I saw The Philadelphia Story for the first time on a Saturday in midsummer. A friend had recommended it to me, had described his favorite scene from the film in terms I may have misinterpreted. So, one unbearably hot weekend, I loaded it onto my laptop and spent an afternoon with the curtains drawn, watching. After Katharine Hepburn went through with it as originally and beautifully planned I took a cold shower with a bottle of vinho verde. When I finished it I was sitting crosslegged on the floor of the tub, my back sticking to the ceramic tile. This was, at the time, crystallizing into habit: sometimes I sat for so long it left bruises along my spine. That was the summer I believed I loved a man who lived on the other side of the country. He was a law student. When eventually I visited him I saw his acceptance letter framed above the bed in his apartment. The dean had written, “Go West, young man!” at the bottom in blue ballpoint. He had gone west. The decision hadn’t been difficult at the time, he told me, but it had since begun to trouble him.
On what would turn out to be the last morning of the only visit I ever paid him, I sat in his kitchen watching him slice his waffles into neat little squares. I asked him what was wrong. I thought he blamed me for his hangover. I know now, in retrospect, he did. He paused, utensils poised over his breakfast, and said: “You know, I was fine with my hands as they were for most of my childhood. But for some reason, before that last surgery, my parents had hope. I let them convince me.” He went back to eating and I knew he had never forgiven them. In response I told him about a scene in The Philadelphia Story: Jimmy Stewart carries a drunk Katharine Hepburn from the back of her mansion around to the front, belting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” so far off-key it might as well be a different song. When he rounds the corner he sees both her ex-husband and her husband-to-be waiting for them by the door. He squares his shoulders and continues to sing. Wasn’t that, I wanted to know, the bravest thing ever done in the name of love?
In the days before I learned that anyone who tips less than twenty percent on a check is an honest-to-God sociopath, I dated a boy from New Brunswick, New Jersey. We had been classmates in undergrad, dorm-neighbors who spent an entire year listening to each other fuck on the other side of the drywall. Later, when we were a couple, when he asked me how many other men there had been I told him I was sure he had kept a tally. I wish I could say I didn’t dignify his question with any further response, but I eventually fished out a number and prayed it wasn’t too high for his taste.
On some weekends we would go clubbing in Hoboken and stay overnight with his best friend’s girlfriend, a top-heavy woman in her mid-thirties with a husband and child who I hope were never the wiser. We timed our visits to coincide with the husband’s business trips. On second thought I hope the guy had another family somewhere close enough to be an insult. Metuchen, maybe.
Once, after an aborted night out in Hoboken––I’d forgotten my ID––I shut myself in the guest room early and lay in bed emptying myself of all thought. My boyfriend joined me a few hours later and when he entered the room and softly shut the door I could feel the anger emanating from him. I wondered if this was what people talked about when they used the word aura. He thought I was asleep but I was just drifting with my back turned, and I heard him saying it over and over: I hate you. I hate you. I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you. I’m not sure if he was trying to wake me up or if he was just trying it out to see if it was true. When he unloaded his first snore into the darkness a few minutes later I threw off the covers and felt my way to the guest bathroom down the hall. Inside, I dragged the plush bath mat into the tub, got in, and spent the rest of the night reading the stack of tabloids that lived on top of the toilet tank.
I bought a floral-print flask because it seemed like something no one would be surprised to hear I’d done and because my boss had given me a giant bottle of Wild Turkey for my birthday. We knew each other well––my Christmas gift to him had been a bottle of cucumber-infused vodka that he kept in a deep desk drawer. I poured a little of it at a time into Dixie cups from the office water cooler on nights I stayed late. The flask had been a good investment. On nights I went out, I’d get a glass of water from the bar, drink it, and refill with whatever I’d brought in my purse. I was in the process of doing this in the backyard of a bar near my apartment when a man I recognized from my roommate’s cohort, maybe in his early 30s and not unattractive, sat down beside me. It felt natural to hand him my flask. He accepted it, and after making a small show of admiring the pattern, took a generous pull. You know, he said, that I own this bar, right? I admitted that I did not and offered to leave the premises. He agreed that it was for the best, but only if he could come with. And so we left.
It was one of the first warm nights of spring, and we walked aimlessly side-by-side, talking about things like vacation plans, passing my flask back and forth. When it was finished we were somewhere residential; it was late and the street was quiet and still in a way that presaged what I would later remember as the hottest summer I spent in the city. We sat down at the top of the nearest stoop and he took my hand. The skin under his eyes had begun to look waxy. He spoke softly for a few moments on the subject of his dead brother. Show me a strange house, I said to him, and I can walk straight to the door where the bad secrets are kept. He didn’t know what I was saying and I didn’t want to offer him comfort. We kissed. When it came time for him to invite me back to his apartment, he disentangled himself from me and said that he was married, that it wasn’t going well. He was living alone in the office above his second bar, under construction and due to open later in the year. There was no running water. No part of this mixture of facts and obvious fictions discouraged me but I could see the guilt wrapping itself around him. We exchanged numbers and he put me in a livery car. I would like to be able to say I never called. That’s not how things worked out.
My grandfather lives somewhere on First Avenue and has left me progressively angrier voicemails over the past year. When I moved to the city he didn’t want to put me up so now I sleep in someone’s living room and he’s offended I won’t meet him for lunch. I keep his messages saved to my phone and replay them on speaker whenever I’m alone in the apartment. When he was the age my father is now he left his wife and took the kids on vacation to Israel, where their new mom met them at the airport. It’s been forty years and they still try to avoid addressing her by name. Sometime in the mid-eighties my grandfather set up a private practice on the Lower East Side. He made a fortune cheating Holocaust survivors out of their life savings. Who knows where he first got the idea, or what lets him live with it. Why he hasn’t been caught is the least of these mysteries. My father was at age sixteen a runaway but by age twenty-six a medical resident. It’s like this. I’ve been told I have a talent for holding a grudge.
I met Ephraim on a college tour my senior year of high school. At the end of the trip we exchanged AOL screen names and promised to keep in touch. For the next year or so I chatted with cumsincolorz while doing my homework, getting to know his taste in music and movies, sharing my plans for freshman year, which I considered year one of freedom. He explained his plans to enlist in the Israeli army after graduation, and I typed messages of support that were vague but, I hoped, cheerful. If he had any idea I was Jewish, he didn’t let on.
I ended up at the school where we’d first met but he had opted for another about an hour’s drive away. Like mine, his birthday fell late in the year and when his parents had insisted he go to college instead of Israel he had no choice but to obey. I visited him a few times during our first semester, and rather than endure his roommate’s scrutiny we would mess around in the back of an SUV he claimed to have bought with his own money. I guessed that technically a trust fund was the property of its beneficiary and told myself it was fair enough. After our weekends together he often sent me texts about not wanting a relationship that I would immediately delete from my phone so that my on-campus boyfriend wouldn’t stumble across them. My lack of response never did allay his fears that I would want more than he felt was my share.
The last time I saw him it was too cold to sleep in the back of his SUV, so we fucked as many times as we could to keep warm until daylight. I left town without enough money for coffee and just enough gas to make it back to my own campus if I drove what I superstitiously thought of as “gently.” About twenty minutes into the trip I was too exhausted to go any farther, so I pulled into a gravel parking lot and threw the gear stick into park. With the car still running, I peeled my stockings off my legs and shrugged myself out of my down puffer jacket, then stepped out into the cold. I jogged circles around my car in nothing but my skirt and camisole until sleep felt impossible. Less than an hour later I was napping in my own bed. By spring semester Ephraim was in Israel.
When I worked at the clinic I got ten free therapy sessions through Kaiser, a fact I state for scale: I used them all over the course of two weeks soon after my mother appeared at my doorstep. My therapist told me that he didn’t see any use in suffering for the sake of suffering, so why didn’t I just cut her out of my life. I resisted the idea so stridently that in my tenth session he confided that he had institutionalized his own mother. He had lost friends and relatives over that decision, but he stressed how much better he felt when he reached the other side of it. I understood for the first time that he spoke from deep personal conviction when he said there was only one life to lead, so why suffer, and it made me like him more but trust him less. I asked him when his mother’s troubles started and he skirted the question in a way that seemed more intimate than the answer would have been. He told me his mother’s psychotic break probably had something to do with the suffering she endured in childhood, that her family suffered considerably for being on the wrong side of World War II. I’m still not sure if he was saying they were Jews or Nazis, but I think he meant the latter. I remember I left his office that last day in high spirits. Maybe because I was comforted by the fact that I wasn’t living through World War II, or maybe because I was thinking to myself, Now I can tell everyone my therapist is a Nazi. Maybe it just made me feel giddy to think about a Nazi’s son telling me to let go of everything that makes me suffer.
One of the other assistants at my new job seemed like the sort of person I would have teased mercilessly in high school, but he treated me like I needed to be taken under his wing. I didn’t know anyone in the city and hadn’t managed to make a single friend during the six months since I’d moved there. I spent every weekend, and almost every waking hour I wasn’t at work, alone. I let my roommate take me out for Thai maybe once a month, because I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea, and the willpower required to turn down his daily invitations to do this or that was nothing short of monumental. I was beginning to wonder if the experience of adulthood wasn’t just the progressive desertion of abilities I had once considered innate. Like walking down a flight of stairs, except on each step you forgot a basic social nicety. And so, when my coworker invited me to join him and his friends for happy hour, I said yes. I tried not to think about what it meant that he had friends and I had none. I guessed it really was true, about the kids who peaked in high school.
The group was maybe five in total, plus me. My hopes for the evening were almost immediately wrapped up in a gentle-looking boy my age who, I soon discovered, was getting married soon. As we talked, I willed him to be attracted to me, and at first it seemed to be working. He got me a drink and we fumbled our way through the usual introductions, though I no longer had the sense for the routine that I once did. As we got up to head to the next bar, he bent forward and fished a giant cardboard box out from under his seat. My wedding invitations, he said.
He carried the box from bar to bar to subway car to our final stop, a house party in Chinatown, where his fiancée greeted him at the door. She cut a silhouette my mother would have described as a spark plug. In fact, all her features were completely devoid of angularity––I could already see her twenty years older, roundfaced and shapeless but still essentially unwrinkled. When she invited us into her apartment, I noticed her metallic brocade pencil skirt had giant architectural panniers jutting out on each side. How brave, I thought, to augment your hips like that. And how stupid to get married right now. Then I thought of several worse things than a man contractually obligated to keep me company, stepped inside, and shut the door behind me.
I was nineteen and I routinely drove overnight to spend the weekend in his city, at his apartment. At the time the idea of driving long distances for any reason struck me as romantic. We did not have much in common beyond a love of literature, on his part stated but never performed in my presence. His efforts to please me often incorporated small lies, and our arguments always went one of two ways, both of which involved throwing each other’s belongings around his apartment. On more than one occasion he picked up my hair brush and pelted it at my feet, hissing, That’s for you. He was the first man to tell me I was impossible to please.
We met during my sophomore-year winter break, at a party thrown by my mother’s then-boyfriend. He was the host’s nephew. In consequence neither of our families supported the match.
When I felt the power dynamic of the relationship was shifting, I began to tell him I loved him at inopportune times. This had the opposite of its intended effect––that is, we both came to believe it and treated each other accordingly.
Toward the middle of our tailspin we shared a lucid moment. We had fought and fallen asleep in his bed, curled up butt-to-butt. When I woke the neighboring apartments were silent; no light filtered through the blinds that covered his bedroom window. I could hear the low electrical hum of the fridge in the kitchenette. After a few moments I rolled over and shook his left shoulder until he grew irritated enough to respond. We don’t love each other, do we, I said. He paused a moment, a hair’s breadth too short, then admitted: No, we don’t. This answer brought us both some relief. We went back to sleep.
For some time after the last time I saw him, I would allow myself to call and leave a voicemail once a week. Eventually he told my mother that I was stalking him, which did nothing to alter my behavior but many things to my evolving sense of shame. Eventually I was able to whittle these attempts down to nothing, though at the expense of my water bill. Whenever I felt the urge to call him, which was whenever I was alone in my studio apartment, I would turn on the shower and lie facedown in the tub until it receded. I treated the entire thing as a performance of heartbreak, with my true self as its audience; the body making those calls and then taking those showers remained uninhabited.
- Men to Whom I No Longer Speak - February 29, 2016