Maybe newly divorced men should be quarantined for eight months, as if they were carrying diphtheria or the plague. In my case it would have made everyone’s life easier, even mine. The only women I would have seen would have been nurses in white uniforms bringing me chilled juice in the morning and checking my temperature. Of course, I probably would have fallen in love with all of them, too -- but they’d have been ready for that: just another occupational hazard on the Newly Divorced ward. To ensure their emotional neutrality, they’d have to take the Drexel-Blenheim romantic infatuation blood test weekly, just to be safe. No, no, I know – that test doesn’t exist, and neither do Drexel and Blenheim, which is a good thing because if they had a breathalyzer for this form of impairment, half the non-alcohol related car crashes could end up in court fighting a new category of felony conviction: DUH: Driving Under The Influence of Heartbreak. The acronym is almost too perfect, as you invariably wind up feeling like a complete idiot most of the time.
Which brings me to Sasha.Wilhite. We never should have gotten involved. I had never found her attractive and I didn’t even like her that much. But I had felt like a court eunuch for years and months of being summarily rejected by every woman I approached had left me feeling puny and demoralized. I’m thinking of one woman in particular who allowed me to come over one night then deftly stayed at least three feet away from me for the whole evening, even when she walked me to the door, stepping back as I opened it inward, a sprightly choreography of physical suspicion; or the Irish girl who quite literally drank me under the table when I tried to ply her with Bushmill’s one night. I woke up on the floor the next morning with her note beside my throbbing temple: “Nice try. Thanks for a lovely evening.” Or the woman who asked my advice about about another guy-friend: “I’m not sure what to do … I want to tell him I’m not interested, you know, that way … but I don’t want to hurt his feelings or get him mad or start some weird starker scene … so I need a way to be clear but kind of … indirect? I could say ‘you’re like brother to me’ but it sounds so trite. I need a technique.”
I said, “The one you’re using right now is working fine.”
My friend Roy said to me: “Try being their father next time. It works wonders.”
So the fact that Sasha actually showed even the slightest interest in me pretty much guaranteed a response. It’s a rotten situation for a woman, though. You’re like the geek who befriends the new kid at school, and everything seems great until it turns out they’re really funny, or can play football or something and they get really popular and drop you like a dog-slobbered tennis ball. I’ve been that geek so I know. There was no way this was going to last. There were too many wrong notes: the awful ham dinner she cooked with a sad scorched pieces of pineapple, her anger at me for not being ‘touch enough; with Lisa, her dismissive “Who cares? It’s only a movie,” when I was ranting about Hollywood trashing one of my favorite novels; and the whole Catholic thing. After one ragged late night argument about faith, I quoted Ambrose Bierce’s brutal definition from The Devil’s Dictionary: “Belief without evidence, in one who speaks without knowledge of things without parallel.”
“Yes!” she said. “Yes, that’s it exactly!”
And I’m the guy who thought Brideshead Revisited was anti-Catholic propaganda.
I shouldn’t have been there. I wasn’t ready to be there. That’s why I advocate the quarantine. The quarantine is good. Women should always try to avoid that first relationship after a toxic marriage: you wind up dealing with all the left-over garbage, with very little to show for it. That first relationship is like the first pancake – the one you test the griddle with, the one that never cooks right, and gets thrown away before you make the first real batch.
For instance: though I had masturbated dutifully for more than a decade, more or less the same way I would start up an antique car and drive it around the block every couple of weeks, to preserve the tires and keep the battery from dying, the plan didn’t seem to be working out very well when it came to actual sex with an actual person. During the first few times with Sasha, the hydraulics of my desire seemed to be rusted beyond repair. Or maybe it was the electronics: all the plugs and jacks had corroded. Nothing connected properly. Or maybe I had actually had turned into a eunuch, after all. It was demoralizing for both of us.
Sasha was a good Catholic girl, the more obvious erotic encouragements were out of the question. She didn’t want to put anything strange or unusual in her mouth.
“I don’t even eat sushi,” she told me.
We both laughed. Then we got up and made tea. It was just nice to be alone together.
Except we weren’t. This is a small town and it’s hard to shake the crowd. You’re never quite as alone as you think you are. For instance: Sasha belonged to a women’s talking group and I knew some of the other women. One of them was my landlord; another one used to work with my ex-wife. I hadn’t spoken to this woman in years, and we’d never been particularly friendly. But when I ran into her at the Stop&Shop one day, she gave me an effusive hug in the cereal aisle. “I’m so happy for you” she said. “You deserve this.” I just stared at her blankly. I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. I had asked Sasha to keep things quiet. Lisa was sleeping with her ex husband and I didn’t want the kids to know what was going on. Sasha hadn’t actually told anyone in the normal gossipy way, but she had talked in her group about the tall, clumsy, verbose sandy-haired recently divorced house-painter she was seeing, and they had probably been able to narrow it down without too much trouble. They all adored me now, but I knew they’d have the knives out for me if I failed to live up to their expectations.
And that wasn’t the only crowd scene.The other one happened in bed.
Once the plumbing was back in working order, I discovered a new problem. Starting was easy; finishing was almost impossible. Sasha couldn’t quite inspire an orgasm in me; or perhaps I just couldn’t summon the necessary focus. Anyway, my mind wandered. I could go an go and go; but she wanted me to come. In fact it was essential for her that I she was able to make that happen. Her sense of herself as a woman seemed to be at stake. In desperation, looking for some erotic traction, something to keep me from sliding away into a chafed detumesence, the image of Ned unhooking Lisa’s bra slithered into my mind. It was like watching a movie; my own private porn film. It pushed me over the edge. I was done and Sasha was delighted. But I didn’t like being in bed with four people.
Especially when one of them was Ned Wilhite.
I was out of control, I was letting things happen to me, weirdly detached even as I was being drawn deeper into a complex arrangement I didn’t really understand. Sasha brought lunch to my job-site one day and Roy said later, “That’s it, dude. You’re really a couple now.”
His words sent a chill through me. Were we really a couple? When had that happened? How had it happened? I knew this much: I was sleepwalking. And if I didn’t wake up soon, I was going to walk myself right off a cliff. It was time to nail the “Quarantine” sign back up on the door and lock myself inside.
But I didn’t know how to do it.