His soft warm lips tasted of martini with olives. The kiss was coming up all evening, and it turned out better than she expected. The only time she hesitated was when they passed the doorman, and he nodded in greeting. The same doorman saw other women accompanying him upstairs—how many, how often? These thoughts flashed through her buzzed head until the elevator doors closed behind them and she felt his lips at her ear and his hands pressing her body against his. He said something about the “bachelor appearance” of his apartment. She replied something dismissive. They stepped into a dark space where she suspended fear and doubt.
When she came out hours later, sobered, with smudges of make-up exposed in the fluorescence of the hallway, amazingly, she was the same person. She was still getting married in two weeks, to a man she loved, to a man who loved her. As she waited for the cab, shivering—only in part because of the cold night air– scenes from past hours ambushed her mind, making her stoop and lower her head. She went to bed smelling like the man she knew almost nothing about, except for his ability to make her shiver with his soft, warm lips.
He was a poor dresser: pleated pants and puffy sweaters did nothing for his hunched figure. His face could be “cute,” but its features were unattractive. And yet there was a general consensus among women that he deserved attention, and occasional flirtation. Something in his crooked smile made you want to smile back. There was a rumor that he slept with his underling. His jokes always had a sting in them. She was unsure whether to be flattered or insulted by his compliments. But when he looked at her, her heart fell fast and hard, making it difficult to breathe.
Why did she go out with him; why did she let him ask her unforgivable, explicit questions? Why did she answer them, blushing, blushing, blushing?.. What was she hoping to find behind that ironic, detached façade?
She was anxious to meet him again.
“I think it is cute that you are nervous” he said. His whispers melted in her ears, a lightheaded, bubbly feeling settling in instead of the tension she felt a minute ago.
She prepared questions; many questions that would help uncover who he was. But he was not answering.
“I don’t like bothering people with my stuff, because, well: it’s my stuff.”
“But what if other people want to be bothered?”
It was quiet while he looked up at the ceiling lit with the burning fireplace. He suddenly looked very sad.
“You are never going to see me again, are you?”
He should not have asked that—it was not fair.
“Look, this,” she waived her arm over their bodies, “has costs: emotional, and–“ she pictured her life, as she built it, falling apart as a result of this indiscretion coming out—”…and otherwise. I enjoy the sex, but it is only worth it for me if I can feel you—as a person—if I can feel close to you. You know?”
It was a while before he said slowly, “It is layers and layers, and no matter which one I show you, it’s rotten, and bad, and unlikable; so why bother?” He added, “it’s turtles all the way down.”
“I think we all have our issues. The best we can do is to surround ourselves with people who like us for who we are, and then life isn’t so bad. I think I could like your ‘turtles’.”
His e-mails were distant, and she felt guilty and glad at the same time that she could never fall in love with him. Still, all she could think about for the past two weeks was his profile in the darkness lit with a burning fireplace, and the feeling of his kisses.
Her fiancé finally came to town, and, unwittingly, she was snapping at him for little, unimportant things. To her fiancé, she explained this was stress. She was marrying someone who loved her so much, and so openly, with all of her flaws, except for the one she hoped he would never know. How could she jeopardize that? It was not for sex; sex was a side-effect of the queasiness that settled in her stomach when this stranger stared at her and asked, “are you one of those people who have to be faithful?”
“What is wrong with me? What do I want—I have everything I can dream of.” She wanted him, with his layers, and turtles, and a crooked smile, and soft lips—he was something she needed to solve, like a step in an equation, to move on.
The wedding was small: just the two of them in a chapel decorated with fake flowers, golden cupids and votive candles. “Marriage is a sacred institution, established by God, and therefore is not to be entered into lightly––” She was not entering into it lightly. In front of her was the man she loved. He was all that she could hope for, and he loved her. “Some day, I’ll make sense of this” she thought. “It will be OK, it will all become past, to be remembered on a sunny autumn day, while our children play in a shade of an oak tree. It will all be fine.” But the photographer smelled of the same cologne as did the one person she did not want to think about. “What are the odds?” she thought.
“You may kiss the bride.”
“I feel that you love me less,” her husband told her on the second day of their marriage. She did not love him any less, though; and even that was wrong. Something was wrong with everything.
She was looking forward to coming back to work, because that’s where he was. But when she saw him, business-like, polite, impersonal, avoiding her eyes except when he asked “so now that you are married, does it mean I can’t see you socially?” she answered, “Of course you can.” He shook her extended hand, surprised by the unexpected formality. “I just wanted to touch you” she said, leaving his office.
It was a recurrent nightmare that she could not escape: walking out of his apartment late at night, heading home and feeling emptied, turned inside-out. The void he left was more and more painful with every step she took away from him. Nobody could know about it, no one, no one, two three, four—she counted steps– five.
She was five and wore a skirt. It was a warm day, and her cousins and Grandma were outside. But she was inside, by the window, and Grandpa, old, fat Grandpa pulled up her skirt. It felt wet and yucky and wrong. It felt so wrong that she forgot how to breathe and heard her heartbeat in her ears. “Shhh…You are a good girl, aren’t you? Be a good girl, don’t tell anyone.” She did not. She was a good girl. She did not wear skirts after that, and she did not go back to see Grandma until he died years later. Such a stubborn child, they said.
Her steps in the empty streets—six, seven, eight—echoed in the dark as though she was not alone.
They were all around, boys slightly older than she, boys that lied to her to get her to come into the bathroom, boys with strong hands keeping her away from the door, untying the strings that held up her tank top. They were laughing loudly, and she was all alone, trying to hold on and not to cry.
She cried in the shower when she got home past midnight. No one can know. No one will understand. That’s why she never tells. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…
“Well dear, there are men about whose integrity there may be some doubt, but your Math teacher is just the nicest person,” said her mother. Smelling of cheap cigarettes, he recited poetry as he grabbed her and pinned her against the wall. Her friends thought it was cool that he courted her. It was impossible to avoid him completely. He alternated flirtation, threats and public innuendoes trying to get her to sleep with him. When she was 17, he finally gave up, and, as a graduation present, told her, “You are the only one who did not. And let me tell you—there were many.”
Fuck you, asshole. Two years of daily humiliation, is what it has been for me. Two years of trying to explain your jokes, metaphors and phone calls to people who did not want to know the truth. Fuck you. She never told him that, not even years later. Good girls don’t make waves.
She checked her e-mail, hoping to see his name in the inbox, but he rarely wrote. And when he did it was not enough, as though he fed her an emotional diet that kept her barely alive. She ran into him in public, and that was frustrating too. Would it have been better if he acted friendlier? It does not matter. It’s not like it is up to her. It is not like she can do anything about it.
Eighteen. She was asleep in a guest bedroom when he came in. That’s why she did not remember anything before he started to take her clothes off. No, she was saying, no, no, no-o-o. But it was too late, it hurt like hell, and there was nothing she could do about it. She never told. But she never went back and she never saw him again.
Ten years later, she was on the other side of that tunnel. She really thought so, before she stepped into the dark apartment, before she came out of it hours later, before she realized she needed to solve a man like a step in an equation.
“This is not fair to him. He is smart, sweet, charming and funny. Why can’t I just be friends with him?”
“You are very sexy.” He looked at her like she was a prize-winning horse.
“Aside from that, what do you think of me?”
“Just like that: you are asking me what I think of you? I think you are intelligent and socially perceptive: you know what’s going on; I like that. And other than that, I don’t know that much about you.
“Do you want to find out?” she wanted to ask. But she was afraid of his answer.
As a little girl, at night she sat on the windowsill, dreaming. There, up high, on that shiny star—that one—was her home. She was a princess, born to the wisest, kindest rulers. Theirs was a kingdom of all good things—beauty, kindness, talent. An evil magician plotted to kill the princess. That’s why she was sent to Earth, to live where nobody could find her, not even her real parents.
Lonely and lost–that’s how she felt long after she grew out of fairy tales. “I can do this, I can figure it out. If I figure it out, I’ll be saved, I’ll be free.”
“Are you avoiding me?”
“What?” His eyes narrowed.
“You have not answered my e-mails for days.”
“I’ve been busy. I have work to do!”
The conversation was rolling down a steep hill, and it was too late to stop the crash.
“I just feel like I am always initiating our encounters.”
“And so you are.”
“Look, I don’t want––“ Her head started to hurt from the effort she made to hold back tears. “I don’t ask for much. I mean. I just need to feel like you are interested, you know?”
Gazing into the distance, he spoke quietly. “Do you know what you want? Because I am not sure you do.”
“I want to be friends.”
“We arefriends. I can’t be a better friend than I am to you.”
“Would you…If I…If we…Suppose that we stopped having sex…Would you still be a friend?”
“I don’t understand you. Sex was your idea.”
It was not her idea. But she said, “Yes. Yes, it was. I know.” Such a good girl.
“I don’t know what you are waiting for me to say.”
He shrugged, lips pressed into a thin line, and turned around to leave. She watched him walk away—a sweet, funny, charming guy—twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven.
It felt cold and empty, this space she inhabited. She could do nothing to change that. “One day, I will figure it out and it will be OK,” she told herself. But she was not sure. Something was wrong with her, and she did not know what.
At home, she undressed and stood in front of the mirror. This is what they want. This is what she is. She wished she was taller, and blond, with blue eyes. She wished that she woke up—right now—and it would all have been a dream, and she was happy–– twenty eight, twenty nine… She never remembered in the morning how high she counted before she fell asleep.