Category Archives: Relationships

Burrowing

What she remembers most vividly are his nail-bitten fingers burrowing into her, making her feel alive again, and beautiful. He was never any good at kissing, or intercourse, but his fingers were so far from his brain that they worked almost independently.  Joyously. Without guilt.

And she remembers thinking that it was a gift he was giving her. Her last great romance. At the time, she wondered why she was having that thought. But it seemed so inarguable. He was her last hurrah.

Of course things ended badly. But that was built into from the start. He was a religious Jew and she was the other kind, an atheist who referred to herself as “culturally Jewish” when pressed.

Just today she remembered their fight over the chicken. Someone had made a  joke about pigs — how genetically similar to humans they were, so much so that a human could live with transplanted pig parts, heart, liver, kidneys, provided they were blessed by a rabbi to make it all kosher (ha, ha) — and it had brought it all back.

She hadn’t seen him for a month. He’d been in Israel, where he lived when he wasn’t teaching in New York. He was coming straight to her place from the airport. She’d decided to surprise him and cook dinner in case he was hungry when he arrived. She’d purchased a chicken and whatever sides she thought went with it. Roasted potatoes, maybe. Or asparagus. Something.

When he saw the chicken he knew instantly that it hadn’t been butchered correctly. It hadn’t been held upside down so the blood could leak out as it should. And he knew in that same moment that she was not the girl for him. Maybe he’d already met the other woman at that point. Maybe he hadn’t. Either way, they’d had a fight. Exchanged words. He’d drunk a lot, very quickly. Scotch. A bottle he’d bought for himself and left at her place. And then he’d left her apartment, the chicken still stewing in its juices.

They’d patched it up and gone on a bit longer. But the thing was moribund. They’d stopped being able to imagine a time in the future when they would truly be together. The burrowing came to an end.

Every so often there was the occasional email. One, an advice column directed to a woman in a similar predicament. A non-religious Jew dating an Orthodox Jew. The advice was to stop trying to change him, and take him to the Prime Grill, known for its fine kosher cuisine.

She never answered any of them.

Then two years later, on the night of her 50th birthday, he called to give her the news. He left it on her answering machine. “Hi, I’m calling from the airport,” he began, as he had so many times in the past.

“I wanted to wish you happy birthday,” he said.

For a moment there was near silence. Just the slightest inhalation of breath. A whisper through the wires. She could picture his nail-bitten thumb crooked under his chin, the other fingers splayed around the side of his face, shielding his cheek, almost as if he were defending himself from his own thoughts. Or what might emanate from them. And then he delivered the coup de grace. “I just wanted you to know that I got married last weekend.”

Perhaps his new wife was in the airport bathroom when he’d made the call. Or perhaps he’d made it right in front of her, though that seemed unlikely.

She’d disconnected her answering machine, and thrown it in the trash. It was an over-the-top gesture. Histrionic and superfluous. But also not.

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Carnivores

Soon after they met, he told her that he was happiest in midair. He was a visiting professor in New York at the time, who lived in Jerusalem. He taught Jewish history. That year he was teaching at Rutgers.

She took it the way she took everything he said then, as one of those things he said. He thought of himself as a man of paradoxes. And this love of midair, leaving one thing and going to another, fit his idea of himself.

She didn’t take it personally. Not then at any rate. In the beginning, he was just a guy she was seeing. The strangest guy she’d ever gone out with, in fact. A religious Jew who drank and lied and kept the Sabbath. A religious Jew who cheated on his wife and then bound his arm in tefillin.

It seemed that the more he cheated, the more religious he became, if that were possible. That first summer after they met, he flew back to Israel and they made plans to hook up in Barcelona later in the season. She hadn’t been able to wait to see him. Apart from the anticipation, the trip going had been unmemorable. It was the trip home that made an impression. They’d snuggled under the skimpy fleece airplane blanket like teenagers.

Her hand was still down his pants when the stewardess came to take their food order. He carefully explained that he’d ordered ahead. A special vegetarian dish, since he kept kosher. “Yes,” she nodded. “Mr. Rubin.” And then she checked his name off a pad that had a list of all the passengers with special food requests. It would have been impossible to remove her hand at that point, so she tried hard to act as if nothing were amiss, and when the stewardess asked if she’d be having a vegetarian dish too, she said no, she was a carnivore.

Later, after the meal, they dozed off, still snuggled under the one skimpy blanket, and when she awoke it was to turbulence. He was awake too, and was praying soundlessly, his lips moving quickly, like they did, the words he’d recited thousands of times blurring together into one long incantation.

“Are you praying for us?” she asked, wishing for a single moment, that there was something she could believe in other than that their plane was going down.

He’d pissed God off, cheating on his wife, in fact, they both had, and now they were going to pay.

A look crossed his brow. A look that said “I am somewhere else now. I am not available for business. Don’t even think of interrupting me.” And she understood then that he was praying not in the way a regular person might, for the bus to come when it’s freezing, or for the power to come back on in a blackout, or for your plane to stay aloft in a rough patch. He was praying in the way that a religious Jew prays at sundown.  How he even knew it was sundown as they traversed the Atlantic was beyond her, but he seemed to.

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Memento Mori

Last night I saw the ex. It was our third get-together in the last 21 years.

The long-anticipated visit turned into a small group dinner at the home of a friend of his, not the more intimate tete-a-tete I’d imagined. But, in truth, it was perhaps easier. The night before the agreed-upon day of our date was spent tossing and turning, my teeth clamped too tightly together, my head a dull ache.

Would it be too blunt to say that the ex looked old? He’d said by phone that he did, yet seeing him was still a shock. Without my glasses, I would have walked right by him on the street. Perhaps even with them, if I didn’t know what I was looking for. But beneath the veneer (the crumpled jawline and thinning gray hair), he was much the same man. Perhaps egomaniacal would be a tad too strong — after all, he was here on the East Coast being filmed for a movie about his career; the dinner hostess was one of the interviewees.

But I was reminded again of the horrible price of being his girlfriend for all those years; the girlfriend of the great artist, invisible in her own right, existing only as handmaiden to him. My own insecurity made it impossible for me to pull myself up to full-fledged personhood in that relationship.

Of course I have only myself to blame. But that’s how it was. Me constantly dwarfed by his larger ambition and talent — and his love of the spotlight.

I look in the mirror and know that I have aged every bit as much as he has. I have wasted precious years when I might have made a match with someone else. Someone less artistically gifted to be sure, and maybe less funny as well, but someone who actually cared if I live or die.

It would be wonderful to think that I am now finally ready to move on.

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Really?

That new way of using the word “really” — that sarcastic way, when you mean, “you’ve got to be kidding me” — wasn’t part of my vocabulary until about a month ago, when I went to the optician to get a new prescription filled. An older white guy with a gray ponytail was there with a tall, slim Asian woman about 20 years his junior. He looked like he might have been a filmmaker, or a painter, or something arty.  She looked more like she worked at a dotcom; maybe she was a project manager or a graphic designer.  Or maybe she didn’t work at all.

In any case, she was searching for sunglasses, and he was offering his arty input.

When the couple left the store, empty-handed, I asked the young clerk who was helping me to pick out my glasses what she thought when she saw couples like that. Did she think he was a total jerk?

“I look at her, and I think, real-ly?” she said with that very au courant inflection.

Her answer took me by surprise. Never once had it occurred to me to second-guess the woman. I’d reserved all my scorn for the older man.

But her reaction freed up something in me. Suddenly the anger I’d felt as an older woman passed over by men my age was replaced by something like bemusement. And I had the clerk to thank for that.

Really.

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Wanting, Still

She wants what she has always wanted. Always wanted for the last 21 years, at any rate. To find him receptive. Open. Off guard. Willing, at last, to say what she has never stopped believing is true. That he misses her as much as she misses him.

This is, of course, a dangerous place to be. It’s in moods like this that she can take a notion. Pick up the phone. Call him. Find him his old same smart-alecky self. Fall in love all over again. And then slip back into it … that state of awareness where she remembers walking home from work with her own brand of buoyancy, stopping to shop for special treats to perk up their dinner.

She was so sure, after the attack on the towers, that he would call, that he would want to hear her voice, know that she was okay. Know how it was here, in this city they had once shared. But for years and years, there was no call. He didn’t care what that day had meant to her, or any of the other thousands of days she had spent without him, waiting blindly for him to come home.

And now, with Obama’s victory, she is reminded again.

The simple reality is that she has grown old waiting. She is not a girl anymore. Not even girlish, the way some women are. She is drawn and baggy with deep set eyes that look like she’s been through a war. Teeth that wiggle. Hair that hangs lank now.

And still she wants what she wants. Thinking of him, seeing pictures of them as they were then, when they were still good, she can almost feel like a younger version of herself.

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What Do You Call the Ex?

You were surprised to learn that my mother had stopped thinking kindly of you. It was as if, in your nearly infinite hubris, you imagined that she cared more for you than for her own daughter, and would continue to harbor the same secret delight in the idea of you even after you were no longer a presence at our family gatherings.

But do you know how many hours of her life she devoted to making sure her daughter didn’t wither and die, listening endlessly to a joyless litany of but whys, in the way that only a mother could?

Somewhere along the way, she stopped referring to you by name. “Oh, not him again,” she’d say.  And then — and you would have appreciated this — “Richard who?”  Finally you became “What’s his name in San Francisco?” That was the keeper.

Once, just once, when she was particularly angry with me for something or other, she told me that she didn’t blame you a bit for leaving me. In that one instance, she called you by your given name.

 

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Why the Long Face?

I was with Maura the day we met. She saw you the minute we walked into Fanelli’s, and she tapped you on the shoulder. You were nursing a beer at the counter, making small talk with the bartender.  You and the bartender were both chuckling. Maybe you had just told your favorite bar joke: “A  horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’”

“Hey,” Maura said. “What are you doing here?” Maura was tall and slender and filled with a young woman’s confidence. She smoked long white Virginia Slims which accentuated her long white fingers.

“What am I doing here? What are you doing here?” you asked.

Undeterred, she threw her arms around you. When the hug was over, she turned to me and explained that you were a friend of hers from art school. “He was a sculptor.”

“What do you mean ‘was’?” you said.

Despite that little bit of static, you accepted Maura’s invitation to come join us at a table in the back. The talk turned to what each of you were doing now. Maura talked about her plans to go to graduate school.

“What do you need another degree for?” you wanted to know. “If you want to make art, make art.”

But Maura wanted to make art in grad school.

You went into detail about the project you were in the middle of: A styrofoam alligator with a capsule carved into the middle of its back. Inside, you explained, was a recreation, in miniature, of the alligator’s natural habitat.

You had a bushy beard and moustache, the same dirty blonde color as you hair, and bright dark eyes. You were 24, to my 22.

“Does the world really need more material objects?” I asked. I was studying philosophy at the time, and it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I didn’t know everything. I lit a cigarette for emphasis, because it was a time in the world when you could still smoke in public. You lit one too, and so did Maura.

A few beers later, you  revealed that you’d be part of a group art show in the fall.

“Where?” Maura asked. If she felt even a twinge of jealousy, she hid it well.

“Really?” I said, backpedaling slightly from my previous position about the surfeit of material objects in the world.

You took another long drag on your cigarette, lazily cocked your head, and blew the smoke toward another table. “I’ll send you an invitation to the opening,” you said addressing both of us, as if it were no sweat off your back.

Eventually, we called the waitress over and ordered a bite to eat. You were the thinnest man I had ever met. And I watched you eat, almost hungrily. You looked so starved.

I wouldn’t have believed it then, but later I would devote hours cooking for the two of us. You would never gain an ounce.

 

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