These contradictory identities, a debased and an exalted self, cannot integrate.
–Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
You only see him after 9 pm, at your place.
Maybe you love him, maybe you don’t. Or, you could but are trying to hold yourself back.
Everything is positive, friendly. Talk may land on personal topics. You exchange news about your lives, your daily preoccupations, your goals and dreams, your friends, all of which stay separate. You don’t get together on Halloween or Thanksgiving. You won’t do V-Day or barbecue for 4th of July. On Facebook, though you are not yet “friends,” you see pictures of what he does to mark those occasions.
All the things you are ashamed of about yourself, he will never see because you control what he sees, even to the point of getting up in the middle of the night to re-apply makeup in the bathroom. You don’t want him to know your real face, the one your 8-year-old daughter says is pretty in the morning; shocking and moving you, because she noticed your insecurity.
Before he comes over, you clean the apartment, the 2 cat litter boxes, several times. In a dresser drawer, you stash the journals in which you’ve written about him and about other men you will not talk to again.
You wake up before him—Frank, your current lover—around 5 AM and see him turned on his side away from you, his tattoos: dark-blue family crest on his shoulder blade, red question mark of a devil’s tail looping around the muscle of his upper arm. His thick, black hair like the hair of your Italian grandfather, Pop-Pop, your first love.
A few hours later, you both walk to your compact cars, parked on Toledano, and hug. He says he’ll let you know “what’s going on.”
The bed is a wreck, you see later, with the comforter rumpled at one end and dragging on the floor (you’d folded it way down to hide mysterious stains produced by your cat Sweetpea). The room still in nighttime mode, with the blinds closed. Water cup on the mantle—did it used to be a fireplace a hundred years ago? If you loved him, you would’ve right away made the bed, erased the outline of him on the pillow or sheets, opened the blinds and let piercing, Louisiana light in, emptied and set the red, plastic cup on the paint-chipped bottom of your kitchen sink. No reminders to make you sadder.
Jogging tonight, mud and puddles on the streetcar tracks, after rain, you think, what would it be like if you weren’t self-critical every minute? Always feeling guilty, like a bad person, a loser, ugly. What if you thought the best of yourself and your intentions, were nurturing, understood, forgave? You don’t feel very good at anything you do—work, parenting, dating, writing, managing money. And the embarrassment of these failures is like something you’re constantly trying to dodge with chocolate and alcohol and Netflix and masturbation and shoe shopping.
You look up and there are globes of white light—streetlights, headlights of cars—floating all around you as if in unison as you are bouncing forward.
Frank has a classic name, you feel, very old-world. It triggers a thud in your chest when the pale windows of his texts light up your iPhone. It is also the name of your grandmother’s younger brother; an alcoholic who died youngish from falling and hitting his head. A family outcast. This was years before you were born.
You and your mother visited the family grave in Passaic County, New Jersey during your last trip home; at Calvary, full of Irish and Italian immigrant bones. Frank was the first to be buried there, followed by your grandmother’s parents and her older brother, Joe, a man who, during your childhood, was severely hunched over, with a sharp, rueful sense of humor.
The single stone with the family name, Buffone, etched with a design of star-like flowers on long stems, had sunk further into the ground. It was positioned on a hillside. Your great-uncle Frank’s name was no longer visible, only the edges of letters not lost below the dirt and grass.
That this Frank is Italian, like your family, and can cook the food is one of the first things you bonded over on OkCupid. If you cease knowing him without him ever cooking you Pasta Amatriciana—as he alluded he would—from a recipe he learned from his Abruzzese father, and which contains pancetta, then you will be bummed.
When, a while back, Frank began exhibiting signs you’ve come to recognize—not scheduling plans, texts dropping off, talking about how busy he is—you gave him up, mentally, immediately. Wrenchingly. But if Frank is no longer in the boyfriend category, you decided, it might not be a terrible idea to let him come over and have sex on your couch. (Because the bed is held up by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR and stacks of poetry books.) So, you texted him tonight, because he has kept in touch and was laid off from his construction gig. And you considered that not everything is about you, and the guy might be having a hard time. And, he is genuinely likeable. Frank loves history, different cultures, and the elderly, hates cold weather, is a maker of soups, takes his 6-year-old daughter to Renaissance Fest in Hammond every year. Also, he’s really good in bed. He has a rare quality of being slow and sensuous and old-fashioned somewhere in his soul that you can almost feel in the touch of his beard and the fact that he wears Old Spice, like your grandfather did. It’s a wonderful range he’s working with, like a quartet as opposed to one instrument. You feel comfortable enough with him to engage in romantic, drug-like making-out kisses and, also, scenarios involving zip ties that he later had to cut off your wrists using the tiny scissors in your cosmetics bag.
So, you checked in to see how his weekend was, and scored a date on Wednesday night which your body is looking forward to and your mind isn’t sure about.
Friday night; your daughter is with her dad. After you shower, you sit on your couch in panties, damp towel thrown over you like a child’s blankie. You see the pinkish-red, long, sickle-shaped leaves of the neighbor’s potted plant on your shared porch, just beyond the membrane of the floor-to-ceiling window in your living room, which you love and which, in the mornings, when you open the tall, wooden shutters inward, is a shifting puzzle of light and leaves. As you rest there under the towel feeling immobilized, with no plans, the sky deepens to purple-blue and the lightbulb set in the ornate ceiling of the porch hums on, startling you.
The power has been out all day, as is common in New Orleans. You and your daughter got into a fight over her wanting to refill her water bottle herself—you’d rushed to do it for her—then drove out to Metairie, to Barnes and Noble and Target, and bought her a spell book based on the latest Disney movie and you, a French press, which has been on your wish list for the apartment, among other luxuries (including a vacuum, so you won’t have to kneel and de-fur the carpet with a lint brush).
Reading Proust now, by the window, you think you want to explore how romantic love makes you crazy.
And somehow the word “romantic” brings up a time back in college. You were 18, in a pew of the Chapel at Colgate University, the church full of other students and faculty listening to the all-male acapella group, the Colgate 13, perform pop songs up at the altar. Stuff you’d loved on the radio, once, Toto, Terence Trent D’Arby, turned ethereal in that vaulted space. I’d rather be in hell with you baby than in cool heaven… As you sat taking in the surging voices, sweet and grand, the crowd around you, and the long windows made of wavy old glass—a spring day, the farmland and hills beyond the campus, colors of trees and sky—part of you was there, swept up in sound and a feeling of belonging to a community, and part of you was casting your consciousness somewhere out beyond you all, and you felt—dreamy, inspired, secure, anchored by the old University which you were then (briefly) a part of and by the music, how it held you right there and out of yourself at the same time.
You met a guy last night, Dan, at a children’s Halloween party. Younger than you—you’re afraid he’s in his 20s, with pretty, green eyes, dark beard, was dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi. (When you all trick-or-treated for a few minutes, it rained; he offered you his hooded garment to protect your hair.) Single dad of a 4-year-old, Abby; but you must put a question mark here because Facebook says he’s married. You were the only people who didn’t know any of the other parents, except for the hosts. In a chaos of little kids whizzing around rooms where toys/candy had exploded, your daughter dressed as the homicidal, animatronic chicken from Five Nights at Freddy’s, his swaddled in a sheet, a Jedi, you caught this cute, hooded guy peering at you around a doorway. Your eyes flicked away and you both resumed trying to look purposeful and involved as you stood holding plastic cups of wine.
You dream that Dexter—the serial killer, from the Showtime series—has sex with the corpse of a blond woman in a hospital bed. He does it to cover up having murdered someone else. He says insulting things to the dead woman, during. She seems to not like it and to talk back at the end. It’s revealed that Dexter has a really large dick, which surprises you.
Then, you’re walking with a female friend, in New York City. All around you are couples rising into the sky. One member of each couple is an instructor of some kind, holding the hand of the person next to him or her as the two start floating up. It’s part of a service, like parasailing. It scares you to see. You think they have parachutes on their backs but are not sure. The fliers are calm and enjoying themselves.
Tonight, you feel sad about Frank; the new Facebook pic of him and his daughter Angel, short for Angelina, carving a pumpkin. Her gap-toothed smile; how he’s wearing the same striped, short-sleeved button-down he still had on, that same night, when he came over after dropping her off at her grandparents’. Later, that shirt was on your floor. He’d pushed his fingers between your legs, where you were already wet, whispered, “This belongs to me.” You haven’t heard from him since.
You slept with Young Dan last night (more accurately, early this morning). You couldn’t figure out his rhythm, your head was wedged between the arm of his couch and a pillow, so you were looking up at the underside of his face and he was—gravely—looking down at you. And then his daughter, tucked into her bed down the hall, chirped “Daddy?” and he leaped off of you and you scrunched into a ball and hid your entire body and head under the tiny throw blanket until he came back.
You still believe there could be something new under the sun, and—not really intending to—you live every day like it’s a new creation. On the spongy dirt of the streetcar tracks, you jog past the House of Broel, a wedding chapel with little white lights twining around its Doric columns, among the mansions of St. Charles Avenue. At home, you get back into bed—where you do basically everything—and read the passage from Within a Budding Grove about winter gardens, such as the one in Madame Swann’s sitting room. She entertains guests in a very nice bathrobe and always has a fresh bowl of chrysanthemums beside her chair. She offers everyone divine little cakes. And just like that, Marcel Proust lifts you out of the loneliness of your Sunday, and he puts you in lyrical France in another century. Proust, like you, spent a lot of his life in bed.
It’s November, misty and humid, dark by 5. The news is full of your asshole governor barring Syrian refugees from your state, and Donald Trump for president. In fits of anxiety you keep trolling social media or checking to see if anyone’s texted you—they haven’t in 6 hours. You don’t know when you’ll see Dan again—this weekend? You text each other daily, but it’s the smiley faces and stock phrases of casually dating a much-younger man. “Happy Hump Day!” “How’s ur night?” “Hey you!”
A week before Thanksgiving, you’re sitting at the bar at Sake Café, on Magazine Street, dressed like you just came from a cocktail party-cum-business meeting—black pumps and billowy slacks, a sleeveless sweater with beading and lace near the bottom hem, that bares a sliver of your waist, and a sequined scarf tossed around your neck. But you are here alone to drink cold, milky-colored Pearl sake, order a spicy Cherry Blossom roll, and write. And try to avoid thinking of what the ex-lovers in your life are doing during Monday Night Football, broadcasting on 2 TVs right over your head.
Suddenly, you flash on tucking your daughter into the rickety platform bed you share, last week; your ritual of each making up a lullaby, and how she sang, “Rockabye Mommy, it’s time for me to go to bed, I love you very much, and you have a very warm, welcoming, beautiful head.”
Oh, you know too much. You know too many street names, too many bathrooms, how they look in the middle of the night in different cities and towns.
You know that love ends, but it still matters.
You remember living with your ex-husband, fiancé at the time, in a brick apartment building in Charlottesville, 13 years ago. You see yourself going into the bathroom and slamming the door, too mad and sad to let anyone look at you. You remember an earlier, tender scene, his face pressed between your thighs on the turquoise-green couch. Then you realize, no; that was when you were just visiting him, from New Mexico. After you moved in together, there are no sex memories. There’s the two of you at the DMV getting your new license. You having an outburst in the parking lot, blurting that you don’t want to be a Virginia resident; missing your little adobe house and the shifting, jagged colors of the Organ Mountains, close to the border of Mexico, seen from any point in Las Cruces.
You miss White Sands National Monument—driving out there alone one Saturday in your brand new Honda Civic, spur of the moment, a to-go coffee in the cup holder, your cup holder, then sitting on a dune with only blinding hills of sand in sunlight in every direction, writing a poem.
A month after buying your Civic (with help from your grandmother back East) you had gone back to White Sands with your future, now ex-, husband and laid on a blanket, your tank-top off. He’d taken pictures of your footprints—the larger and smaller sets, ghostly—facing each other in the sand.
Today, you see ducks and geese sleeping on mud at Audubon Park, heads tucked down, bodies feathery, squat boats. Your sneakers hitting the narrow, muddy trail that runs in a wider loop outside the paved bike/walking path, views all around you of dark, interlaced boughs, cool shade dripping down, occasional gleams of the lagoon, wings of birds constantly descending onto and lifting away from it.
It has become clear that, despite the fact you met him organically and exchanged some delightful emojis, like the one winking and blowing a kiss at the same time, Dan—like Frank—is not a suitable partner for you. He’s too young and un-worldly and uses too many exclamation points in his Facebook posts!!!
Last night, you were driving to Breaux Mart and the car in front of you displayed a male driver and female passenger; you could tell even from the backs of their heads, and the fact of it being Saturday, that they were probably a couple going out to a restaurant or movie together, or maybe just to wander the aisles of a supermarket looking for dinner ingredients, as you did once with an architect you dated 3 years ago, and you ended up choosing soft, sweet Hawaiian bread.
Now that it’s over with Dan, after his text sign off—“I’m sorry, I just need time to figure things out”—you feel punched. You know it wasn’t a great scenario with him being still married (separated), and your age difference. And his kisses created a ring of saliva around the outside of your mouth so in that sense, too, you were not soulmates.
Before you slept with him last week you said, repeatedly, you didn’t want to until you got to know each other, until you had more of a sense of “things” between the two of you. Then he took your jeans and panties off anyway. Before his kid woke up, for just a few moments of him bumping back and forth in the softness inside you, you were turned on.
Jogged tonight, in piercing cold that hurt your ears. When you looked up, the almost-full moon, opal with an edge worn down, made you happy, and so did the glitter of Mardi Gras bead-draped branches against passing fragments of old, stately houses. Composition of a moment alive. Now, you’re doing the weekly ritual of creamy Pearl sake—you just noticed the bartender has to shake the bottle, which is cobalt blue, before pouring it—and sitting at this mica-flecked bar by yourself. Football blares on TVs mounted over rows of bottles.
The bar surface by your drink is dotted with red, gem-like roe; displaced décor, soon to be wiped up.
You’ve been feeling closer to your daughter lately. Whenever you start to feel this way, it’s accompanied by crushing fears that something will happen to her because, you berate yourself, you didn’t appreciate her enough before; now you do and you’re vulnerable. The highlights of your day were watching her write in her diary that you got her, seeing her carry around her little purse with her cell phone in it. Why does it make you cry, to love her? It’s like something in you is melting.
Where do you end, and the world begins? What space do you take up? What is it like inside that space?
You’ve been thinking about boundaries lately. What to take in, what to shut out. You want yours to be protective yet soft, to notice beauty and to love other people; ones who love you back.
Right now: you hear tinkly chirping outside the propped-in window screen, you watch your cats sleeping, the gold one on the couch beside you, the dark tabby turned away on the new comforter of royal blue and white, you see your feet in pointy, melon colored flats propped on the marble-like surface of the coffee table, your iced latté sweating in a plastic cup ringed by a damp, brown sleeve, you pick up Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which contains Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, and The Guermantes Way, a big, loose-spined volume published in 1934 by The Modern Library, Inc., stamped on the first inside page Harry Goldgar, you hold velvety, bitter espresso and raw sugar on your tongue, crush the sweet crystals between your teeth.
Liz Green is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. She is the coordinator of the New Orleans branch of the San Francisco-based reading series “Why There Are Words.” A licensed therapist (LPC), Liz is also a member of the Milena Theatre Group. Liz’s poetry appeared in journals such as Forklift, Ohio, H_NGM_N, and on anderbo.com, and she has an essay forthcoming in Fourth Genre.