world. I’ve held jobs, published books, had babies and—and maybe that’s it. My senses suddenly feel electrified, as they did when I was pregnant, but here, now, when I’m menopausal and mostly by myself, sauntering through the muddy parks and sooty streets of Sheffield.
Sheffield! The Pittsburgh of Britain, most prosaic of industrial cities in the unsung heart of England. Orwell once called it “the ugliest town in the Old World.” Today I go out into its spitting rain with my old leather boots, heels hollowed by use and filled with mud, in my backpack. My ostensible destination is the cobbler’s, whose shop I smelled yesterday before I saw it. The essential oils of animals and humans, commingled with turpentine and polish, drew me up Ecclesall Road to peek into the doorway and reinhabit my childhood: my daily stop in Tony Minetti’s shoemaker shop in the Pittsburgh of America, where I checked the gumball machine for stray nickels and candy and occasionally picked up our family’s repairs, paying with dimes my mother wrapped in paper to keep me from worrying them out of my pocket.
Today I’m greeted by a brawny, red-faced man: Are you all right?—a Yorkshire formality I no longer hear as an expression of true concern. He has burnished cheeks and a genuine leather apron, just like the automaton cobbler stiffly turning in his shop window. He takes both my boots in one broad tarry hand, says I’ll need soles as well, hands me a paper ticket, and tells me to come back tomorrow. What time tomorrow? I sputter, aware of my strong accent of surprise, and he says, with a wink, We’re open until eight, and goes whistling back to his bench, buried in piles of collapsed loafers and Oxfords. I stand there for some awkward seconds, a few mechanical swishes of the window cobbler’s hammer, while I understand that he means to fix my shoes overnight, like a shoemaker in a fairytale.
I hold on to this wonderful idea, this ordinary magic, like a coin wrapped in paper, hesitant to spend it. I resolve to come back first thing in the morning, to test my fairytale theory.
And then I think about telling my husband the story, and worry that in the telling some of its wonder will come off; the mad idea of dashing down the hill at dawn to fetch my boots will reveal its true lunacy. Of course, for a man pounding leather all day, my boots are a trifling job, one more ticket in the till. My husband, though a poet, is a practical person who can replace a bicycle tire in minutes, and he will likely not be impressed. And he can pick up my boots any day of the week, swinging by on his bicycle on his way home from work.
And so there, in the cobbler shop, I start to put my finger on it, this … thing, this wandering I’m wondering about. What am I looking for? What do I think I’ll find? I imagine lobbing my magical story over the dinner table, then watching it sink into a mild anecdote, a trivial observation from an obviously dull day.
This, too, is marriage, an audience of exactly one, who comes to your show every night. I am generally mindful, however minimally, of my performance, and apologetic when I repeat myself (my husband, like a lot of men, has little tolerance for being told something twice). For thirty years, I’ve been careful of what I say, to not bore the person most likely to be bored by me. Why am I still brooding about this?
To console myself, I dash across rain-slicked Eccleshall to a chocolate shop, announcing its treacly name, Cocoa Wonderland, in deco pink and green. My ostensible reason (why do I always need a reason? who am I explaining this to?) is to search for some full-fat ice cream, for an old, ill friend we’ll see tonight and who, according to his wife, needs to put on weight. Surely, I think, Cocoa Wonderland will have it. A freckled young man with a blush of ginger beard pops up from behind some pyramids of bonbons. He’s wearing a striped, mauve apron (a recurring delight of England is the men—cooks and barmen, fishmongers and butchers—going about their work in their smartly striped smocks).
He informs me, with real regret, he’s terribly sorry, that he can only scoop me a cone, not sell me a tub, of Wonderland ice cream. But he can offer all varieties of delicious hot chocolate—Thick, Milky, Extra Milky, Spicy—and soberly suggests that if I haven’t had their authentic, traditionally prepared cocoa, then I have never really tasted chocolate at all.
Which, in my hyper-alert state, sounds like a serious question: Have I ever really tasted chocolate? I can’t exactly say. To be very certain, I order the Thick, a choice that pleases my young guide, and he directs me to an ample chintz armchair in the back parlor, where I can wait while he works.
Uncomfortably damp, I sink down and start peeling off layers of my get-up, blooming into the chair like a cabbage rose. I listen to the chemistry of chocolate—liquid, metallic—and take in, with each breath, slightly more of the dark brew he’s concocting, carefully and exclusively for me. Maybe because I’m sweaty or maybe because I’m alone, it smells like sex, like desire ripening in an intimate space.
Because I am alone. The idea continues to confront me, like a persistent mist. As I’ve rolled through the years, of a life abundantly accompanied, what else have I missed? What smells and tastes and sounds and whimsical conversations? What carnal acts and dramas? Inhaling the intoxicating chocolate gas, I consider that I’ve had precisely one lover over the past thirty years, a fact I’ve never felt proud or ashamed of—the condition of long marriage. But is this a condition, like blindness or anosmia or some other sensory limitation, my entire being has adapted to? Are there sensory pleasures, like this one, I might die without experiencing, or worse, never be able to feel?
I turn the idea over, in the swoon of Cocoa Wonderland, a swoon that doesn’t flare up into lust; I don’t want to molest the sweet young chocolatier or anyone else (that I can think of). I just want to sit here with it, my condition, and nibble its bittersweet self pity.
Until at last, with a flourish from a silver tray, my enthusiastic new friend brings my cocoa in for a landing on the tea table beside me: dark brown pitch in a delicate rose china cup. Since I’m still the only patron of the Wonderland, there’s a breathless minute while he watches me examine, sniff, and taste the thick elixir. Alarmingly dense, like cake batter, the chocolate crawls slowly over my tongue and down my throat, an experience more like drowning than drinking.
Wow, I choke out.
And the bearded boy beams, leaning jauntily on the Victorian parlor’s mantelpiece, like a satisfied, life-sized gnome. He just knew I’d like real chocolate, loads better than what passes for cocoa in the markets, and as I try to find a polite method for sipping it—short of throwing back my head and upending the cup—he tells me about his studies; he’s a food science major at the university, one of its best departments, he’s about to graduate, already has a job lined up in Product Development at Yum!, have I heard of it?
The company that owns Pizza Hut and KFC is one that I, bona fide American, have heard of. I try to chat knowledgeably about American food trends (pork bellies, bacon novelties, fantasy potato chip flavors like Biscuits ‘n Gravy), the unchecked proliferation of Starbucks, and as I warm up, literally, my American drawl thickening, my digestive tract radiating like a pot-bellied stove, I feel an accelerating freedom of speech, of talking ad libitum, not subtly checking my opinions with my life’s partner, my husband, for accuracy and corroboration. I am full of chocolate, full of myself, and I happily blather on in this way until I whip out my sad little tale of slogging through Britain on a bicycle, searching in vain for a proper cup of coffee.
The boy barks out a laugh. Coffee! There’s a Costa on every corner! He squints at me with puzzlement. How long ago?
Examining my muddy dregs, I have a hot realization. 1991, I have to confess, probably before you were born.
Just a year before, he says, encouragingly.
I swallow the last gob, thick as regret. Armoring up again in my comical outfit, I feel already slightly sick, like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and probably already a joke the young man is cooking up to tell his mates at the pub tonight—the crazy old American lady who was surprised there was coffee in England.
Being married has largely spared me this, this singular shame, or at least it has divided shame equally between me and one other person, as we endlessly deflect and reflect each other—mirror facing mirror, odd couple. I can feel the beacon of the boy’s attention, and here, for once, I miss my husband’s corrective commentary (it wasn’t that bad; she’s exaggerating), which checks my wilder flights of storytelling and, normally, enrages me. Over a long, long union with shockingly few disputes, this unconscious habit, of policing my conversation, has been at the source of most of them.
As well as his inclination to leave a scene without ceremony, forcing me to follow backwards, trilling our polite goodbyes. I could use this talent now, as I extricate myself from Cocoa Wonderland, moving slightly less nimbly towards Sharrow Vale Road, along the Porter Brook, toward The Porter Brook Deli, where the food sciences major has assured me they’ll have buckets and buckets of artisanal ice cream.
I can hear the rushing water of the brook, one of Sheffield’s many small but mighty streams that pour down the hills and feed the five rivers that powered the mills and forges of its storied industrial past. A week ago, out for some exercise, my husband and I followed it. (A “walk” with my long-limbed mate is a rapid, almost military maneuver. Unable to match his gait, I march slightly behind, like a traditional Chinese wife, lungs heaving.) The brook took us to The Shepherd Wheel, a four-hundred-year-old mill, now a museum, where some of Sheffield’s world-famous cutlery was forged. Within its low stone house that appears elfin from the path, the enormous wheel churned, and the brute force of water, not a splashing but a pounding, came around in a terrifying rhythm; we could scarcely endure the noise. As my husband hustled us away, I tried to read the historical marker—about the workers who toiled there, days and years on end, deaf from the din, blind from the gloom, wet hands forged into claws.
Today Britain, as Napoleon famously derided, is “a nation of shopkeepers.” It continues to be every British person’s dream, according to The Guardian, to own a shop just like Cocoa Wonderland or The Porter Brook Deli where, with one step inside, I create a crowd with the other customer, standing in front of a display case crammed with cheeses. Tucked behind the case is yet another aproned man, trim in blue stripes, slicing a wedge of Stilton with a wire. I can practically touch the walls on both sides of the deli, lined floor to ceiling with crackers and biscuits, mustards, jams, and chutneys.
Though I see no ice cream, I wait my turn to ask, not wanting to rudely empty the shop in one go. But the deli man is thrilled by my request and invites me behind the counter, where there appears a slender door, through which we enter a smaller, darker room, hung with aging cheese and curing sausage. It occurs to me that my sister’s newly remodeled bathroom in America, which has an antechamber for washing up and a foyer for the toilet and a back room, with seating, for the shower, is considerably larger than The Porter Brook Deli.
The deli man flicks a light inside a miniature fridge, heretofore invisible, revealing several shelves of wee, colorful tubs. With great care he picks up each of the palm-sized pints and announces its flavor—some Asian and strange (Jasmine, Lychee & Rose, Black Sesame), some Yorkshire and plain (Strawberry, Chocolate, Vanilla). One of the flavors he describes as simply “Ice Cream.”
I laugh. No flavor?
And the deli man crows, Cream is a flavor! His wide smile sparkles in the mini-fridge light.
Ice cream is a flavor. Had I not asked, had he not illuminated and humored me in professional patience, I would never have known this rather basic fact of the universe. Triumphant, I buy four tiny tubs—Lemon Ginger, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Ice Cream—for my friend, hoping one of them will suit, imagining each offering its own small pleasure.
I know. I know. I’ve wasted half a day on this errand, the mission of an afterthought, profligately spending time (and money) in a way my husband will never understand. I am embarrassed, even here in my own writing, to set the events of this squandered day down. Were we together, none of this frivolous chasing, this bantering with mongers, this dallying, would have happened, except, perhaps, the five-minute stop for the boots. My husband is good at accomplishing things, quickly and efficiently; he can charge through a grocery store (where they also sell ice cream, he’ll likely point out) like a running back, lap me on a bicycle, write an entire book in the time it takes for me to compose a shaky page. By comparison, I’m a dawdler, an idler. I’m slow.
In comparison. In comparison I have lived my life, much more than half of it now, to this one person: quick, handsome, stoic, focused. Quiet, wise, impatient, strong. I am none of those things or, more precisely, I have some portion of those qualities in comparison, and of others I have a surplus: sociability, curiosity, generosity, languor. In marrying him, once upon a time, I halved my life and doubled it. I am some measure of myself and some of him, and together we are a book of marital history, which we read from, occasionally, at parties (when we stay long enough to tell a few, well-polished tales).
Separately, though, it occurs to me now, I continue to brood, have always brooded, turning the heart’s wheel around those questions, who am I, who are you, what are we, the terrible knowledge crashing and receding. Here I am, finally witnessing my own private England, and yet I’m still mulling our differences, whining to no one but her journal, like the grumpy girl on her bicycle.
Separately, I have to imagine, he broods, too, has always brooded. As he’s forced to watch my ass from behind, wobbling up a steep hill; as he waits for me at a crossroads, cooling his heels; as he endures my circular chatter.
And here we are, arrived to see our old friends: Don, pale and nearly skeletal, sits by a window, pair of binoculars in his lap. His wife Margaret, hale and still chic at eighty, bustles about their small apartment, assembling the “bits and pieces” of our tea. We’ve known and admired this couple for twenty years, from long stays in the small village in France where they lived for decades and where we camped every summer we could afford it. But we haven’t seen them for almost seven years, during which time we sent our kids to college, and Don—once an indefatigably merry Yorkshireman, championship talker and rugby player—collapsed into dementia, and they returned to England for the Health Service.
Now Don stares morosely into his lap (he’s forgotten the purpose of binoculars and simply fiddles with the apparatus). It’s in his hands that I can see the vestige of his old, kinetic energy. Not so long ago, were you to idly mention that you needed a new table, he would leap up to his woodpile and assemble one for you. His mind has forgotten nearly everything, but his hands recall their mission, turning the dials, measuring the length of the strap.
At the table, Don worries his napkin into a mushy ball, occasionally muttering nonsensical phrases, and we carry on catching up with Margaret, updating children and grandchildren, trying hard to show Don, with our eyes and by saying his name as often as possible, that he is part of this warm reunion. But he is lost to us, and the sad interiority on his face, the mumbling, suggest he understands how far adrift he really is. I swallow some tears with the canapés, and Margaret, frequently darting into the kitchen, is, I suspect, shedding a few there, too.
Throughout our meal, Margaret soothes her husband’s hands, filling them with crackers and olives and other foods to mangle, holding them down when his fidgeting threatens a plate. She calls him darling and luv, as she always did, but more maternally now. Their witty marital bickering, which we always enjoyed and sometimes imitated, is years behind them. They’ve been married sixty years. She encourages him to eat, but he doesn’t. Come on, now, darling. Look at the lovely salmon.
And in these moments my husband and I are cast out, to our own coupling, silently sharing a roll, avoiding the obvious. If Margaret were not able, or willing, to care for Don so constantly, so intensely, he’d be strapped to a wheelchair in a ward. Still, it’s not clear how much longer she’ll be able to do it. They face a short future together, each day slightly worse than the last.
The English winter day fades rapidly at the window, and Margaret hustles out dessert before Don gets too tired to sit. Tarts for us, and the lovely ice creams Kristin has brought for you, Don. We watch as she tenderly feeds him a bit of each, dipping his spoon into Lemon Ginger, Strawberry, Chocolate, and Cream. His dear face comes alive for a few, brief moments, anticipating the sweetness of each bite—he likes all the flavors, but especially Cream—with his mouth puckered up, like a kiss.
We make the drive home to our hilltop, scanning the right side of the road for the harrowing oncoming traffic, grimly digesting the evening. True love is not endless, as they tell us in fairy tales. It is relentless, like the Shepherd Wheel. Or, more accurately, like the bent, clawed souls with their noses to the grindstone, some of us continue to do it—this brooding, this soothing, this work. And some of us, maybe one of us, won’t.
Are you all right? my husband asks me, once we’re settled into bed. And unlike a baker or a cheesemonger or a cheerful cobbler, I know he truly means it, and that he means much more. It is the longstanding prelude to our lovemaking, this question, setting us off on our most intimate journey together. It means that he saw it, too, Margaret’s work, the work of love. It means that he’s ready, as am I, to put his shoulder to the wheel.
KRISTIN KOVACIC teaches writing in the MFA program of Carlow University and at Winchester Thurston School. She edited Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), and her chapbook of poetry, House of Women, was recently released in the New Women’s Voices series of Finishing Line Press.
They say the first year after you lose your husband is the hardest. Ironically, it even has a cute name: The Year of Firsts. The first wedding anniversary, the first Christmas, the first baseball season—everything is the first time without him. The first birthday without Alan brings a picture to my mind of the candle-less pile of his favorite donuts that I strategically arranged on a plate into a circular cake shape. (Even as I write this I know memory deceives me. If I dig back hard enough, I remember our friend Grace made Alan’s cake that year. Carrot, his favorite. I was too numb to have been so thoughtful.) Then there was the first time I went in for a teeth cleaning that fall: the way the entire staff looked at me, how certain I was they all already knew without my saying a word, how I couldn’t bring myself to meet their gaze, how I was grateful for each scrape of the dentist’s scaler to distract me from the weight that pressed into my sternum. And there was the first time I tried and failed to talk about Alan using past-tense verbs, the sound of them ringing too final in my ears.
What no one tells you, though, is that the firsts don’t end after those twelve months. In terms of frequency, they start loosening their grip, but still they come, slow and steady. Sometimes when you least expect it.
I should have known another first was happening when something I saw on Instagram made me cry. A man I’d never met before was getting married. He had kind brown eyes and she had a wonderfully proportioned face. They could have been in a teeth-whitening ad. They were young, around thirty, and from the looks of his Instagram feed, did your typical around-thirty-year-old things. Except they seemed to do it better. There were pictures of her twirling in the sunlight in front of a vintage car and drinking a milkshake alluringly at one of those diners that are so old they’ve become hip again. I saw him, too, on the other side of the camera, laughing because he’d been too caught up watching her, missing the moment, and accidentally taking a picture of the table. Of course, I didn’t know if that’s what actually happened. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me. But we did share something. I saw it in his profile. One word that didn’t match the happiness I saw in his face: widower.
I clicked on the link in his profile, searching his personal blog for clues. How did he get his eyes to twinkle like that? Over the course of two hours, my phone casting a glow in the otherwise dark room, I uncovered the life-bones of the brown-eyed man, using them to build a person with a past, a present, and a future. He’d been married to his best friend and the love of his life for close to eight years. She was an artist with curly brown hair and a ready smile. Her funeral was standing-room only. Everybody who met her loved her. Reading about her and looking at her pictures, I loved her, too. She looked like the type of person I’d want to share my fries with. She’d been sick, though, and then suddenly, as it sometimes happens with sickness and young people, she was gone. Four months later, her husband started dating. Soon after, he met his current fiancée, and their smiles have been gracing dental-office posters ever since. Somehow Brown Eyes had managed to hit the jackpot. He had found not just one true love, but two. And he was marrying the second in a month.
For having never met the guy, I didn’t know why I cared. All I know is that I did. I pictured Alan in Brown Eyes’s shoes and me in the role of the artist wife. I imagined him going on dates a few months after I’d died: him wearing his favorite button-down shirt, her in form-fitting jeans. Dim lighting. Sangria. Furtive thoughts and shy glances. My face felt hot. If Brown Eyes had really loved his wife, how could he move on so quickly? He was wheeling past, rushing to forget. I felt betrayed by a man I didn’t know, on behalf of a woman I’d never met.
But I knew that wasn’t all. Reaching that conclusion did nothing to quell the spring of emotions welling up in my chest. I turned my phone off and lay back in bed, letting the darkness of the room seep in and swirl inside me. And then, before I could stop it, it happened. It was just for an instant, but it was enough.
I am Brown Eyes out on a date. Feeling not-Alan’s arm around me. Letting myself be drawn in closer.
The guilt sliced me in half. I shook the image from my head, and hot tears slipped down my cheeks. Of all the things I’d felt in the past year and a half since Alan had died, I’d never felt anything like this. It was a string waiting to be pulled. Thinking about finding the loose end made me feel sick, so instead I climbed a mountain and looked down at Brown Eyes from my perch. What kind of widower wanted to find someone new to share his milkshakes with? To go on adventures with? Who wanted that? Not me. I didn’t want any of it. And neither should he. Clearly, he didn’t love his wife as much as I loved Alan. It was an awful thing to think but it was easy. He was a stranger who couldn’t tell me otherwise. But that’s what made Judgment Mountain so great. It was a place where I could focus on assessing other people’s lives so I didn’t have to think about my own.
I was still up on the mountain, deluding myself, when I met up with Eddie for dinner a few weeks later. He sat across from me, smiling. I tried to read his eyes to determine if it was a real smile or the kind that hid things that hurt too much to think about. We most often exchanged the latter in the short time we’d known each other. We had met at a now defunct Kaiser bereavement group for young spouses. Most of the people in the group, including Eddie and me, had partners who’d been on hospice. Alan and Eddie’s wife Jeannie had had cancer. Paul Kalanithi described it best when he wrote, “Yes, all cancer patients are unlucky, but there’s cancer, and then there’s CANCER, and you have to be really unlucky to have the latter.” They both had the all-caps kind, one of the main commonalities in the intersection of the Sobrina-Eddie Venn Diagram.
“So how was your holiday?” I asked reflexively. I kicked myself as soon as I said it. Holidays sucked. “Sorry, dumb question.”
“You know, it was surprisingly good. I spent it with my friend and his family. His little girl made it her mission to make me smile. She even waited for me to get there to open her presents. It was really, really sweet. How was yours?”
“I visited the park where we scattered Alan’s ashes. I hiked up to the bench at the top of the hill, and it hit me for the first time how nice it was that he chose that spot. I never realized until then that he probably did that on purpose so I wouldn’t have to go visit some sad arbitrary plot somewhere.” My words caught slightly in my throat. Then I realized that Eddie might visit Jeannie at a cemetery, and I kicked myself again.
“I still don’t know what to do with Jeannie’s ashes,” he said. His eyes misted over, and I could tell he wanted to say something. A moment passed and he shook his head, changing his mind. “Leave it to you to make me cry.”
I laughed. We both cried at every single meeting.
We studied our menus in silence, and I debated between my usual chicken biryani and trying a new fish dish.
“I decided to make some changes,” Eddie said, smiling. It lingered in the corners of his lips, revealing a side of Eddie I’d never seen before. So it was a real one. “I’ve been exercising more. I’m up to doing an hour and a half on the elliptical machine every day at max resistance. And next week, I’m playing Ultimate Frisbee with people a lot younger than me. I hope I don’t break anything.” He laughed.
“Wow, that’s great.” When I first met him, he couldn’t walk or do the elliptical for more than ten minutes. I closed my menu but not before silently picking something to order for Alan: the lamb shank. He would like that. Another reflex.
“Oh, and I asked a woman out.”
“You did?” I put my menu down. Now this was news. “Who?”
“A woman from my sci-fi book club.”
“Wow.” My vocabulary was very impressive tonight.
“She said ‘no,’ but that’s okay.”
“Still, that’s huge. And you felt okay doing it?”
“I did,” he said. “I mean I did then, at the time. I might not the next time. Who knows.”
He looked back down at his menu, while I did the math. Jeannie had died in January. It was less than a year later. If it had been anyone else, I would have thrown him down the mountain already, but Eddie was different. I knew for a fact how much he loved Jeannie. I could see it in him, full, whole, and remarkably intact. And I realized, after the initial shock faded, that his asking another woman out did nothing to change that.
Dinner with Eddie gave me hope. I thought about coming down from the mountain, even if just a little. But when I told my sister about Eddie starting to date again, she texted back, “Whattt!!! Do people just not fall deep in love anymore?!?!?!?” And it put me right back up on the summit. It seemed that’s where everyone else thought I should be. I didn’t dare tell her how I’d found him brave.
It took a while before I found the courage to tell anyone else, until one day it came up in conversation with my friend Angela. We’d met at the same grief group that I knew Eddie from. Her husband Raymond didn’t have cancer; he had died suddenly in June from a blood clot after surviving a stroke the previous month. We were both in our early thirties, and I knew she knew what it was like to walk around in the world like a ghost, only to have that feeling subside and be replaced with the sensation that your skin is turned inside out. She texted to ask how dinner was with Eddie, and I texted back about how he’d started dating again.
“I swear men move on so much faster than women,” I said, dipping a toe in to test the water. I hoped I sounded nonchalant.
“Who did he ask out?” she asked.
“A woman from his book club,” I said.
I waited for her to blast him, but all she said was, “I’m glad he’s doing well.”
Her reaction emboldened me. I ventured further out up to my knees.
“Are you surprised about Eddie asking someone out already? It hasn’t even been a year yet,” I said, holding my breath.
“I used to be surprised by it, that people find other people so quickly. But everyone deserves to be happy.”
And then she told me she had started dating, too: a really great guy who made her happy. He was a friend with whom she had lost touch over the years and recently reconnected with.
In true Angela fashion, she worried immediately after telling me that she had hurt me.
“No, you didn’t at all. I’m truly happy for you.” And I really meant it. I expected to feel the surge of emotions as I had with Brown Eyes, but all I felt was relief. She loved and missed Raymond deeply. We talked about it all the time. And now she was seeing someone new. She was proof those two things could coexist. The realization radiated through me.
Judgment Mountain began to crumble, and as it did, I recognized it for what it was: a place where I judged myself. I judged people for moving on too quickly because the truth was I was afraid I was moving on too fast. I wanted things to stay the same for as long as possible, to live in the world that Alan still lived in. But that world didn’t exist anymore. Could I still love Alan forever and simultaneously want to find someone new to share my life with? I hated myself for even wanting to ask. As if asking was somehow an admission that Alan’s love wasn’t enough. That I was replacing him. That he was even replaceable. It was out of the question.
But Eddie, Angela, and Brown Eyes helped me understand that it wasn’t the question that I had wrong—it was the answer. I wasn’t asking because Alan’s love hadn’t been enough. I was asking because it had been more than enough. It had lifted me and filled me and carried me gently when I didn’t even know I needed it. I could feel it when he watched me sleep in the morning, by the patient way he answered my questions on everything from foreign policy to the way last night’s movie had ended after I inevitably knocked out.
I miss the blond hairs on his arms. I miss his smell. I miss sharing life with him. The yearning to find someone new isn’t a way of replacing him as I’d feared. It’s a testament to how wonderful I know life can be with someone. And it’s because Alan showed me that that kind of love exists that I want to find it again. I don’t fully know what that means, but I’m ready to let myself find out.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.
It starts with a song. Maybe it’s on the radio, maybe on TV. It could even be the artwork on the cover of an album. Or it could be an interview.
Initially I’d not even liked the band, and the first time I saw them play, I left the all-ages music hall early—it was a sparsely attended weeknight lobby show—and fled with a friend to a scuzzy bar a few blocks away. I’d moved to Sonoma County because I wanted to be a wine writer, but that all went out the door when I discovered the area’s extensive indie band scene, complete with its own tabloid-sized free magazine published cheaply on newsprint with ink that left telltale smudges all over readers’ hands. Something about it all resonated with me, this hidden but vital world of scrappy bands thriving among the vineyards and bucolic golden hills.
Later, I shoehorned myself into working as the magazine’s managing editor for free. The editor gave me a copy of the band’s demo and after listening to it once out of duty, I was surprised to find I couldn’t stop. I played it every morning, usually twice in a row. The songs were soundscapes, heavy with blissed-out distortion, and I liked how they set the tone of the day I wanted to have. At one of the magazine’s weekly editorial meetings at a mediocre coffeehouse that also served beer and sandwiches, we decided to run a short profile of the band in the next issue, and they dispatched me to interview them.
The house where the band rehearsed was on a poorly lit rural road, easy to miss. Like many dumpy rental houses that play host to various band members over the years, it had a name: The 116 House. Inside, it was dim and there were about five old couches in the living room. They guys welcomed me in and we all sat on the couches and did the interview. I recall little else about it, though I still have the microcassette recording.
It was the night I met my husband. Joe was the band’s drummer, and he’d said just a few words that evening. He still has a drummer’s predilection for staying in the background.
We liked a lot of the same bands, as it turned out. Joe and each I had Ride CDs separately before we coupled, and our devotion to Ride is still such that we can’t bear to part with the duplicates. I shelve our CDs alphabetically by artist, and the Rs—I also love The Ramones—are disproportionately gnarly. In its purest sense music does not take a tactile from, but in a practical sense I adore the plastic and vinyl flotsam of albums and their colorful sleeves and inserts. Even if the music isn’t on the stereo, I like knowing it’s there twice.
Some of the guys in Ride were still teenagers when (to deploy a trite phrase of music journalism) their band exploded onto the British music scene. It’s almost criminal how fully realized their sound was at such a young age. Listen to Nowhere, their first album proper, and it’s still fresh and epic. Their music was noisy and angelic and gorgeous but always had a solid pop sensibility at its core. Unimportant to Joe but very notable to me, they were also really fit. That, my friend, is arty chick bait. I was an easy mark.
Even so, there was little evidence of Ride’s physical deliciousness on Nowhere, the cover of which is a blurry image of a cresting ice-blue wave, so the songs themselves had to be the heartthrobs. I got into Nowhere my freshman year of college, hijacking my roommate’s copy and eventually listening to it every single morning twice in a row, blissfully existing inside of it the same way I would with Joe’s band’s demo years later. On an opposite coast, a world away, Joe was nowhere, too.
Music was everything to me in my teens and early adulthood. School, jobs, responsibility: these things made no sense. Music did, and by first channeling a real-life situation through the glorious prism of a band, it came out as something I got.
I saw a lot of rock bands back then. They spiritually realigned me, helping me function the rest of the week. Everything else was planned around their shows. At a release show for a compilation CD Joe’s band was on, I got drunk and gave Joe my business card. A few days later he actually called me, instantly distinguishing himself from all of the other guys I kept tabs on at shows. We had our first date. And then we kept on dating.
I liked Joe because he was sincere, and I liked his friends and the other guys in the band because they were fun and not mopey, self-obsessed weirdos. Joe and I liked a lot of the same bands, too. We saw bands together, plus I tagged along to almost every one of his shows. For a four-piece, they had an insane amount of gear: a Farfisa, a Moog, two drum kits, assorted amps and amp heads, a few suitcases full of pedals and cables, and a film projector (I know, I know). It took a long time for them to load in, but it took forever for them to load out. Joe may be sincere, but he had no hustle. I grew adept at lugging bursting-at-the-seams drum hardware bags up and down narrow club steps and onto filthy San Francisco curbs. All those dingy clubs, all those pints of Lagunitas IPA, the residue of the stamp on the back of my hand giving away the cause of my next-day grogginess at work. I lived for it.
One of the most disappointing things about being married to a drummer is that, no matter how mind-blowing their playing might be, it gets to a point where the person practicing on the kit in the garage is just making an unbearably loud racket. At least I appreciate Joe’s drum kit. It’s a set of vintage Ludwigs in a coppery sparkle wrap called Champagne. I see them glimmer every time I bring in the groceries. Those drums have traveled quite a bit, in the backs of vans and then in moving trucks. They’ve spent years in their drum bags, and then in the basements of friends, and then, finally, in our basement. Now that we have space for them, Joe does not have anyone nearby who jives on the kind of music he’d most like to play, and at best he sometimes does shuffle beats at casual jam sessions with friends. But he never gets to really wail.
We have a Ride poster that’s the cover of their 1991 EP, Today Forever. The poster was Joe’s initially, and for some reason he got it laminated when he bought it, and that’s probably why it’s still around now. I love that EP; the cover is a photo of a shark baring its teeth and RIDE is superimposed in capital letters and it’s cryptic and badass. I tried to put the poster up in the basement to remind me that we used to be cool, but no matter what kind of tape I used, the combination of cinder block walls and humidity conspired to make the poster fall down. It bummed me out. I think I was hoping it would spur Joe to play his drums more often.
I’m still plotting ways to hang that poster. Loving a band is like having a crush. Simply saying their name out loud feels gratifying, almost illicit. This is perhaps why music journalism has decayed into an endless stream of lists: assembling and deconstructing them allows you to handle the names, the bands, to build them up into a gigantic consolidated tower, an epic hypothetical luxury condo of rock and roll exclusivity that’s just to your liking. Even just typing certain band names now gives me a rush: The Charlatans. Sonic Youth. Dinosaur Jr. The people from these bands are officially old dudes now but not to me. Rock music is commonly thought of the music of youth, perhaps because only in youth do we have such an abundance of potent feelings in need of a vessel.
You’d think music would take energy from you, but that’s not how it works at all. It only gives. What a privilege to have that in your life, a special thing that’s all yours to obsess over.
When my appetite for new bands took a nose dive about a decade ago, it disarmed me. Who was I if I didn’t care about current music? I wound up getting into really square stuff like Henri Mancini and Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis—the kind of music I used to make fun of. The albums were plentiful and affordable; I could get a whole box of crappy vinyl at the Goodwill for a dollar, pick out the good stuff, and turn right back to re-donate the rejects.
I missed leaving a club feeling both spent and entirely filled up. Live shows stopped doing it for me. I was tired of standing in a crowd on dirty floors in my impractical rocker-girl black vinyl boots, tired of sitting at a cocktail table in a sparsely populated club, tired of scoping out a spot to pee in an alley off San Pablo Avenue because the toilet got clogged at the artists’ loft party. The toilets at loft shows always got clogged.
Going musically frigid changed me, or I changed and then I went frigid. To care so much seems petty, but the emotional significance of a single song can run so deep, like a fissure in the ocean floor. Some people find God. Others find bands, and their music fills a void. Listening to a song is at once completely universal and profoundly individual, and the people who made that song you come to carry in your heart because they created something that lifts up your life and articulates this roiling feeling you either have or yearn to have.
“Ride’s getting back together!” Joe said right when he came home from work. “They’re touring and will be in Cleveland.”
This was huge. “When?” I asked. “Did you get tickets? This will sell out. We need tickets.”
“But what if your mom can’t watch Frances?”
“THIS IS RIDE. Get the tickets.”
He got the tickets. I arranged for Mom to watch Frances, and we booked a hotel not far from the venue, because Cleveland is a bit of a trip for us, and I’d done enough drowsy post-show drives in my life to know how stupid it is to get in a car with your ears ringing and a body full of adrenaline and blood tinged with alcohol, only to later doze off going 75 on the interstate with still over an hour left to go, thinking, “Crap, am I going to make it home alive?”
Neither of had ever seen Ride, who broke up in the mid-1990s. They hadn’t played together formally in over twenty years. Joe and I left for Cleveland in the afternoon, and when we got downtown, the traffic was outrageous and Joe nearly had a panic attack. It turns out there was an Indians game that night, and our hotel was blocks from the stadium, so by the time we checked into our room, we’d weathered a nightmarish hour of gridlocked rerouting and impossible parking.
Key cards in hand, we got in the elevator. Joe was surly, swearing under his breath, and I had to give him the kind of wifely “get your shit together, man” look reserved for public situations.
But something quickly drew my attention away from my irate husband. Right before the elevator doors closed, a man rushed in and stared intently at his black rolly suitcase. In the understated dark clothing of a traveler, he didn’t look like any of the garishly dressed Indians fans we’d just seen by the bucketload, and he was giving off a powerful vibe I recognized but couldn’t quite place. The doors slid closed, and the typical awkwardness of a crowded elevator ensued. I thought about asking the intense guy which floor he needed—he was cute, a good excuse to be polite—but opted not to because he was actually closer to the buttons than I was.
I spent the following impossibly long elevator seconds mulling this over, and then bing! the doors opened to our floor. The intense dude quickly scooted out before us to the opposite wing. Once we got down our end hallway, Joe turned to me. “I think that was Loz.”
“What?” I said. Loz is Ride’s drummer. It’s short for Lawrence. I think there’s a rule that all British rock band percussionists need to have nicknames with a Z. Joe’s always admired Loz musically. He’s not the kind to idolize people, but he’s told me a few times how the song “Leave Them All Behind,” which is crazy-full of drum fills, had been one of the things that motivated him to start playing drums in the first place.
“Yeah—in the elevator. His suitcase had a luggage tag that said OXF.” Ride is from Oxford.
I was dubious, because Ride was a distant thing from a mythical realm, one that did not include blasé, overpriced rooms at the Radisson. “Let’s just figure out where we’re having dinner and relax a bit,” I said. But I was not relaxed. I’d suddenly slipped back into the old Sara, a person who was impulsive and excitable. We headed out and kept our eyes peeled.
Dinner was awful. Ride was fantastic. The reunion was not at all a pandering or opportunistic. I always wonder about this, the motivation bands have to reunite. Every person has events that define their lives, but for a band who achieves renown in their youth, that becomes—to the public, at least—the defining thing in their lives. Joe had certainly not spent the ten years of our marriage being nothing but the former drummer for his band, though they never exploded onto any music scene.
We go through the years, and ideally become more sorted-out and mature. There are jobs that don’t involve musical instruments or amp heads or tour vans that stink of farts and t-shirts in bad need of laundering. There are relationships and families and prosaic things of incredible, meaningful depth: homework on the refrigerator, walks with the dog, lopsided birthday cakes spattered with droplets of pink and blue wax. But there are also the lingering fumes of four guys who were on a stage together and did this incredible, transformative thing, and while other life events can eclipse that in significance, nothing can duplicate it.
Pop culture holds such a mighty sway over our society that we tend to define ourselves by what we like, not what we do. Those filters—favorite bands, favorite books, favorite movies—are handy, but they’re not airtight. I might meet a person who agrees with me that Ejector Seat Reservation is Swervedriver’s best album start to finish, because duh, it is. But you can love Swervedriver and be an asshole. Joe and I can relate to each other over somewhat obscure music, but that’s not what makes a relationship endure. I’m not sure what does, actually. Maybe not knowing is the key.
After the concert, Joe and I agreed it was for sure Loz in our elevator that night. While the show itself had been the main attraction, this one fleeting non-encounter gave the whole weekend a symbolic significance. The Pope had just concluded his North American junket, but screw that. Loz stayed on the same floor of our hotel.
That following week I spent electrified, floating in a heady altered state. Joe and I dug up a documentary about Creation, Ride’s record label, and it included this offhand home move footage of Ride from back in the day—they couldn’t have been any older than twenty-one—and they were just these totally hot little shoegaze babies peering out from a lost window of time that held so much promise. What was I doing when that was filmed? What was Joe? I couldn’t even fathom it. I wanted to go back and re-watch that snippet about fifty times, which is exactly what I would have done in 1991.
My body surged with my own teenage fervor, churning with pheromones long unused. The intimacy and immediacy of all the music I’d ever loved came rushing back, and my ears were receptive in a way they hadn’t been in years. I daydreamed a lot and was not terribly productive with work, instead going on runs more frequently, the pace brisker and the route longer. Joe sat at his drum kit in the basement and played it hard, like he used to before we learned to automatically default to common respect for our neighbors.
The world nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos and algos—“pain” and “return home,” respectively. The pain isn’t from the past itself, but the impossibility of fully experiencing that home again. I was afraid I’d feel pained from what I’d see up there onstage, that the reality of a middle-aged Ride today would maybe squelch a vision of the past I cherished, a time of dewy skin and dreamy faces. But I didn’t. (It certainly helped that the band’s members have aged well—hiya, Loz!)
I could listen to the interview I recorded at the 116 House in 2001, but do I even need to? Part of the 116 House lives here. Home is dynamic. At its kernel is the eternal awe of youth, embers that you can’t let die. We move artlessly though time, as dumb today as the day we were born, and the day we skipped class to go flip through the bargain bin at the record store, and the day we drunkenly handed a drummer a business card after that show at Bottom of the Hill, and they day we put our kid to bed for the thousandth time. Every morning we wake up again, and it is today forever.
SARA BIR is a chef and writer living in Ohio. Her book Foraged, Forgotten, Found: Rediscovering America’s Abundant Wild and Unusual Fruits is forthcoming from Chelsea Green Publishing.
I’m reading my way through a romance series. I’m on the fifth installment, and I’ve gotten a feel for the unique quirks of the books as well as for the ways the books heed romance novel conventions—especially the less enticing conventions.
The convention I’m having trouble dealing with most, one of the most common romance novel conventions of all, is this: All of the heroines, no matter what their age, no matter what century they were born in (there’s some time-traveling involved), are virgins when they meet the heroes.
There’s nothing wrong with being a virgin, of course. Lots of people are virgins, even into their mid-twenties (or later), just like the heroines of the novels I’m reading. But lately, the way virginity is used as a trope in romance novels has started to get to me.
With few exceptions (Courtney Milan, I’m looking at you), one can’t read a historical romance novel, or even many that are set in contemporary times, without encountering a virginal heroine. It’s simply that common of a genre convention.
What’s the big deal?
The big deal, for me, is the particular trope of virginity-as-sacred-gift to the hero. The big deal, for me, is the other trope of virginity-as-stand-in-for-honesty, resolve, valor, courage, and an assortment of other qualities that a romance heroine has no other way of proving she possesses except by guarding her hymen.
In a romance novel that uses these tropes, when the moment of truth—that is, cherry-picking—finally comes, and inevitably the reader enters the hero’s point of view for at least a moment, he feels such gratitude that he’s the one to have received the gift of the heroine’s virginity. And in that moment, he truly admires her.
And in that moment, I feel sick and cheated. I feel like a failure. I wonder why I’m reading the book and consider stopping. Every time. But I set aside my bad feelings and keep reading. After all, it’s not the romance novel genre’s fault that I was raped when I was a child and never had a chance to be a virgin at all.
When I was a freshman in college, my best friend was a girl named Bel. She and I were walking through the student union during what turned out to be rape awareness week. I, of course, was so wildly unaware of everything in college that I didn’t know such a week even existed.
A campus activist group had set up a long, white bulletin board—a memorial. It stretched as long as the building itself. When Bel and I found it, the board was covered by a flurry of yellow index cards, so many that the board looked like a field of daffodils. On a nearby table were more cards, pens, and push-pins so you could write a note and stick it on the board.
I’d never told Bel what happened to me as a child, so I was nervous about writing anything on a card. But she strode to the table, picked up a card and wrote a note, and then stabbed it into the board. Her note read, For the girl who never got to be a virgin.
For a moment, I had a strange feeling that Bel had read my mind. She could have written that note about me. She hadn’t, though. I quickly wrote a note for myself, and we walked outside onto the quad. We sat in the spring North Carolina sunshine on a patch of grass by the gothic-inspired chapel and told each other very similar stories.
Then, Bel told me she had a theory. It went like this: Since she never had a chance to choose whom to have sex with the first time, she got to be a virgin forever.
Bel was an eternal virgin.
At first glance, Bel’s theory seemed similar to the advice given by nurse practitioner Carol F. Roye, in her article about the uselessness of our cultural misconceptions about hymens and virginity: “I believe that virginity is what the individual thinks it is. It certainly is for men, who bear no tell-tale signs of lost virginity. The concept of virginity has an emotional connotation. It is more than just the physical disruption of hymenal tissue.”
But in reality, Bel had flipped Roye’s advice on its head. Bel had declared herself a virgin for as long as she wanted to be one.
Roye, however, was not advising a perception of virginity until you felt like you weren’t a virgin any more. On the contrary, she was advising women to take a broader, not narrower, view of virginity loss: “If a young woman has had a sexual relationship with her partner, and she feels that she has lost her virginity, then she has, regardless of what actually happened to her hymen during the encounter. There are ancillary issues that each woman must answer for herself. Is oral sex ‘de-virginizing?’ Anal sex?”
Roye’s article didn’t consider me or Bel at all. How do you think about virginity when yours was gone before you were sexual being in the first place?
Just a few months before my conversation with Bel, I’d had sex for the first time since since I was raped by a grown man when I was in middle school.
My first adult sexual experience was not the most romantic experience in the world. In fact, in retrospect, I don’t think I wanted it to be. I think I wanted to get it over with. I didn’t have a hymen (metaphorical or no) to discard, but I did have plenty of baggage. I chose someone I knew I would never see again—an ex-boyfriend from high school. I selected him carefully for a one-night stand.
Before we went at it, I told Ex-Boyfriend I was raped when I was a child—I’d never told him before. He seemed, weirdly, relieved. “So you’re not a virgin, then.”
What did that question mean? That he was going to do things differently? Would he have done things differently if I’d said nothing? What if I’d had the eternal virgin conversation with Bel sooner and kept my rape a secret from him? What if I’d told him I was a virgin—what would have happened then? Did he think my body was transformed somehow by its less-than-virginal status, his own duty to me therefore lightened?
Sarah Wendell at the romance novel website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books addressed what she called the “Surprise Virgin” trope in romance novels. It goes like this:
The hero figures out the heroine is a virgin because he encounters some resistance (which, don’t even get me started) and she flinches and of course he Is Very Alarmed and tries to stop but she tells him not to so it’s ok for him to get on with it.
Then after they’ve crested and reached peaks of joy and done the dance as old as time, he says something about how if he’d known she was a virgin, he’d have done it all differently, been more gentle or something.
Wendell has all kinds of criticisms of this particularly weak trope: “First, why would you not bring your A game the first time you sleep with a woman you have major lust pants for? If you groin is on fire and it’s not because of Gold Bond, why would you not do your very best scrumpin? What is this ‘I’d have been more gentle and sensitive’ crap?”
Ex-Boyfriend and I had the awkward I-was-raped conversation. Then I, with my non-virginal eighteen-year-old body, and he, with his extremely non-virginal twenty-year-old body, fucked in my friend’s guest room. It hurt like hell. I cried and made sure he didn’t see. Sex felt terrible, and I never wanted to do it again. Maybe that was his A game. Maybe it wasn’t.
My de-baggaging (you really can’t call it deflowering) did not involve peaks of joy.
I was an unusual species of surprise virgin. I’d been deflowered, yes, when I was a child. But in no way was I sexually experienced. Bel was right, in this instance—that night I was an eternal virgin.
But I didn’t understand any of this back then. After my de-baggaging, I was in so much pain that I believed my body was broken. When Ex-Boyfriend asked me what was wrong—he wasn’t so dense that he couldn’t sense that something was off—I insisted I was fine. He fell asleep. I didn’t sleep at all.
I was probably in shock.
The romance novel is a beautiful genre. That’s why, despite these painful virgin tropes, I keep reading them. When they’re written well, books about the struggle to find human connection—emotional and physical—are deeply gratifying.
Some readers criticize the predictability of the genre. But, like it does for most genres, predictability makes romance novels more enjoyable, not less. Romance is predictable as any genre is predictable: as predictable as a Sherlock Holmes story, as predictable as a sonnet.
“Predictable” simply means that the books share genre conventions to which they must conform and use to tell their stories. These conventions can be constraining, like the quatrains and couplets of a sonnet. But they can also create a freedom within that constraint, as any author of metrical poetry will tell you. Readers appreciate an author who can dazzle from within those conventions.
Any acrobat can flip and twirl. The acrobat who flips and twirls on a tightrope is astounding. The tightrope is the genre with its constraints and conventions.
But here’s the other thing about genres: they are allowed to grow and change as the needs of their audiences grow and change.
Wendell and her co-author Candy Tan, in their book on romance novels, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, take on the trope of innocence—usually depicted using virginity—in romance novels of all stripes, not just historicals:
One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.
Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance.
The virginal heroine and heroic wang are long-entrenched conventions of romance novels. But they need to go. They need to go along with the interminable whiteness of the characters of most romance novels, and other sad holdovers.
Romance writers do push genre boundaries. They stay on the tightrope but retrace the conventions in ways that allow for new ways of thinking about sexuality. For readers like me, for rape survivors, abuse survivors, for those of us whose virginity never was ours to begin with—we are grateful.
Courtney Milan, in her historical romance novel Unclaimed, features a virginal leading man, Sir Mark Turner, and a courtesan, Jessica Farleigh, hired to seduce him and destroy his reputation. The book is sexy, conventional (genre-wise), and wound up tight. And yet it flips the virginal heroine trope on its head. That Milan could do all of this and remain on the tightrope only makes her writerly acrobatics more amazing. Milan avoided the plague and maintained the backbone. And with the rest of her novels, she does it over and over. Other writers manage to avoid the plague as well. (Hello there, Alisha Rai.) But they are rare, still.
I know that having sex for the first time is not usually like it is in a romance novel. Even friends who aren’t rape survivors have told me that their first time was similar to my de-baggaging. Terrible—painful, with insensitive partners who are snoring before you know it’s over.
But usually a girl or woman gets to choose whom she’s with when she loses her virginity. I never got to choose. Bel never got to choose. But more than that, we never got to be virgins. From the moment I was aware of my sexuality, I was already not-a-virgin. The first person to press his lips to mine was the first person to stick his dick in me. I didn’t know what a condom was, and, no, he didn’t use one.
I lost so much that day. Not just my virginity.
It’s curious that we say “lose” when we talk about virginity. The language of “lose,” of “loss,” implies that virginity is something that can be found again. After all, few things are lost forever. The old-fashioned term “ruined” seems far more accurate. Thomas Hardy, ever interested in ruination, wrote a poem called “The Ruined Maid,” taking on Victorian notions of virginity and its close bedfellow (heh), ruination.
“O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown! Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town? And whence such fair garments, such pros-per-ity?”— “O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks, Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks; And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” — “Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
And on it goes, the poor country girl amazed by the dazzling jewels, dress, and speech of her former counterpart, now “ruined,” the reader supposes, by a coincidence of her sexual actions and the rigid moral dictates of society.
What’s not mentioned in the poem is that the ruined woman must be well provided for in her new role as a rich man’s mistress. Ruination in Victorian society did not immediately mean wealth and education, after all, but it could. And, by the end, it appears that both women—the poor working woman, aged early by her hard life, and the rich man’s mistress—are ruined after a fashion. The double meaning of the word “ruined” makes the poem work.
Nevertheless, the line of demarcation is clear. The overworked country girl and the socially ruined mistress are not the same.
A girl does not come back from being ruined. What’s lost cannot be found. You just have to pick up the ruined stuff of yourself, and move on.
KATIE ROSE GUEST PRYAL is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor living in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Hollywood Lights Series, which includes Entanglement, Love and Entropy, and Chasing Chaos, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to Quartz, The Chronicle Of Higher Education, The (late, lamented) Toast, Dame Magazine, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. When not writing, she teaches creative writing and works as freelance editor. Find her on Twitter: @krgpryal.
His one-inch thumbnail picture was cute, but that wasn’t why I stopped on the online profile of “Another John” that Saturday morning in 2003. It was his profile header that grabbed my attention, proclaiming, “You will never be a guest on the Jerry Springer Show because of me.”
Visions sprang to mind of a curly-haired woman in a red tube-top, flinging fistfuls of deli meats at her boyfriend. A bald guy in a tight t-shirt chomping on another guy’s bare calf. I remembered a woman’s tearful confession to her outraged spouse, who then stormed backstage and punched a hole in a wall. One thing was clear. The guy who’d written that headline was funny.
Though I’d spent most of my adult life in a series of long-term relationships, I always felt like it was a fluke, like I was an impostor. The real me had no idea how to date. Maybe my ineptitude had taken root in elementary school where the nuns punished the whole class whenever boys and girls bucked the rules and played together during recess. Or maybe it was due to my love of sports; I’d been outdoors playing baseball with my brother’s friends the summer my female classmates were indoors teaching themselves to dance, apply make-up, and shave their legs. Perhaps it was what I’d noticed from a young age: girls who were little and cute got more practice talking to boys. Whatever the origins of my discomfort, when I imagined dating, I felt as graceful as a linebacker doing ballet.
Thankfully, I’d managed to sidestep true “dating,” since most of my love relationships had grown out of friendships. Only rarely had I gone out with strangers. But things felt different now. I was single, finally emerging from months of hibernation after the excruciating breakup of a six-year relationship. Now forty-four, I was past the age of having lots of single male friends.
So I thought about how I could meet someone. I taught elementary school; 98% of my colleagues were women. Bars and nightclubs wouldn’t work; I didn’t drink, and only my dog was allowed to see my dance moves. Though I started reading personals ads, I never made a conscious decision to try online dating, still not widespread in 2003. Reading the ads on Craigslist reminded me that if other people were out looking, too, maybe I wasn’t such a freak.
But entries like “52-year-old married man seeks slender woman, 20-25, for discreet affair” only reinforced my feeling that I was an awkward alien, lost on a planet of dating-proficient people. Eventually, I decided that it might be less depressing if I went to a website that was solely for dating, rather than one that also told me where to recycle my scrap metal.
I’d been window-shopping on Match.com for six weeks. Following my instructions, the website was showing me single men in their forties who lived within five miles of me. If anyone’s intro paragraph passed my test for “smart” and “funny,” I’d read the rest of his profile and hunt for shared values and interests. So far, I’d granted a few men ratings of “mildly interesting,” but no one had intrigued me enough to make me break out the credit card and pay for the privilege of contacting him. The Jerry Springer guy had my attention, though. I read on.
Then I saw them, my magic words, standing tall and proud in the second sentence: “friends,” “committed,” “monogamous,” and “very long-term.” I felt a little flutter inside from a part of me that had long been paralyzed. I had wondered if my last relationship had killed it, but as I continued reading, I could feel that hope had survived.
Another John sounded like he knew what he wanted. I knew what I didn’t want—another six years with a man who ultimately didn’t want to commit. With each sentence, though, I got a sense of someone who knew himself, someone who wanted a true partner. I scanned the rest, waiting for the one-liner that would stop my forward motion.
But it didn’t come. He wasn’t a rock-climbing, parachute-jumping super-stud longing for a woman who could comfortably strut the red carpet as well as stroll the beach. Neither was he looking for a supermodel fifteen years younger than he.
Instead, he hoped for someone who could watch films with subtitles, who would never cross a picket line, and whose stance toward religion was one of tolerance. If he needed a weekly bungee-jumping fix, he didn’t mention it. He liked having dinner with friends, eating M&Ms in movie theaters, and camping in the mountains.
He was open to a rainbow of ethnicities, and under “you could be,” this agnostic man, Another John, had marked everything from Taoist to Muslim to Jewish to atheist. He didn’t require a younger woman, and he’d even marked that he was open to someone several years older than he. In online dating, that was a rarity.
That was it. It was time to pay up.
I felt a ridiculous sense of urgency as I ran to grab my credit card. After all, Another John had been out there for the entire forty-four years I’d been alive. But now that I’d found him, I didn’t want anyone else to snag him before I’d had my chance. Hurriedly, I re-entered my username and password.
Then I had to decide the length of my pay-in-advance membership. Even though the monthly price would be cheaper if I went long term, wasn’t it pessimistic to assume that I’d need a whole year to find someone? And anyway, hadn’t I already found him? He just didn’t know it yet. So I chose the bare minimum, the one-month plan.
I was dismayed to discover next that I’d have to create a profile before I could contact him. As precious minutes ticked by, I typed sentences about myself that I hoped would appeal to Another John. Would it seem too scary if I used the word “crazed” in my headline? And if I said “Baseball-Crazed Hiking Teacher,” did that make it sound like I taught hiking or like I was a teacher who liked to hike? Was it too much too soon if I wrote that I ultimately wanted to get married? Oh, man. Why hadn’t I thought about this stuff beforehand? My hands trembled as the panic raced through me.
After whipping out a paragraph that I hoped was both funny and substantive, I reached the step where I got to specify the traits I was looking for in a partner. It was like building my own omelet at Denny’s. And in selecting the ingredients that were exactly to my tastes, I found that the omelet-person I was creating sounded an awful lot like Another John.
Finally, I clicked on the “contact” link, and it was done. Feeling giddy, I closed the laptop. All I could do now was wait.
That evening, while congratulating myself for my boldness, I reread his profile. Suddenly, my eyes widened, and I scanned the list of religions that Another John had deemed acceptable. It wasn’t there!
Distracted by my pleasure at how open-minded A.J. was, I’d failed to notice that the one religion missing from his “approved” list was the one that was in my bones. I’d attended Catholic school for twelve plaid-skirt-wearing years and had gone to daily Mass for nearly a decade of my adulthood. I’d been courted by hopeful nuns who’d recognized my potential as a future convent-dweller, and I’d worked for Catholic organizations. Though I hadn’t attended Mass or believed in most Catholic teachings for many years, I couldn’t deny who I was. I was pretty damned Catholic.
Another John hadn’t listed “Christianity” in his comprehensive “Muslims and Taoists are fine” list. And since Catholicism came under the Christian umbrella, I’d contacted him under false pretenses, the internet-dating equivalent of a sin.
So I dashed off an, “Oh, no! You didn’t want to meet Christians! I didn’t ignore that on purpose!” email to him.
The next day, I received a very polite response. Another John apologized for the delay, explaining that he was being very conscientious about sending a response to every single person who’d contacted him.
Well, now. It certainly sounded like he’d been very busy. I pictured his frenzied fingers typing wildly in an effort to keep up with the hordes of single women in their forties who, like I, had recognized his potential. I read on.
He gracefully accepted my unveiling of the Catholicism, explaining that he’d left “Christian” off in case he attracted someone who might want to convert his agnostic self. My profile must have communicated, “I do not need to drag you to church”; he assured me that he wasn’t worried about my Catholicism.
The one point on which he did want clarification was my long-time vegetarianism. Fascinating! He was okay with my religious upbringing that believed that dry bread could be turned into Jesus, but he was cautious about my love of garbanzos and cauliflower?
His earnest questions were endearing:
Do you avoid meat on moral grounds? Does it bother you if your dinner partner eats meat? Can you tolerate meat in your house?
The answers were easy. I’d stopped eating meat decades earlier when I’d been a camp counselor and could think of no other way to stop gorging myself at the buffet. After that summer, I’d just let the meat habit die. There was no moral ground; I was simply a recovering glutton.
The rest of my email continued:
“I hope your fingers are okay. Sounds like they’re getting worn down to nubs, what with all the emails you’re sending to interested women.”
We continued back and forth for a few days, lighthearted jokes sprinkled in among the “So what kind of person are you?” questions. Then we decided we didn’t need the website to be our chaperone anymore and exchanged email addresses.
My heart would happily skip a beat when I’d see Another John’s name in my inbox. I thought of him as “The Serious One,” even though it was his humor that had attracted me immediately. In his profile photos, he looked intent and businesslike. Me? Digital cameras were still uncommon in 2003, so I had only one digital picture to post, a shot of me wearing a shiny gold crown. John’s emails were brief and politely inquisitive, usually including a line that made me chuckle. My emails to him were newsy and energetic.
“Hey, John. So my city-kid third-graders are on a field trip in the forest, and the naturalist does a ‘notice what’s around you’ activity. She gathers the kids, then tells them to sit down and listen to the sounds of nature. Kenneth turns to me and whispers, ‘Does she mean sit in the dirt?’ I roll my eyes, nod, and point to the ground. Kenneth looks appalled, and says, ‘But won’t that be—dirty?’ Sheesh. Hope your day was okay. Sue”
“Hi, Sue. I got home early, so it’s all good. Do you think you’d feel comfortable exchanging phone numbers? I would if you would. Then we can figure out a time to talk. John. P.S. Hope Kenneth cleaned up okay.”
We agreed to talk the next night, a Tuesday, after he got home from work. At six-thirty, the phone rang, and I ran toward the bedroom, my collie-mix dog Cody bounding after me.
“Hi, it’s John.”
His voice startled me. I’d been imagining it as deep and maybe slow. Instead, his pitch had a lighthearted, smooth energy that attracted me instantly. Not that anything would have been wrong with deep but hearing his voice was like biting into a cookie with my eyes closed, expecting a ginger snap. Instead, it was chocolate chip, fresh-baked, with the chocolate all warm and swirled and melty.
I didn’t tell him that I’d expected his voice to be deeper. Instead, I told him how funny I’d thought his Jerry Springer headline was. He said he’d figured it would be a humorous way to convey that he wasn’t into crazy drama.
“Yeah, looking for someone is pretty nerve-wracking, so ‘no crazy drama’ sounds excellent,” I said. “It’s been six years since I’ve gone out with anyone new. And I’ve usually only dated people I already knew. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There. I’d confessed to being a dating neophyte. It was a relief.
John topped me, though. “I know what you mean. My last relationship ended two years ago. And we’d been together for thirteen years. So… it’s been a long time.”
I had not considered this possibility. He was even more unaccustomed to the dating world than I was! And yet, he seemed so … so normal. I instantly felt less alone, less like the awkward alien on a planet of dating-proficient people. There was another alien inhabiting my planet. I liked having company.
We talked for half an hour. John made it clear that he wasn’t around on Wednesdays, so we agreed that I’d call him on Thursday. I hung up, and floated from room to room of my little Craftsman bungalow, filled with a sense of accomplishment. I was thinking more about myself than I was about John. “I did it! I did it!” The words sounded loud in my head.
Over the next two weeks, we spoke most evenings. I assumed my position: lying on the floor, feet up on the bed, Cody at my side. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour or more. As our familiarity grew, we experimented both with kidding each other and with sharing parts of our past. And we talked about this experience of seeking a connection with an unseen stranger.
“One thing I liked about your profile is that you were willing to consider women who are a little older than you,” I told him. “So many men only want someone who’s way younger than they are! What is that?” That trend in men’s profiles had infuriated me.
John knew I was a teacher, and his deadpan reply was, “Well, sure, I could try to find someone who’s twenty. But then when I’d ask how her day at school had been, it would mean something very different from when I ask you.”
My laugh rang out. That was happening often. John’s humor would come at me from surprising angles, and I’d laugh from sheer delight.
Another Wednesday was rolling around, and so on Tuesday evening, John reminded me that he wouldn’t be available the following night. Over the past two weeks, I’d been curious about his regularly scheduled Wednesday activity but knew it wasn’t my business to ask. I couldn’t help wondering though.
One thought I had was that maybe he’d not been truthful on his profile when he said that he didn’t have kids. Maybe he had a couple of kids, and maybe his custody agreement was that he got them every Wednesday. I decided that would be okay. After all, I liked kids. And wouldn’t I rather he be a dedicated parent than some deadbeat dad who disregarded his responsibilities, responsibilities who, after all, were little human beings? Yes, I would. Sure, John hadn’t been totally upfront with me about his kids, but at least he was doing right by them. Good for him.
But then I wondered if maybe rather than being a secret parent, he instead was an alcoholic who faithfully attended AA every Wednesday. That seemed more plausible. Respondents were asked about their parental status on the dating profile, but there wasn’t a single question about one’s substance-abuse status. So John could have filled out his profile with total honesty while still being an alcoholic. And I understood that at first he’d hide something so personal. I mean, why should he tell me that right off? No sense in scaring me away. He’d confide in me if we ever got close enough. I decided I would be okay if he were an alcoholic, given that he was an AA regular and all. That way he was a recovering alcoholic, instead of a still-raging alcoholic.
These thoughts were in the back of my mind until that Tuesday night. John brought them racing to the front when he said, slowly, “Well—I guess it’s about time that I tell you what I do on Wednesdays.”
I wasn’t prepared. “Okay,” I said, trying to sound casual. I felt my heart speed up, and I took a big breath. I reminded myself that at least he was a responsible parent/alcoholic.
The silence ticked on. I waited in what I hoped would be perceived as a supportive silence.
John took a breath, and slowly, the truth came out. “On Wednesdays—I bowl.”
My sudden burst of laughter was a cross between a bark and a scream. That innocent little word struck me so funny that I could barely suck in air. “Bowl” was evocative of the wholesomeness of the 1950s, completely undeserving of its role in a shameful confession.
I choked out, “Why do you say it like it’s such an awful thing?” I imagined him in his house, grinning broadly at his success in reducing me to gasps and sputters.
“Well, you have to admit—‘I bowl’ isn’t something you lead with. A person needs time to build up to it. Expecting someone else to accept that right off? It’s too much.” I could practically hear him smiling.
Still giggling, I said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I play an instrument that’s the musical equivalent of ‘bowling.’ Want to guess?”
We laughed some more after I said, “Accordion.” I decided not to tell him that I’d already decided to embrace him despite his being a lying alcoholic parent who denied the existence of his two children.
It was that night that we discussed meeting in person. We liked the idea but wanted to make sure neither of us would feel pressured. John already had a little experience with online dates and offered some guidelines.
“They say it should be a neutral meeting place, out in public but not right near one person’s house. And we should also set a time limit the first time, so no one feels trapped.”
“That sounds good. Anything else?”
We agreed to meet during the day, for no more than an hour. We decided on ten-thirty that upcoming Saturday morning at a coffee house equidistant from our homes.
In addition to the guidelines, we agreed on something else—our feelings about the experimental process we’d undertaken, this method of looking for love. We both were finding it liberating. There was something deliciously freeing about starting off already knowing what the other person wanted. There was much less guessing. And the invisibility of the other person only enhanced that sense of freedom. When we dated someone who was already in our everyday life, there was a risk of losing a friend if it didn’t work out. So maybe we’d compromise what we wanted, trying to avoid awkwardness.
But for both John and me, starting with a total stranger helped us commit to being our most honest selves. We each had already found ourselves thinking, If this doesn’t work, I’ve lost nothing because I don’t even know this person. I’m just going to be myself, and if myself doesn’t work, then this wouldn’t work. I can’t try to shape myself into someone else.
I’d entered into the process of online dating because I’d felt so inept at meeting men. Now that I was on the threshold of meeting someone in person, I couldn’t remember ever having felt more clear and free about the prospect of a date. I knew that I’d like to find a partner, but that I didn’t have to find one. I knew I’d be okay. I had good friends, a job that I loved, and a heart that was healing.
I couldn’t have known at the start where things would lead with Another John. I couldn’t know that I’d feel daring enough on the first date to confess my scary health secret to him, or that I’d have trouble falling asleep after our three-hour dinner on the second date because I hadn’t known I could be that happy with someone. I couldn’t know that for him, the decision point would come when we saw Bad Santa two weeks later, when he heard me crying with laughter at the twisted, offensive humor and he realized that we belonged together.
All I knew then was that I was looking forward to that Saturday morning with more excitement than I’d felt in a long time.
SUE GRANZELLA has won awards from MemoirsInk and in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Punchnel’s, Gravel, Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Ascent, Crunchable, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. Sue teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her no-longer-bowling husband, John. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, road trips, and reading the writing of eight- and nine-year-olds. Find more of Sue’s writing at www.suegranzella.com.
I already loved the desert before I’d met Mike. I’d been seduced during a long weekend a few years earlier, when I’d accompanied a friend to a wedding. I hadn’t paid much attention to the church ceremony, distracted by the spectacle of the San Jacinto mountains looming out the tall windows. Hours later, in the midst of the reception at a tony Palm Desert resort, I’d escaped the ballroom and swirling DJ lights to walk outside. Strolling alone across the dark golf course, the hot, dry breeze instantly calmed the restless want that so marked my early twenties, offered up the same release and luxurious solitude as sinking into a hot bath. I didn’t want to return to the party; I fantasized instead how I might arrange to stay behind when my friend drove back to L.A.
After returning home, my imagination kept returning to the desert. I wrote a short story about a woman who lived alone in a trailer on the outskirts of a grove of date palms. The wind blew at night, and the woman lay alone in bed, trying to decipher the curses and premonitions told in the clatter of palm fronds.
I truly fell for the desert while riding shotgun in Mike’s black Cadillac. On a summer afternoon, we left his little ranch house in Orange County and headed east on the 60 freeway through traffic. His mother and younger sister, visiting from Oregon, rode in the backseat of the secondhand Caddy. Mike had grown up in Cathedral City, the shabbier eastern neighbor of Palm Springs, where his family had relocated when he was still in grade school. They’d followed in the footsteps of Mike’s maternal grandparents, who’d preceded them by a few years.
As soon as we exited the freeway to approach the Palm Springs city limits, Mike tuned the radio to KWXY, a station he said had been on the air forever. We drove down the main drag of Palm Canyon Drive, past shops and restaurants, the sidewalks nearly empty of tourists in the low season. We rode in silence, except for the radio. The station’s playlist consisted of the music one might associate with the desert’s huge population of golf-cart driving retirees: lush instrumentals, choral groups like the Ray Coniff Singers, and a sprinkling of mid-century pop standards. In short, KWXY played “beautiful music.”
When I’d first met Mike, he’d sported a long ponytail, cowboy boots, and a Metallica t-shirt. A later inspection of his large CD collection revealed mostly metal and guitar rock, but my fingers occasionally tripped over Kraftwerk, Neil Diamond, or ’80s funk, artists hinting at deeper complexities than his headbanger image suggested. I also often sported cowboy boots, pairing them with cut-offs and shirts knotted at my waist, a nod to my solidarity to both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thelma and Louise. I didn’t fancy myself a good match for Mike, or for anyone, and had warned him of such. And yet here we were, nearly a year into our romance, cruising his home turf with his mom and listening to more music I’d never have guessed he enjoyed.
KWXY had been the preferred station of Mike’s grandparents. Not so long before, they’d been an extremely active couple, using all the amenities of their gated mobile home community—the golf course and tennis courts, the themed dinners and bridge luncheons. We were there primarily to visit those grandparents, who’d remained in the desert long after Mike’s parents had decamped for the drastically opposite climate of Oregon. His grandmother was now in the later stages of dementia and had been moved to a nursing home.
This would be my first time meeting any of Mike’s grandparents; I’d met his immediate family only months earlier. Mike had invited me along on this journey to his home turf as a matter of course, but I worried how his mother, Brenda, felt about my presence. Unlike me, Mike was something of a serial monogamist. For all his parents knew, I was just another girlfriend who’d disappear a couple more years down the road.
Brenda had booked us all into The Riviera, one of many older Palm Springs establishments claiming itself a former Rat Pack hangout. It was a sprawling hotel with faded carpets and a parrot in its tropical-themed lobby.
That night, after taking his reluctant grandpa out to dinner at a noisy chain restaurant, Mike and I lounged nearly naked on the private balcony off our room. It was late evening, but still well over ninety degrees. As with my previous wedding visit years before, my nerves were soothed by the heat as we chatted over a shared bag of melting M&Ms. Date beetles buzzed a shrill hum in the pepper and palm trees.
Our balcony faced west, toward the mountains; I could make out their silhouetted peaks against the dark sky. Mike pointed up, directing my eyes to a bright light near the top of the tallest mountain. He explained that it came from the tram station, over 8,500 feet up on Mt. San Jacinto. During the day tourists rode on gondolas suspended over a canyon of treetops and jagged boulders while steel cables pulled them thousands of feet up the mountain. The tram ride closed at sunset, but the station light remained on all night. Its beam winked down on us, a low-hanging star.
The next morning we visited Mike’s grandma at her nursing home. I was already awkward around his family—my answers to his mom and sister’s questions alternately too complicated or flippant—so I retreated into the role of silent bystander. In the large greeting room the family crouched in turn before Barbara in her wheelchair, a frail woman with spun sugar hair who didn’t recognize any of them, who possessed barely the faintest spark of sentience.
Perhaps this was my first solid clue that if I stayed with Mike, my only relationship that had lasted more than two months, there would be more than fun times ahead. Of course I knew that, but at twenty-five, I only barely believed it. All of my grandparents were still alive and comparatively healthy, as were my parents. So far they’d dodged the trauma of true illness or infirmity. Before me was solid evidence of the not-fun times: a trim, gruff man who woke alone each morning, who drove his sedan each afternoon to a low-slung beige complex to sit beside his silent wife. He helped her to eat when lunch was brought around; tried to keep her upright when she slumped over in her wheelchair. This was his life now, and he seemed irritated by his family’s gentle suggestions that he might want to go, try, or be anywhere else.
After our visit, we left the grandparents at the nursing home (Mike’s grandpa refused to join us for lunch) and drove to their gated mobile home park. I was struck by how their home was caught in time, preserving a specific flavor of elderly loneliness. The yellow stack of National Geographic spines on the coffee table were several years old. Beside them was a current TV Guide and a remote control for the small TV in the wicker entertainment center. On the matching end table sat a box of Kleenex, a pair of reading glasses. Out the sliding glass door was a tree heavy with grapefruit, out another window a glimpse of mountain tops popped against the sky.
Brenda and Mike’s sister, Liz, tackled some light cleaning, and I offered to help but was kindly rebuffed. It was a small home, uncluttered by much of the past. Yet in the kitchen I yelped in pleasure over the wall clock. Around its yellow face, twelve fives, one for every hour, ringed a martini glass with two speared olives. Across its stem, a curvy font proclaimed Cocktail Hour. Mike recalled how his grandparents used to celebrate cocktail hour every evening, how in their old, larger house with a pool, they’d sit with matching drinks, rattling the ice cubes in their highballs. He also remembered visits to his grandparents after they’d downsized to the senior community, of after-dinner constitutionals, the whole family enlisted to walk the green belts and circular streets, past the pastel mobile homes and white rock yards.
After my outburst at the clock, after Mike’s story, the quiet resumed. The house was so quiet; the neighborhood was so quiet, save for the hum of air conditioners and pool filters. The whole city felt stricken in the glare of noonday sun, hermetically sealed beneath the dome of cloudless blue sky.
Later, we drove again through town on a nostalgia tour. Mike cruised slowly past his family’s old house, describing for my benefit how the front yard used to be much nicer, with a koi pond and tiny bridge built by his dad. Those features were gone, ripped out for an expanse of dying lawn. We drove past his old junior high and elementary school, past the Jack-In-the-Box on Highway 111 where he worked his first job.
From the backseat, Brenda and Liz remarked often at how the area had grown, at the big box stores and strip malls populating what had been a small town with limited shopping. The Cadillac turned left and right, down streets that used to dead-end onto swaths of open desert. In grade school, Mike and his best friend had wandered the desert for hours, encountering snakes and scorpions, abandoned cars, and once, a dead horse. Most of those dead-end streets were now paved through to the next intersection. They continued for long blocks, crossing wide boulevards named for celebrities who’d once been residents: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Fred Waring, Gerald Ford.
On a corner lot sat a small building with a tall radio tower, the station offices of KWXY. It was the top of the hour; through the car speakers came a burst of harp strings in an ascending stream of notes. It was time for the weather: 104 degrees, a drop from the afternoon high of 107.
A year later, on another trip to the desert, Mike proposed in a dark restaurant, scooting out the leatherette booth to drop to one knee. We didn’t know it then, but Billy Reed’s was something of a kitsch favorite, known for its bordello-pink décor and prime rib specials favored by the Early Bird crowd. Later, after I’d said yes, after the waitress had brought flutes of champagne, we sat out on our hotel balcony facing the mountains, somnolent and happy in the scorching August night, below the tram station’s steady beam.
That was twenty years ago.
Thanks to the internet, in recent years Mike and I often tuned into the live-streaming broadcast of KWXY whenever either of us felt our own specific yen for Palm Springs. For though we live only ninety minutes west, our manicured suburban town feels a world away from the desert and its particular charms. Like any place, it has changed over the years. The Riviera shut its doors, re-opening as a party hotel dripping in Hollywood Regency glamour. Housing prices have climbed, thanks to the renewed appreciation of mid-century architecture. And KWXY, after weathering ownership changes and flipping between AM and FM frequencies, has succumbed to the pressures of twenty-first-century corporate radio. In 2015, it changed for good, becoming, for now, MOD FM. Its playlist still consists of old standards, though too often interpreted by Michael Bublé or Rod Stewart rather than Frank and Dino; the lush instrumentals are mostly gone. Completely vanished are the harp strings signaling the top of the hour, along with the wintertime reading of news from Canada, geared toward the seasonal snowbirds.
“Every day,” he tells me. It’s a thing he says, a reminder when I despair over the passing years, over wrinkles and grays, when I wake to a suffocating dread that blankets me some mornings. This is how much he loves me, then. He will sit with me, feed me, wipe away the pudding dribbling down my chin. “Just like my grandpa,” Mike says. “I’ll be there every day.”
I sock my husband on the arm and tell him to shut the hell up. I have zero interest in living out some West Coast version of The Notebook, and buried within me is that single girl who doesn’t need anyone, who still imagines that solitary trailer beneath the date palms. But my husband is steadfast, as his grandpa was steadfast. His grandparents live on as symbol for Mike, as he insists he’ll remain at my side, no matter what. Is that a promise, or a threat? I joke. We have been married forever; we repeat the same lines often.
I sock him, he holds me close; we hold dear our someday dream of maybe moving a little further east, out to Palm Springs or some other desert community in the Coachella Valley. We’ll sit in the brilliant nighttime heat and never have to say goodbye to the view of those tall brown mountains, the tram light shining from its high perch. Until then, we play harried parents to our middle and high school-aged kids, pay the mortgage and crack dark jokes in our kitchen. Above us, hung high on the wall, the Cocktail Hour clock and its ring of fives ticks the seconds slow and thick, a reminder that forever is all in context, fifty years, twenty years, a life.
KELLY SHIRE writes about family and life as a third-generation native of Los Angeles county. Recent work has appeared in Hippocampus, Angels Flight/Literary West, and the Seal Press anthology Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping. She lives in Temecula, California, with her husband and children, and can be found online at kellyshire.com.
It wasn’t meant to feel like a date, but when Guillem arrived outside our apartment, helmet in hand, he looked like my silver suitor ready to whisk me away for a night of romance on his bike. I’d cleared it with Patricio, asking him several times if he was okay with my heading out with Guillem, and he’d told me he wasn’t jealous.
“Sure—I want you to go,” Patricio assured me. He knew I missed having a social life these past three months after we’d moved to Barcelona together.
While I lived in Atlanta, I’d been a dedicated culture vulture, usually going to a gallery opening, a concert, the theater, or dance event five nights a week. Our long distance relationship—he lived two hours away from me, where he taught architecture at a South Carolina university—turned out to be perfect for that first year of dating. I’d spend weeknights absorbing whatever the city threw at me; weekends were our time together. Exhausted from his week of teaching, Patricio wasn’t much for spending two hours in a dark theater. I didn’t try to force it. Maybe we’d go out dancing, or I’d coax him to the latest Malaysian restaurant I was reviewing, but mostly we spent our time together in bed—which worked. We didn’t have to share every interest; I didn’t have to parade him around with my friends. But now living in Spain together meant new negotiations. So when Guillem mentioned he had free tickets to a production of a Catalan version of Glengarry Glen Ross, something that sounded bizarre and intrigued me, I wanted to go. But I needed reassurance.
“You’re sure you don’t mind?” I asked again.
“Stop asking. Just go,” Patricio said. I realized he may be just as glad to have an evening free of me. It was the first time either of us had lived with a lover, and we’d spent every waking and sleeping moment together for the past three months in Barcelona. I’d introduced Guillem to Patricio and they had hit it off. Guillem had dark hair, a sexy goatee, and piercing eyes. He was attractive and, unlike most of the Spanish guys I’d met, worked out regularly at a gym; he liked to show off his sculpted chest and biceps in tight shirts. Patricio had explained that it was next to impossible to make a Catalan friend, and he was impressed that I’d managed it in such a short period of time.
Guillem was a writer for the most popular Catalan soap opera, El Cor de la Ciutat. Although the show meant nothing to me, Patricio had explained it was the most popular TV program in Barcelona. Since Catalan had been forbidden during the Franco dictatorship and could have been lost for future generations, the regional government now supported any artistic endeavor that developed the language and supported the national identity, so this soap reigned as the most beloved family entertainment for millions. It was like Dynasty, without any other competition. I was excited to join him for a night of theater.
“Have you ever been on the back of a moto before?” Guillem asked.
“A what?” I wasn’t sure if he was attempting some sort of a flirtatious tease, and I was just missing the subtlety. “I like your Vespa.”
“My moto is a Suzuki,” he clarified and told me to snuggle up behind him. He helped me with my helmet as I fumbled with the straps, buckling it below my chin. “Put your arms around me. Nos vamos, here we go!”
We slowly inched backward until we faced north and he gunned it. I tried to hold on to the plastic of the seat, but when we lurched forward, I instinctively gripped Guillem’s waist. He glanced over his right shoulder and said something, but it was lost in the road’s rumble.
I was wary of the cars in Barcelona, but the mopeds, motos, scooters, and motorcycles that dominated the streets were entirely different beasts. They didn’t seem to obey any rules as they hopped curbs, hurtling toward you down the middle of the sidewalk. Women wearing skimpy skirts and high heels weaved through cars to mark their spot at the front of the pack. Then, seconds before the light turned green, they’d zoom by you, ignoring crosswalks, crouched for sudden impact. Now I was one of them.
I tried to remember if I was supposed to lean in for the turn, or worried that, if I slouched the wrong way, we’d suddenly lose control and plow through the people in front of us. My hands on Guillem’s waist, I felt that erotic thrill of being nuzzled against a man on a machine. At the red light, I would make space between Guillem and myself, and he leaned back. “Move with me,” he explained. “Or you might make me fall over.” He gunned the engine, and I gripped his hips harder.
When we made it to the theater, intact, he told me I could bring my helmet inside with me. It felt like a badge of honor, proof that I lived here, I wasn’t a tourist. Of course, how many tourists would show up opening weekend to see Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross entirely translated into Catalan?
The theater was beautiful, inserted into the agricultural building from the 1929 Expo and, for the purposes of this play, the stage was converted into a “black-box” viewing space. I felt I had already cheated on Guillem: Before he showed up, I read a complete scene-by-scene synopsis of the play, since it had been years since I’d seen the movie. I wanted to at least imagine I knew what was going on as people spat epithets in a foreign tongue.
So as these slimy real estate salesmen tried to swindle people with bogus property in Arizona and Florida, I attempted to fill in blanks. Somehow Mamet’s Chicago setting wasn’t American enough, so the designers had created an abstract Texas-like terrain with a big cactus next to a glass cube that represented Chop Suey, the Chinese restaurant where the first act’s action takes place. As the cube turned slowly on a circular dais, I glanced at Guillem who was concentrating on the subtleties of the actors’ deliveries. He caught my eye and leaned over and whispered, “Do you hate me?” thinking that I was despairing over the difficulty of the opaque verbal barrage.
True, I had no clue what they were saying—except for a few joders (fucks), putas (bitch/whores), and some nicely punctuated merdas (shits)—until a strange interlude in which all the characters suddenly broke out into an English language rock & roll song for a major set change. “This director always has people singing in his plays,” Guillem had warned. After the bows, Guillem admitted he was nervous that I was going to come out dazed and confused and once again he asked, “Do you hate me?” apologetically.
“No, I don’t hate you,” I said. “I’m so happy. This is one of the best nights I’ve had since moving to Barcelona. Plus, I learned all sorts of new Catalan cuss words.”
“Well, actually Catalan doesn’t have enough coarse language, so they have to use Spanish words when they want to curse,” he explained. “Catalan is too refined. It’s why I like having sex in Spanish. It’s sexier. But fucking in English is the best.”
Seeing my confusion, he went on to explain. “There’s nothing sexy to say, nothing fuerte, very strong, in Catalan. It’s all a little weak. But telling a guy, ‘I want to fuck,’ that’s the best. Fuck is the best English word, sometimes it’s the only one that works.”
I laughed and agreed, filing away that bit of intel. I remembered how awkward Spanish still felt on my tongue, making me feel like an imposter when I tried to deploy it during an intimate moment.
“There was one word I didn’t understand,” I said, slightly changing the subject. “And they said it like a thousand times. Oh-stee-ya?”
“Ah, you did learn the queen of all curse words,” he said and smiled. “Ostia. It’s the Spanish word for the communion wafer? We use it like damn. It’s like taking the Lord’s name in vain.”
Part of me felt guilty for having such a great evening without Patricio, so we called him and told him to meet us at a bar in the Raval area. Guillem and I hopped on his moto and headed off to the Merry Ant, a sort of speakeasy where we had to know the correct, unmarked door and then a secret knock. I was worried that Patricio may decide he didn’t want to join, but I was glad when he showed up, and I threw my arms around him, relieved that he didn’t seem mad after my date night without him. We ordered Estrellas, the weak Spanish beer I’d resigned myself to, and the three of us talked about books, theater, movies, boyfriends. It was the type of casual hanging out I’d been craving the entire time in Spain, and I’d finally found it. Although I felt the intense attraction to him, I vowed to make Guillem my friend and not screw it up by screwing him. I didn’t want to lose my one Catalan friend.
I showed up around nine-thirty for dinner and a movie. Guillem was still on his healthy kick and had prepared a simple, yet tasty meal: a spinach salad with sunflower seeds and golden pasas (the word sounded so much better than raisins), followed by arroz con setas (rice with mushrooms), and a big salmon steak in a soy sauce glaze. I had picked up a nice bottle of Spanish red—“Any Crianza will do,” Guillem had instructed since I confessed I was nervous I’d make a poor wine selection—to get us lubricated for our night in.
He’d invited me over after I’d gushed about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the indie film about a transgender rock & roll troubadour searching for love. He’d never seen it, and I’d brought the DVD to Spain with me but couldn’t watch it on our player due to regional restrictions. Guillem, who was obsessed with American pop culture, had a machine that could read the American format. So we made a date.
We’d invited Patricio to join us, but he’d already tired of my preoccupation with the film, which he’d bought me as a birthday gift, and begged off, preferring to stay home alone. It felt sophisticated to be dining together at Guillem’s table, since Patricio and I had transformed our dining table into a desk and ended up eating our meals in front of the TV most nights. After eating, we sat together on Guillem’s small sofa and watched the film with English subtitles for extra language reinforcement. I resisted singing along to the songs I knew by heart and glanced over to notice if Guillem was enjoying himself. The awkwardness of the situation hit me: This definitely felt like a date.
Although Patricio and I had easily agreed upon our own version of an open relationship, it meant we had sex with other men, not romantic flings. Our rules were fairly basic: 1. no sleepovers; 2. no repeats; 3. be honest and tell one another everything. The idea was to curb the possibility of emotional attachments. Having an affair wasn’t what we desired, so dating was definitely off the table. Although the movie watching was intended as a friendly get together, I now wondered if it was an excuse so we could easily fall into one another’s arms. Plus, Guillem was clearly boyfriend material. But I already had a boyfriend. I wasn’t looking for another.
The truth is, I’m a romantic. Although many people would claim the opposite because I can be blunt and critical—and I believed their assertions for years, convincing me that I didn’t have a romantic bone in my body—I’m a sucker for a great love story. The trouble was I didn’t believe in the cheeseball stuff found in most pop songs or what Hollywood tried to sell us.
The Hedwig plot, loosely adapted from Plato, was that we had another half and were searching for that part to make us whole again, a concept I’d romanticized from an early age. I remember in adolescence saying I didn’t care if it was a man or a woman—I wanted to find the person that “understood” me. That was my thirteen-year-old way to articulate the idea of a soulmate. And through the years I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to jam myself together with someone even when that fit wasn’t there. It’s an ongoing, solitary crusade for billions: How do we join with our other half, and how do we know when we found that person?
With Patricio, I felt like I’d finally found that person. I was too self-conscious to use the term soulmate, but when I learned the Spanish word for it, media naranja, I understood it. A half of an orange: The phrase sounded strange, but I identified with the image of two juicy halves that come together but also function as separate parts—that should be squeezed and enjoyed.
I felt guilty. I was already thinking how I’d explain to Patricio that it was something less than a date when I got home. I didn’t want him to think Guillem was trying to seduce me since that could mean I’d lose the only friend I’d made since moving here.
Guillem must have felt something too because, when we paused the film for a bathroom break and a refill of Rioja, he returned, saying, “You know, when we write soap opera scripts, we have this term we use. We call it URST.”
“URST?” I thought I’d misunderstood him. He spoke English fluidly, with a sexy accent and enough Britishisms to make it sound incorruptible. “What’s that?”
“When we have a scene between characters that have some chemistry, we use the English acronym: URST. It stands for Un-Resolved Sexual Tension.”
“Hmm,” I replied, unsure what I was supposed say. “That’s fun. An interesting concept.”
“So?” he said. “I think there’s some URST between us, don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” I said and laughed, trying to diffuse the situation. Part of me was thrilled that he found me attractive, especially since he was a total catch, but I tried to play naive, not sure if this sort of seduction fit into my relationship rules or was somehow outside the boundaries. If I pretended it wasn’t true, maybe that could get me off the hook. “I guess so. Sure. I think you’re great.”
I wasn’t sure what I should do. If he made a move, would I stop him? But I knew I shouldn’t be the aggressive one. Playing stupid, a passive player to someone else’s wishes seemed like my best defense.
“Well, I thought I’d get it out,” Guillem said, picking up the remote.
“Want to finish the movie?” I asked, not sure if I’d ruined the mood.
He pushed play and it resumed. I’d already watched the film a dozen times, but I couldn’t focus on the familiar story. I imagined a director reading our night’s script, taking a red pen and marking it everywhere. It would be bloody with URST.
I’d confessed the night’s sexual tension to Patricio, and he wasn’t surprised. “Well, why didn’t you get it over with then?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I thought maybe you’d be mad? That maybe it was against the rules?” I knew he wouldn’t kick me to the curb over such an indiscretion, but what if he forbid me from seeing Guillem again? I wasn’t willing to lose my first friend in a foreign place.
“Nah,” he said. “He’s hot, but I’m not worried.”
I was anxious though: That once this particular URST was satisfied, perhaps Guillem might not find me as interesting. What if it was that unresolvedness that was keeping us on friendly terms?
I’d been telling Guillem that I wanted to repay the dinner by inviting him to a meal at our place, so I returned the favor by offering to create a big curry stir fry, something outside his comfort zone. “Catalans don’t like spicy, don’t make it spicy,” he urged. I promised I wouldn’t scorch his sensitive palate—but I did want to push his boundaries.
I chose a night that I thought would work for the three of us, but then Patricio reminded me he had a dinner with a colleague visiting from the States. “Do you want me to join?” I asked. “I could cancel.”
“No, you’d probably be bored. You and Guillem have dinner,” he said. “I won’t be late.”
Guillem brought the wine, and I tried to memorize the labels, so I knew the best bottles to purchase next time. He complained the food was still spicy, and I teased him that he was a wimp. We got toasted soon enough, and when we curled up on the loveseat, I told him, “Bésame.” I said it in Spanish, partly as a provocation, partly because it didn’t seems as real in a foreign tongue. The words still worked, and he did. He kissed me.
I felt the shock of the lip contact, that powerful surge of passion that comes with finally getting the thing that you’ve imagined and withheld far longer than normal. Luckily, I liked kissing Guillem. We fit together and our arms were around one another. We stood up and I started pulling his shirt over his head. We giggled as we unbuckled and pulled at one another’s clothes. This felt right. We were soon naked on the bed, squeezing each other and shivering in anticipation.
Then I heard the door lock click.
“Shit!” I said.
“Shhh. It’s Patricio.”
“Hey, are you there?” Patricio called from the front of the apartment. It was a small space so I knew in a few more steps he’d see us sprawled naked together on the bed.
“Oh, well, I guess you guys got that over with,” he said as he reached the wide-open room. “Get up and get dressed. Let’s go out—I want a drink.” He laughed and left us there as we scrambled to get our clothes. We laughed too, realizing how stupid we must look, naked on the bed, like two children caught stealing a cookie. Still feeling awkward and silly, I tried to smooth things over.
“Sorry we got interrupted so soon,” I apologized to Guillem. “I didn’t know. But…”
“Is everything okay?” he asked.
“Yes, I think so.”
Although I thought I had made up my mind not to act on the URST, part of me wanted to get it over with. It seemed our roles were already written, and, luckily, we were in a romantic comedy, not a Lifetime television drama. Now that it was over, we could finally be friends.
The fact is, over the years I’ve had an intimate naked moment with most of my good friends—and many gay men I know share a similar bond. After I met Patricio, I’ve spent the next fifteen years figuring out how our puzzle pieces fit together, but it doesn’t mean that one doesn’t remain curious about the curves and hidden places of others. Those encounters with other men aren’t just a notch in the belt—rather it’s proof: No, we don’t fit together in that way; that was fun, let’s move on. We may understand it, but it can make for awkward moments at a dinner party.
When a straight woman asks gay guys how they met, we hem and haw, trying to figure out a palatable explanation if we hadn’t already come up with some sort of euphemistic backstory. Unlike many heterosexual groupings, where I’ve seen men awkwardly try to talk to female friends, the URST thick in the room, many of us have managed to neutralize that strain on familiarity to get closer. “We hooked up,” was the easiest rejoinder. “And now we’re the best of friends.”
JERRY PORTWOOD is currently the Deputy Editor of RollingStone.com. Previously he was the Executive Editor at Out magazine and the Editor in Chief of New York Press and the founding editor of CityArts. His work has recently been published in the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Backstage, and DuJour magazine. He teaches an arts writing course at the New School in New York City. Jerry and Patricio were legally married in January 2015 in New York City.
If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.
I was walking up the steps toward the bank. The sun was hitting the glass door so that I couldn’t see inside. I guess the woman coming out didn’t see me either and—bam—the big glass and wood door clocked me in the face. I stumbled back a bit, head throbbing. We both said, oh shit, and she apologized and I shook it off, got on with the day. My nose wasn’t broken, but I had a black eye for a week.
When I saw my sweetie the following day, she assessed the damage gently in public and then later in bed, she cozied up next to me. “Goddamn, you’re even hotter when you’ve been roughed up a bit.” She kissed me and pushed her head against mine, making me wince in pain. “Mmm,” she grunted.
“You’re one sick fucker.” We both laughed.
“Yeah, at least I’m not the one who hit you. Count your blessings I’m mostly over that shit.” We shook our heads and laughed again.
Look, no part of me wants pain. I understand how pain can be cathartic, and it’s not my thing. I always talked myself out of a beating, smelled the metal of my own blood through the skin before it broke, and got myself out of there. I don’t attract the ones who hit, but I sure attract the ones who could. And I learn how not to push. Being careful not to get hit, apparently that’s my gig. And I’m good at it.
In my youth, I had a flair for the flamboyant outburst. I mean, I was never one of those jealous glass throwers; I never upset a table in a restaurant. I’m not violent at all, just a little loud. Even still today, I’ll yell and put on the Medusa face but I do it in the privacy of my home.
This was my last big scene and how it finally clicked that I was done with that nonsense.
We’d been upstairs at my place, having sex and then arguing about some damn thing. I couldn’t begin to say what. She was visiting for the weekend and decided, no, fuck it, she was leaving. I was wearing a pale green and cream lace silky negligee with a little pearly business along the bodice. That I remember clearly. She threw all of her stuff in the duffle bag and heaved it onto her shoulder and down the stairs. I followed, giving her a piece of my mind every step of the way. Fire was shooting from my eyeballs as I watched her step off the porch and head down my steep front yard into the dark night. I shouted one last thing, loud enough for her to hear as she got into her truck: “YOU ARE ONE FUCKED UP INDIVIDUAL!”
And suddenly, that thing happened. A zoom out. An awareness. Suddenly a small, but terribly clear, voice inside my head said, “Actually, you are standing on your front porch at two a.m., yelling for your neighbors to hear, wearing nothing but a skimpy negligee. You have just become the dictionary-illustration for ‘one fucked up individual.’ Why don’t you close your mouth and go in the house?”
And I went in the house.
She sat in the car for ten minutes and then I heard her mumbling angrily, hauling her bag up the stairs, bump by bump, then telling me, as she took off her clothes and got in bed, “Goddammit, if I leave now, I can’t fuck you again in the morning.”
At which I rose up briefly like a cobra to say, “Oh, so you think we’re having sex in the morning!?”
And she said, “Shut up. Just shut up. Go to sleep.” There wasn’t much fight left in me, so I did.
Yeah, we had sex in the morning.
She never hit me, but after a few disturbing episodes of almost, she went back to anger management classes and I joined a domestic violence abuse survivors support group. Things weren’t always good between us but that relationship lasted a decade because we both had fix-it tenacity. We tried to better ourselves this way and that. And now years later, as friends, we love each other still.
Maybe that’s all I will ever have in the relationship department. Love.
Not comfort. But love. What a strange consolation prize.
I sure know how to pick ’em. And they pick me just as surely. Okay, sometimes the others try to pick me but I just don’t get the hots for too many people and I send them straight to the friend-zone. With some, there’s a fast hard click, like a metal lock. That kind of connection rarely slips out of place until we’ve moved through some serious business together. How do we know even before we know? Is it scent or aura or the hand of God that shoves us together on the sofa?
I was talking to a recent unsuitable suitor on the front porch. We were drinking wine and smoking cigars, and I said, “Hey, look, don’t you even get it going for me! I mean, you don’t want the likes of me. I am damaged and downright difficult. I mean, fuck sake, you were raised by nice people in middle class suburbia and you’ve worked at the same job for thirty years. What the fuck? Stay away from me.”
As I told a friend (okay, she’s an ex) about the unsuitable suitor, I assured her I’d given her a good talking to. I’d really laid it out. And my friend said, eyes fluttering back in her head, “Oh, I’ll bet she loved that. You don’t know how bad people want a talking to from someone like you. You’re tough and pretty and almost always right.”
I stared, with the edges of my mouth curling up, eyes bulging. I thought I’d been super-clear. She added, “You’re a Bon Jovi song waiting to happen!” And then she finished our conversation singing, “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame! You give love a bad name…”
I specifically try not to be a heart breaker. I say “no” more often than I say “yes.” The body has to choose; my head can’t be in charge. It’s a little fucked up in there where mating’s involved. The circuits didn’t get laid quite right in the beginning maybe. Though I give advice to others like a champ, keep my head cool in most situations, I rarely know what to tell myself.
Though it’s not like I’m pre-interviewing lovers—the fact is, I rarely get a lady-boner for people who haven’t had the crap beat out of them a few times when they were kids. It was probably someone who loved them doing the beating.
One could say, well, that’s just common. And it’d be true. But there are similarities among most of my lovers that are downright eerie. Probably it’s comfortable for me.
Probably it’s familiar to me. Probably it fits somehow with something I learned when I was a kid. Isn’t what the therapists would say?
I pick people who are too damaged to trust anyone fully by the time they get to me. Maybe the part of me that thinks I’m not lovable says that seems right. But it makes me mad. And they’re so certain they can’t be loved that my anger seems deserved. But it also justifies the lack of trust.
That’s it. Those are the ones I’m hot for.
Or maybe it looks like this: I’m so calm and accepting, I seem like a miracle at first. Truly, I am calm and accepting and a motherfuckingmiracle as well, but you’ve got to know that some anxious lovelessness caused me to pursue all that calm, and as soon as you upturn the table, you’re gonna see how it was made. I can’t get to the sex without showing someone how I’m made. Well, at least not more than once or twice, and I’m a more than once or twice kind of gal.
My lovers usually can’t let down their guard. They can’t be honest with themselves about how they keep creating their own misery despite trying really hard to get clear, meditate, breathe, get back to nature, journal, join a tantra group, talk to a shrink, and get freaky, at least for a while, with me. I have some kind of mojo going on that keeps them wanting it, that’s for sure.
It’s a shame one can’t put a nozzle on ones own mojo, point it in the right direction, build it up, and let it fight the fire of a painful past. My lovers are fighters with mojo to spare, but it’s not clear whether we’re ever fighting in the right direction. I like ’em either super-scrappy or super-smart; both is best. What if we could point ourselves toward those painful pasts together, rather than looking right at each other when we’re mad?
After years of on again and off again, my lover with the anger issues and I went to couples counseling. After some time talking about our problems with sex—that is, talking about how she loves fucking me but doesn’t totally let me do her, she said this to the therapist: “I just know that if I really soften up with her, it’ll be the best thing ever. Then I’ll need it. Then she can hurt me.”
I wept quietly because, yeah, I knew that. I also knew she was already in pain without me doing the hurting. A pain I couldn’t touch. I guess she figured it was easier not to heal, to keep the low-grade fever of anger and hunger. Better to blame me for not trying hard enough. Better to choose a pain that already fit into her schedule rather than a yawning, aching need that brings terror. Who could relax then?
Pain is easier to carry than fear. Both will shorten your life. Whatever. We’re resilient as fuck, my lovers and I. That much is clear.
I have to hope for something better. It could be worse and it’s not. I pick someone with a few skills. I don’t pick the ones who are strung out on drugs. I don’t pick the ones who hit. I just pick the ones who need love and won’t accept it from me. Maybe a little they do. Small morsels. But I don’t do a good job pretending it’s enough. There’s a lot of fighting to be loved here on my side of the table. A lot of trying and failing. A lot of tear-it-down-and-try-again hope. A lot of joy despite the pain. Real eye-of-the-storm peace. A lot of tenacity and tenderness because there doesn’t seem to be another way.
If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.
There are a lot of you out there. Just like how I learned to stop making a screaming-scene on my own front porch, maybe I can learn to draw someone with a softer jaw, an unclenched fist. That’s possible. And here’s what’s likely: No matter who sits by me, I’ll keep pouring up love by the cupful. Sweet love. No matter what else happens, that’s not nothing. Love is never going to be nothing.
KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.
My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.
Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.
“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.
She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”
I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.
I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.
My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.
When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.
I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.
My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?
There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.
That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.
I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.
It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.
Things I love:
Brushing my teeth.
The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.
Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.
The smell of tomato vines.
Rainy October days.
Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.
The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.
My mom’s soup.
My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.
We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.
After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.
I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.
I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.
I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.
I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.
I am so mad at him, damn it.
When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.
I like that our love is so uncomplicated.
Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.
But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.
We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.
Things I want to learn to love:
An achy heart.
Being awake at two a.m.
My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?
I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.
I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.
Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.
“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.
He makes my soup his own.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin