In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I’ve broken up with only one person if you don’t count my boyfriend in high school who threatened to throw a cast-iron frying pan at me and then later, when he had calmed down, said sadly, “His is bigger than mine, isn’t it?” Even at sixteen it was too ridiculous.
The real one was later, in my early twenties. I was in love with Jack, who was lovers with my best friend Diana (both names changed), who sometimes thought she was in love with me, sometimes with Jack, and sometimes thought it would be better for everyone if she were dead. Out of frustration with what he called Diana’s “coldness,” Jack would occasionally allow himself to seduce me (not difficult), each time saying, “This doesn’t change anything — we’re still just friends, right? We won’t do this anymore if it’s getting too intense for you.” This went on for years. We all thought of ourselves as experiencing the kind of profound intimacy only the Truly Sensitive can know.
I made some new friends who thought what I was doing was deranged. I disagreed but couldn’t say why, until one morning I woke up and it felt like the morning of a funeral. The day before, a man I knew had died in an avalanche while leading a climbing party on Mount Ranier. He saved everyone but himself. The father of one of my housemates had just died, and his mother sent him all his father’s clothes. They fit perfectly. He wandered around the house in a three-piece suit and a bemused expression. My other housemate had lost her job. I decided to scrub the kitchen floor.
I have never cleaned a floor so well. We had an old-fashioned stove with porcelain feet, one of them chipped, and on this I accidentally gouged out a chunk of my big toe. I dispassionately watched the blood pool around my feet until my hands began to shake and my knees gave way and I sank down, alone in a very clean kitchen.
That evening we had a wake for everything. I drank half a bottle of wine and sobbed on my housemate’s lap. At the height of my crying jag, when my face was purple and snot was dripping off my chin, Jack dropped by unexpectedly. I screamed, “Get out! Go away! Leave me alone!” as if we’d been arguing all night.
The next morning, fragile and old, I rode the bus to Jack’s house to get through the beginning and middle of the argument. Although Jack had always impressed upon me how expendable I was to him, I was not particularly surprised to find I was not to be let go without a terrible struggle. He said, “Do you want to tear the heart out of my body? You have done it.” I did not see him again for years.
Later, he gave up trying to be a poet and became a doctor. I married someone completely unlike him. Diana and I love each other to this day. I still have a white scar on my toe, of course, but it’s small, and I don’t think about it much.
It’s a sunny morning. Violet crocuses are pushing out of the earth in my garden. I’m resisting the temptation to call Robin to ask her if she’d go hiking with me. I’m afraid of another rejection. How I’d love to be with her, drinking coffee at her farmhouse kitchen table, looking at wildflowers in her field, listening to her concerned conversation about the AIDS patients she works with at the medical center. I miss the smell of her red hair and the way she used to wrap herself around me in the bed she built herself.
For three years we were lovers. She patiently listened to my fears of losing custody of my two little girls to my ex-wife, Cari. She knew I’d wither without daily contact with my children; I couldn’t settle for weekend visits.
My paintings showed the tensions. Our relationship showed the tensions, also, as I continued to look over my shoulder, vacillating between my love for Robin and my secret desire to reconcile with Cari to keep the family together. Before Robin, Cari had been my only love since I’d left the priesthood. Although I tried to be loving to Robin, I now understand the pressure she must have felt.
In January she held my hand and told me she wanted to be on her own for a while. It seemed like a good idea. I could “play the field” and she could clear her head. What an ass I was. It wasn’t long before I realized what I had lost. Her honesty, her directness, her simple lifestyle — I miss them so much. The way she laughed and poked holes in my cherished dogmas. The way she was silent. God, I miss her as I write this. I’d give anything if I could have her with me now.
Troy, New York
I used to break up with my boyfriends as soon as they made a mistake. One stupid comment, one false step, and that was it. I wanted a perfect boyfriend.
When I was nineteen, I fell in love and began living with a fellow who seemed different from the others. Six months later, I pulled the covers off him while we were sleeping one morning, and he beat me up. For the next few years, I tried to break up with him but couldn’t. I needed resolution, clarity, and confidence to carry it out, but these qualities all failed me.
I turned to mysticism. To have my aura cleared, I sent a photograph of myself and a sample of my handwriting to South Dakota. They wrote back exclaiming over the great number of disembodied entities — twenty-seven — in my apartment and around and inside me. He cried when I showed him the letter and shouted, “It’s me they’re chasing away!” He didn’t seem like someone who would believe in the spirit world, but he did.
That summer I decided to break up with him for good. He began following me to work. He always carried a gun. He made threats and wild promises. He cried and vowed to turn over a new leaf. One night I woke up to find him leaning over me whispering rhythmically, “You can’t go. You can’t go. . . .”
I don’t know why it was so important to him that I stay. I drove him crazy. I didn’t fill up the ice cube trays all the way, didn’t get all the soap off the dishes when I washed them, and when I did laundry I invariably forgot a towel or a washcloth. “You forgot the towels, you fucking cunt!” he would shout, bursting into the laundromat, clutching a couple of towels in his hand and waving them at me. The old ladies looked up from their washers, appalled. “What makes you think ‘cunt’ is a dirty word?” I would shout back.
I moved into a little farmhouse and planted a garden. My room was full of books and outside my window there was nothing but the flat, rich fields of Illinois. Those first nights alone, I lay sprawled across my bed, feeling only happiness. I felt as if I had just walked away from a car crash, my senses alert, the world vibrant.
For years afterward, I held on to my hatred of him. I waited to hear news that he’d died. Then it would be finished and I would have satisfaction. But in the end, I had to claim my part in our relationship. Only when I could forgive us both did I finally feel free of him.
It used to be like this.
He hasn’t called you all week. He rushes by at school, his smile a lowered flag. You can’t do your homework, can’t bathe, can’t listen to music, because you are willing the phone to ring. Friday at school, you see him leaning against Barb’s locker, looking at Barb like she was Mars on a dark night. You walk so close your algebra book brushes his sweater. He doesn’t notice.
Then it was like this.
His socks curl in heaps under the bed. He bends down the pages of his books, when he bothers to read. He complains if you stay up too late. He worries about the wrinkles in your blouse, about the faint smudges from your eyeliner. He expects you to take his tie to the cleaners.
You don’t cry when he throws his clothes into milk cartons and hauls them down the stairs. You each say, Stay in touch.
And then, this.
He wakes up in the morning and doesn’t kiss you. He puts on underwear before he gets out of bed. He stays at work later and later. He drums his fingers along the edge of his plate when you talk about your day. He says OK, yeah, fine, when you ask about his. It’s over before he leaves.
You’re older and the newness has worn off. But not the sorrow. Not the sense of loss that turns sleeping into wrestling with lumpy pillows, reading into merely staring past space. He’s gone and has taken something from you.
At nineteen I broke up with D. because he was too political (and I was a poet). At twenty-three I broke up with H. who was an artist and not political enough (and I was a revolutionary). At twenty-eight I broke up with M. because he was a man (and I was a gay feminist). I broke up with S. at twenty-nine because she drank too much, with F. at thirty because she was too jealous, with T. at thirty-two because she was too dependent. At forty I broke up with S. because he couldn’t make a living, and at forty-one with B. because she was too young.
At forty-two I met T., who was political and artistic, didn’t drink, wasn’t too jealous or dependent, knew how to make a living, and was just the right age. I married him and a year later had a baby.
When I look back at all the beloveds I left, I want to say, “I loved you. It wasn’t for those reasons that I left. I just had to go forward to meet my destiny.” And I suppose the same could be said for J., P., T., R., and S., who left me.
Pam was murdered. Her body was found, nude, with her hands tied behind her back, at the bottom of the bluffs in Palisades Park, where I walk every day. Even though I had spent time talking with her the week before, I couldn’t place her name. When they described her as “the white woman who had the black eye,” I knew who she was.
The day I had sat drinking my tea with Pam, she and I talked about a social worker in another shelter who had been stabbed some thirty times that week by one of her own clients. I had never before known anybody who was murdered, but since I began volunteering at this day shelter, I now know two.
The day we found out about Pam was rough. The women here live with the threat of violent death every day and night on the streets, and their fear was smelly and stifling in the three small rooms of the shelter. Charlene free-associated nonstop and pissed off Deborah, who smoldered wordlessly with such palpable violence that many of the women went into the other room or left the shelter altogether. Someone went into the shower and wouldn’t come out. One woman shoved another into some shelves, creating a small avalanche of cans and food boxes. The roaches we can’t get rid of crawled around on the drainboard while I cut up tomatoes. My natural need for order was making me scream inside.
Last Saturday I didn’t work at the shelter because it was my fortieth birthday. I spent the weekend at a Franciscan retreat in Malibu. I’m not Catholic, but the stories and rituals Sister Pat created for Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday moved me in ways my intellect can’t grasp. In the rain-washed gardens full of spring flowers and fish ponds of spanish tile, overlooking the Pacific and the sage-scented canyons, I wept each day — mostly joy laced with pain. Winter dying into spring. Christ dying into life. What grace.
Something is breaking up in me. It hurts a little, but only like a cold breaking up into a productive cough. At forty I have finally grown up enough and healed enough that I can spend my Saturdays facing the kind of human suffering that was before hidden from my view, lurking instead unseen, in my heart. I fix lunch. I do laundry. I sit down and talk with other women. I look head-on at the eternal suffering of all mankind, a reflection of my own suffering, and meet it with the only means I have — love and kindness. It hurts. It terrifies me. It fills me with joy.
Santa Monica, California
We had a problem with ants. I had never imagined we’d have thousands of ants in the Los Angeles desert. Sometimes we would spray them with Raid, but it was poisonous and my eyes already burned from the smog. Other times, we would roll up the newspaper and pound them as they formed pathways through our bedroom, into the kitchen. All the pounding released a lot of tension.
I awoke on Saturday to hear him tell me he would be working all day and into the night. I went back to sleep. When I woke up again, the ants were worse. In his rush to the office, he had broken a sugar bowl. I left and ate breakfast at the nearby restaurant.
It was a dreadful day — an expected high of 110 degrees. This was the last weekend before we separated, our trial cohabitation coming abruptly to an end. On Monday he would fly to St. Louis on business, and I would fly to Minneapolis. He was working all the time. I didn’t have anything to do. His office had air conditioning, so I went there. For several hours I read magazine articles I would never remember.
At lunch time we left his office and went to the shopping mall in Montclair and ate hamburgers. It was a particularly grotesque mall. It was 112 degrees. On the way back to the car, he screamed, “I hate southern California, I hate southern California,” but no one noticed except me. I also was somewhere I had never wanted to live. My dreams were full of earthquakes.
The Night Stalker made my life worse. He was slitting the screens of suburban bungalows, then slitting the throats of happy couples. The newspaper said the Night Stalker was nearby. With no air conditioning, at 110 degrees, it made sense to keep the windows open. The Night Stalker knew this.
The ants were worse, lured all day by the sugar. He started beating them. In a tight voice I said we should go to a motel. At least twice I said this. He gave me an odd look. He didn’t say anything. He was looking for the Raid. It was hot. It was hard enough to breathe without poison in the air. But maybe it would keep away the Night Stalker.
My eyes were open, so I knew I had survived the night. This was my last day in Los Angeles, and I was saying goodbye to no one. I had no friends there who would miss me. I wished a love paramedic would lay me on a stretcher, put a cold compress on my hot forehead, and take me somewhere I could call home: somewhere where someone loved me, wanted me, cared about me truly; where maybe even a lot of people loved me, wanted me, cared about me truly. Forever.
This affair had once been an easy and creative intimacy. It was fun and sexy and reliable. How could it have gotten so bad? His new, all-consuming job. My precarious and isolating research work. His lack of exercise, his yeast imbalance, my nagging. His therapist said he was married to duty.
At odd moments I think about spiritual questions. In fifty years or so, we’ll both be dead and in the afterlife, where many people say you get to be with your loved ones once again. When you’re some free-floating spirit in eternity, do you get to be with your loved ones at the best times, or do you have to be with them at times like this when it’s so hot and crazy? And what if your first lover and a couple of other major affairs are also there? What if his ex-wife is there? Do these spiritual bodies get jealous, or is it all just great, with no one caring whom you spent the night with because time doesn’t exist?
We had forgotten to eat all day. It was 9 p.m., and he had to wash his clothes before he took his trip, though he was unable to say why. For some reason, I hadn’t been hungry all day, and I still wasn’t hungry. For some reason, I too thought it very important that I wash my clothes.
It was only 9:30 when we got to the laundromat, but they wouldn’t let us in because they closed at 10. We drove to other places. All the laundromats were closed. We were frantic as we sped down the freeway with our laundry baskets. We couldn’t talk to each other on our last night together. We had to wash our clothes.
In Pomona we found an open laundromat. We dropped in the coins and the water filled the tubs. There was a chicken fast-food stand down the street. They were about to close, but they sold us their last bit of chicken. We ate orange-coated, dry chicken in a laundromat for our final meal together. The washing machine with my clothes in it stopped after the tub filled. My clothes floated in soapy water. I wrung them out and put them in a dryer.
On the drive home, I started talking about Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” How Robert DeNiro said “fuck” all the time. “ ‘You fuckin’, that fuckin’, you fuck. . . .’ Did someone write that or was it improvisation?” I knew that he had seen the film, but he didn’t respond.
He still had to pack. He couldn’t find his shoe. Was it under the bed? Was it in the closet? Was it in the bathroom? Had I seen it? This was worse than the ants. He needed his shoe for his business trip and the plane was leaving in five hours. We still had to find the shoe, pack, and sleep.
I was lying in bed wanting to scream that I hadn’t eaten his shoe. I was ready to call the airlines and tell them to cancel our reservations. We didn’t need airplanes; we were so wound up, we could spring to our destinations. Neither of us mentioned that we would never see each other again.
There are many theories as to why things happen the way they do. Some argue that we create our own realities. Some say that we learned to be who we are when we were kids, and we play out the same patterns again, again and again throughout our lives. Some say it all happened in former lifetimes. This lifetime, that lifetime, lessons to be learned, karmic debts — maybe it makes sense. But who can prove it? And even when I try to reach beyond this lifetime to make sense of something greater, it still hurts.
Once, I came home to find everything I owned piled just inside the front door. It was exactly what the situation called for. Today we live far apart, but keep in touch with short letters and pictures of our kids.
Another time I didn’t own enough to make a pile, so she piled all her resentment and boredom between us in bed. That also worked out for the best, although it took me longer to realize it.
Then there was the time when we both sat down on the landlord’s couch and decided that fighting and bickering all the time was worse than calling it quits. She took her clothes and the pickup and left everything else just where it sat. The house looked as though nothing had happened. I’d open the fridge and see food she’d bought and I would cry. I stayed out too late getting drunk and when I got home, raccoons had killed the ducks she’d raised and I cried. I was experienced at breaking up and couldn’t understand why it hurt so much this time. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I drove a produce truck for a living, and I’d find myself somewhere, not remembering whether I’d made the last stop or driven right by.
This lasted a week. I called her up in the middle of the night and told her I was coming to get her. I couldn’t wait for her to come home in the morning because I wasn’t sure she would.
“We were together for six years, and in the end we broke up.” I’ve told it that way innumerable times. But I know it isn’t true. The breakup really began in the first tentative moments of our meeting. Beneath the gossamer of our casual flirtation, our claws were already bared. We knew that we would wage a clandestine battle whose origins were rooted in our childhoods. We never spoke of this. Instead, we carried on our relationship through a curtain of distortions.
For the first year or two I contented myself with our delicious lovemaking. It was new and wonderful for me to have a sexy, sensual partner, nearly always receptive to my advances. I loved it — believing that I loved her. As far as I could tell, this erotic play, this dance of the veils, was relationship. We were precocious seal pups, wet skins sliding together in celebration of the now. But I wasn’t fully in my skin. Even in our most intimate moments, I held back. I was wary of her, and I watched cautiously from the shore of my distrust, never really diving in.
She became pregnant. After the abortion, it seemed as if the surgeon’s curette had found its mark upon the tender belly of our relationship itself. The moorings of our carefree, childlike lust had been roughly shaken, and our insides ached. We camped together in the mountains for a few days and held each other in the damp chill of early morning, struggling to find connection and reassurance.
We continued on for another four years, protecting our wounds, denying our anger, and still never quite meeting. Our physical intimacy became less interesting; we both had affairs; the emotional distance grew too painful to ignore. We found a therapist who encouraged us to separate, as gracefully as possible.
My current partner and I seem always to be breaking up. Then — just when all appears lost — we come back stronger. We used to fight a lot, but as we’ve matured, our taste for emotional drama has diminished. We love to play in bed like spinner dolphins, touching the full length of our bodies and pretending our feet are flukes. We like being in our bodies, and we’re learning to share the pain in our hearts. It is the best relationship I’ve ever had.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Her name is Dorothy. She was assigned by a school in New England to be my instructor for a correspondence course. I am a convict in the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Though Dorothy and I never met in person, we continued to exchange letters long after I finished the course. Dorothy’s kindness and gentleness caused me to fall in love with her. I perceived her as that rare person who is truly loving.
Convicts, especially those like me who have been locked up for more than a decade, spending most of their time in solitary confinement, are apt to be particularly vulnerable to any kindness. A smile from a woman might convince a convict that she loves him.
Dorothy accepted my love without ever in any way giving me an indication that she loved me also. Last December, I sent her an ultimatum: our relationship had to progress, or she should not answer my letter. I never received a reply.
Recently The Sun published excerpts from a book by Krishnamurti. I was so impressed by his intelligence that I wrote to the Krishnamurti Foundation. They sent me a book of his, Think on These Things.
While reading it, I came across the following: “Do you know what it is to love? It is to give completely your mind, your heart, your whole being, and not ask a thing in return, not put out a begging bowl to receive love.”
Of course I knew of the ideal of unconditional love, but until reading this I never really grasped with true feelings what it meant. I realized that Dorothy had done all she could by allowing me to love her, by accepting my love for her.
Wanting her love in return, I became angry. I broke up not with a lover but, more important, with a loving person.
Forgive me, Dorothy, for holding out the begging bowl.
Patrick Michael Cullen
Jefferson City, Missouri
Violet and I met the rabbi at the Caridad Restaurant (Violet says it means “dearness”) on 184th — a Dominican Republican place with a case of rotating jello for dessert. We were there to prepare to be married.
Violet and I had carrot juice, in glasses as tall as a cat. The rabbi had tea. Her name is Margaret.
They gave us a special waitress, who knew English.
“What if Sparrow were to be persecuted because he’s Jewish?” the rabbi asked Violet, who is gentile.
“You mean if someone tried to blow him up?”
Finally, the rabbi agreed to hitch us. She gave us a list of what we need: two brittle glasses to break underfoot, a platform for her to stand on because she’s short, and so forth.
On the way up, we’d talked in her car. She said, “Interfaith marriages, when they end in divorce, can be a mess.”
Ours will end in divorce. Ours will be a mess, I knew with conviction. I will kidnap my child from Avenue A and bring him to a yeshiva in Israel, like the villain in a Meryl Streep movie.
Violet will be an alcoholic, I’ll be a Jets fan, in separate cities. We’ll look back to this naive afternoon with a metallic bitterness.
The thought passed.
The New York Transit System
John said he wanted to date other women, but I knew he wanted to see only one — a Southern belle with long, swingy hair. He’d had a crush on her in college and she’d just moved up to New York City. His timing was off, though, for a true breakup. It was April 1985, and we’d already invested in tickets to about a dozen Mets games. We knew there was a long season stretching ahead of us; we bravely faced the prospect of finding ourselves sitting together in Shea’s upper deck, game after game after game.
Our friendship, one of those impossible I-don’t-love-you-let’s-be-friends affairs, was painfully and stubbornly sustained over our hurt and confusion. There were times when, submerged in great meandering despair, I thought I’d get along better if I never saw John again; I contemplated mailing my tickets to him in an act of ultimate self-sacrifice. But I was too selfish to give up my seats, and I was still hopeful that we’d be able to work things out. Thus, we took our neighboring places in the stands and shared a few hours at a time of cheering or crying out in frustration, our hearts turned in devotion to the players on the diamond.
John’s Southern belle was bored by baseball, preferring instead to introduce him to melon daiquiris. I never could picture him sipping a green frothy drink. He looked best with a beer in one hand, and a hot dog dripping with mustard in the other.
We trooped through the season. We watched fireworks after a game in the heat of July, and tried to keep warm in our blue-and-orange scarves on a cold September Fan Appreciation Day. When we learned the Cards had clinched the National League East Division title, we rode the #7 train back through Queens, both feeling sad. The Mets season was over, but they’d have others, and though I didn’t suspect it at the time, so would John and I.
A few years later, he proposed marriage to me during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field when the Mets were visiting. I knew he was repaying the game of baseball for the summer of ’85 when it held us together, when it taught us about commitment (to the team and to each other), about striking out and working through the pain to get a hit next time up, and about the heart: though it sometimes yearns to run around a little, it always knows where home is.
With two weeks left in summer camp, Barbara and I started going together. During free time after supper, we would sit near the lake, arms around each other, talking quietly. We would walk hand in hand to the dining hall. We would dance with each other at the “socials.” And, most sweet, each night before lights out, we would meet behind the cabins and kiss good night.
I was thirteen. How good it felt to have a girlfriend — my first girlfriend.
The last day of camp, several boys started talking about their plan: that night, at the final dance, we would all break up with our girlfriends. We had to be free for the school year, they explained. We shouldn’t be tied down. This plan sounded pretty mean to me.
That afternoon, however, as I observed the girls curling their hair and talking about makeup and the fancy dresses at the bottom of their trunks, I began to feel greatly alienated from them. When Barbara met me at the dance, she looked like one of our mothers, with her painted lips, starchy dress, and weird hair, not like the friend who played volleyball and hiked around and made me laugh. I felt a deep dislike for these strange ways of girls. Suddenly, the boys’ plan seemed to make sense. In the middle of the dance, I told Barbara we had to break up.
She cried. Instantly I felt ashamed and empty. Why had I done that? I liked her very much.
Now there would be no holding hands together on the bus back into the city the next morning. No long telephone calls, or letters, or rendezvous during the school year. No sweet anticipation of being together at camp the following summer.
Instead there was the dry comfort of having aligned myself with the boys. Of proving I was a “man,” independent of the snares of a girl.
But this solidarity proved false. I found out the next morning that I was the only one who had actually broken up with his girlfriend at the dance. I rode the bus back home silent, shamed, and feeling broken inside.
As relationships go, this was a fairly minor event. I’m no longer even sure of the circumstances that led to the dissolving of our affair. It was the mid-Seventies, and we met at a transformation-type seminar and attended a few others together. We dated for several months.
One night at my apartment, we discussed our relationship. Calmly, with a truly transformed and liberated attitude, we broke up. He left. I went into my bedroom, lay down on the bed, and began to cry. Within a few minutes I stopped crying and began (for the first time in such a situation) to listen to my mind chatter. I was surprised to find that I was methodically playing back and cancelling out all the good and love and fun from the affair: “He didn’t mean it when he brought me flowers last week”; “Those moments we shared on the beach were all pretend”; “It was just talk about moving in together.” Finally: “He lied” and “He never really loved me.”
When I stopped to listen to these destructive voices, I realized that I had gone through that same process time and time again: censoring out the “good” parts of a relationship because it didn’t last; changing the past to fit the present reality; ripping away the pleasant, loving memories to leave myself open only to my suffering. Becoming aware of and acknowledging this process did not stop the chatter. But it did help to put it in perspective. I could end a relationship without ripping it to shreds. I could smile at myself in spite of my tears.
Glen Ellen, California
She finally hears him say, “I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce.” He has been saying it for a while now. She starts drinking. She wrecks the house, especially his most treasured things. The police come and escort him away. She doesn’t speak to him again, except to scream at him when he tries to call her.
He loves me now. I love him. Their lawyers talk. Tonight he called her about a tax question, and she didn’t scream. She just said, “You mean you really don’t want me back?” As he tells me this over the phone, I want to cry. I want to hold her. I want to ask him, “Why? Why don’t you want her back? How can you do this to her?”
I’ve never seen her, never spoken with her; as this happens to her, to them, I find myself grieving as if somehow it were my loss, too.
My girlfriend and I are trying to break up, but lack the courage, so far, to go through with it. We have reached, it seems, that point where we couldn’t really leave each other behind anyway — not in our hearts — so I guess that means we’re married. The horror, the horror. Trapped by love.
Petersburg, West Virginia