What happened? And how did it happen? And why?
How could a great love affair pop like soap bubble, vanish in a flick of spray, just from grazing the rough edge of reality?
I’ve been asking myself those questions for more than a decade. I tried to transplant a particularly beautiful Christmas tree one year; of course it died. Turned out, they seal the cut somehow, so the trunk can’t absorb nutrients from the ground. It was just a decorative object, designed to be temporary, with boughs for hanging ornaments, each ornament with its own weight of nostalgia and family history. Then it was New Year’s and we packed them away again; we vacuumed the needles from the rug and took the browning skeleton to the dump. The faint smell of the pine woods lingered in the house for a few days, but the tree wasn’t real. It could never grow on its own.
I thought of my time with Sophie Zambarabno that year, chucking the discarded husk onto the pile.
We talked on the phone a lot when she was in Canada – long, late-night phone calls full of hope and high prospect. But nothing changed. She was going to break up with Eric; then she wasn’t. Then she saw herself forced “To choose between two totally different lives”; the pressure began to exhaust her. It all seemed so impractical and difficult: neither one of us was willing to move and a long distance relationship would just wear both of us down.
Then she was back in Northampton and Eric was moving in. It made sense. He had every advantage. He was with her every day, fighting for their life together. I was a memory, and a compromised one at that: a fantasy.
At one point she said to me “I was cheating on my boyfriend when we were together. It was tainted as romance from the beginning.”
Actually, It was worse than that. Our brief affair was symptomatic of all her pathologies, all the bad stuff she had thought she had left behind – I was the creature from the black lagoon of her past, dragging all the swamp slime of those bad old days with me: the selfishness the sex-addiction, the manipulative power-games. She had seduced me because she could, because it made her feel strong and powerful. It was sick, it was like falling off the wagon, like a drinking binge. The last thing she wanted to do was recall that lost weekend.
I was part of her past and I should stay that way, for both of our sakes.
She had to move on.
I had become a symptom. Somehow I knew that wasn’t good. A few more weeks, and I might become the disease itself. The phone calls, intended to connect us, sharpened the separation. It was trying to set a nail in a knot: each hammer blow pulls the boards farther apart. That’s right, I was thinking about her all the time and every frustrating moment turned into a metaphor. Trying to climb the sand bluff at Surfside, slipping back on the soft sand with every step forward; visiting Los Angeles during one of those Autumn weeks when winter arrives for a few days – with cold and bare trees and wind and white-caps and icy rain – before Mexicans with leaf-blowers clean the streets and it’s summer again. Every temporary futile frustrating thing was a message.
Finally I accepted it.
The calls tapered off. I fought the urge to pick up the phone every day, every night. I began to understand what she meant about addiction.
But eventually I gave up. I started seeing other women. I always knew, though, that no matter what we were doing, no matter what I had told them, no matter how involved we seemed to be … one phone call from Sophie and I’d be gone like a dog jumping out of a parked car. Of course I knew that call was never going to come, but it didn’t matter. I used the idea, and the feeling it provoked, as a point of reference. I was waiting for the woman who could make that mythical phone call moot, conclude the past and let the future begin. But I wasn’t finding her. Part of me knew that looking for her was pointless. You don’t find that kind of relationship; it finds you.
“You weren’t ready for Sophie anyway,” Lisa said to me, over dinner, one of those nights. “Not financially, or emotionally. You were way over-extended. That’s why it failed.”
I nodded. We were eating a cheese soufflé and mescal greens salad. I remembered how I managed to eat a vegetarian diet so many years. She had always been a great cook. I took a bite too soon and burned my tongue, as I always did. I could see it register on her face, but Lisa said nothing; my over-eager table manners weren’t her problem any more. We both liked it that way.
“You know, I saw her once,” Lisa said.
“Sophie. When I was living in New York with Andy. We were on the subway – riding uptown on the Broadway IRT. It was just before Christmas. Andy nudged me and said ‘There she is. Your nemesis.’”
“What did you think?”
“She looked like you. Seriously – she could have been your sister.”
I took it in. “Shouldn’t I have noticed that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the kind of thing people don’t notice. They don’t really know how they look. Everything’s backward in the mirror and most photographs are just bad.”
“This is weird.”
“Not really. Lots of married couples look alike. Sometimes they look like their dogs, too – you’ve seen them. Some jowly old couple waddling along with a fat pug. It’s funny.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now.”
We ate in silence for while. She’d found some delicious, ridiculously cheap white wine. I poured us each another glass. The kids were both sleeping over at friend’s’ houses, though the crash call from Tommy could come at any time. He rarely made it through a complete sleep-over.
“As long as I don’t wind up looking like The Hoosier.”
I was startled. She rarely mentioned her boyfriend. His name was Ray something but everyone called him the Hoosier. He had played right tackle for Indiana State and he’d put on a lot of weight since then. As one of Lisa’s main criticisms of me during the long decay of our marriage was that I wasn’t fit enough, her infatuation with this Midwestern mountain had always struck me as bizarrely ironic.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said, taking a gulp of the icy wine.
“I know what you’re thinking.”
“I’m not thinking. I’m drinking. It works for me.”
She drained her glass, pushed her plate aside. “Looks don’t matter to me.”
“I think it’s a gender thing. Seriously. You;ve had every fat woman on Nantucket chasing you since you moved out. They come to me for advice.”
“And you tell them to give up, I hope.”
“I tell them if I understood you we’d still be married.”
“It’s just the opposite, actually.”
“You know me way too well.”
“That’s why I stay out of it.”
“I should have known. Women are never that friendly otherwise. If they’re not attracted you could set yourself on fire in front of them and they’d just roast some marshmallows for the cute guy.”
Quiet settled in between us like a cat in a patch of sunlight. By unspoken agreement we started clearing the table together. We were doing the dishes, I was drying them and putting them away, when she spoke again.
“The kids hate Ray. Both of them but especially Carrie.”
“I know. I hear about it all the time.”
“It’s like a war. It’s like I adopted a third kid who turned out to be a bully.”
“You said it not me.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Talk to him, You might remind him that he’s the grown-up in this situation. If only by body weight.”
“I talk to him all the time. We fight about it. We broke up over it. Twice.”
I nodded. “It’s hard to make those break-ups stick.”
“We’ll see. I’m doing it again tonight. I mean it. I’m going over there and telling him we’re done.”
I couldn’t resist: “What about his ‘profound soul’. I remember hearing a lot about that profound soul of his.”
“He pickled it.”
“AA didn’t work?”
“AA got him into cocaine. Some kid at his session was selling it outside the church. That kid was quite a salesman. He even had a slogan – ‘Better than coffee’. Except you need vodka to get to sleep.”
“Life on Nantucket,” I said. I felt her tense up. She hated it when I criticized the place; but come on. “What other little town has five liquor stores? Seven if you count the places that just sell wine. Eight! If you count the health food store. Who buys wine at a health food store?”
“Wine is healthy. Red wine breaks down platelets in the blood. Or something.”
“Whatever. You know what I mean. There’s nothing to do here in the winter but work and drink. And Ray’s out of work. Or so I hear.”
“So is everything else. But most people manage to cope.”
She handed me the last plate. I dried it and put it away on the high shelf over the sink. I loomed over her for a second.
“Tall person required,” she said softly. It was something she used to say when we were married, if she needed me to reach something up high for her; a faint echo of better days. There actually had been some.
“After college, when we were apart,” she said. “I thought I’d never find anyone who measured up to you, the way I felt about you.”
“I don’t think Ray qualifies.”
“Maybe not. But he hasn’t disappointed me as much either.”
“Give him time.”
“No thanks I tried that plan before. It didn’t work.”
“I had my disappointments too, Lisa. Five years service as a Medieval court eunuch. But court eunuchs got special privileges.”
“You got to sleep with the queen.”
“And she slept naked in the summer. Which made it especially fun.”
“A real eunuch wouldn’t have cared.”
“Thanks. But defensive castration wasn’t covered by our HMO.”
“Byron Clark seemed to think I’d do it for free.”
“Byron Clark thinks you actually did.”
“But we know better.”
We were standing close to each other in the empty kitchen, in the quiet house, water=speckled from the dish-washing, a little tipsy from the wine.
“You know, it’s strange,” she said. “I feel like I’m reaching my sexual peak right now.”
“Rats. And I missed it.”
“There were times when you could have made a move. But you didn’t.”
“You never gave me a hint.”
She move a little closer, brushed against me.
“Maybe you just didn’t pick up on them.”
There was a sudden electrical storm in the house. Lightning was going to strike any second. I decided to throw it myself. I leaned down and kissed her. She kissed me back, hard, her mouth open, her body smashed against mine. It felt crazy, and transgressive, absurdly hot and utterly familiar. We had stood on a dark street in Amherst kissing like this for hours one night, twenty years ago. We were just picking up where we left off.
I put my hand on her breast over her shirt, and she pressed against it with her hand. She wasn’t wearing a bra.
“The best feeling in the world,” I said.
“No,” she said. “This is.”
And she took my wrist, pushed it down and slipped it under her shirt, guided it to her naked breast. We groaned in unison, a shared animal moan of pleasure and want.
I started to unbutton her shirt with my free hand and the physical awkwardness seemed to break the spell. She reared back, shaking her head.
“We can’t do this. It’s – too confusing. It’s not right.”
I knew she was right. I eased my hand out of her shirt, let it dangle by my side. “I know,” I said.
“This can’t happen again.”
“We can’t even – act like it happened. The kids would freak out.”
“I don’t want to disappoint them.”
She hugged me.
“I’m sorry,” she said to my chest.
“It’s okay. We both wanted to. That’s enough for me. It’s like … we got something back. We don’t need to do anything about it. We can just – have it. We deserve it. We lived together for twelve years. We made two kids together. There has to be something left after all that.”
“Plus I got to cop a feel. There’s no downside there.”
She pushed me away, but she was smiling. “Ugh, you are such a guy.”
I left a few minutes later, and driving home on the long straight road to town under the dense canopy of stars, I felt my desire subside, replaced by something else, a little worm of optimism, nosing through the soil. Things were changing between us, we were moving into another realm, with new rules and conditions, new frustrations, new expectations and risks.
I felt like a man stepping off a plane on some tropical island, feeling the warm air and the scent of jasmine, knowing no one, with no where to stay and no money in my pocket, not even sure where I was, somewhere in the Caribbean, Saint something, probably, feeling lost and over-dressed and disoriented.
But happy to be there; and eager to explore.